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Neuroscience in leadership

| Updated on: Feb 06, 2011

Insight is the ability to have a sudden ‘aha' moment go off in your head to a problem you have been trying to solve for a while. For many of us it's often at a time when we are not thinking about this at all — like in the middle of the night or when in the shower. Wag Dodge, for instance, could never explain where his idea for the escape fire came from.

In 1949, 13 fire-fighters tragically lost their lives in the Mann Gulch fire disaster in Montana, USA. Wag Dodge was one of three survivors. The fire-fighters were in a blind gully when the wind changed direction and swept the fire towards them. The flames were 20 feet high and moving faster than they could run. They had nowhere to go; the walls of the gully were too steep.

Think about it: Trapped by a fire racing towards you with nowhere to go, what would you do? An impossible problem! How would you survive?

Wag's solution was to light a fire downwind of him! The wind blew the flames ahead of him and left a burnt patch. He crouched down on the burnt patch and was saved. This practice is now included in fire-fighting techniques.

Neuroscientists believe that these “insight experiences” have a certain sequence. The first of these is the impasse: Before there can be a breakthrough, there has to be a mental block. Wag Dodge spent minutes running from the fire, although he was convinced that doing so was futile. Then, when the insight arrived, Dodge immediately realised that the problem was solved. This is another key feature of insight – the feeling of certainty that accompanies the idea. Dodge didn't have time to think about whether his plan would work. He simply knew that it would.

In my work as an internal consultant to business leaders, I have learnt to break up Business Challenges into Technical and Adaptive Challenges. Technical Challenges are known challenges, have a fixed sequence to solving them and some may require some more time and effort to solve than another. Adaptive Challenges are quite different. They have no known solution – the skills and answers are outside one's repertoire. Adaptive Challenges are those you have to grow into solving and require mobilising minds to operate differently. Luckily, these skills can be learned regardless of position or function. Adaptive Challenges are the ones that need the “insight”.

Different people may find different challenges “adaptive”. For a senior executive who has moved many countries and done several turnaround operations, another such role is a technical challenge differing in scale or complexity. However, for another who has never moved out of his or her home country and worked only in an established business, it could be an adaptive challenge. The process we have used to help people work through an adaptive challenge is as follows:

Identify the Adaptive Challenge (example: inability to break into a new market)

Identify what learning, new skills, behaviours need to be acquired

Centre yourself - Find a quiet place within yourself/breathe

Involve others - they may have another perspective

Get on the ‘balcony '- Step back and see the big picture

Listen to the song beneath the words - Listen to what's not being said by reading non-verbal signals

What is the brain's ‘default system'?

The brain's default network is that part of the brain takes over when we are not fully engaged in any activity focused on the external environment. It is when we synthesise past observations — including autobiographical memory retrieval, envisioning the future, and conceiving a perspective of others.

It has been seen that people normally suppress this default system when they perform challenging tasks which involve the pre-frontal cortex and also that the default network system takes over especially when one has a repetitive task at hand. In patients with schizophrenia and Alzheimer's it is hard for them to move back from the default system — and they often continue ‘daydreaming'.

One of the aspects of leadership development that I work on is the ability of a leader to reflect on his learnings. It is clear from research that 70 per cent of our learnings come from being on the job. These experiences could be either good or hard experiences. But the key is to decipher what one may have learnt from this and apply it to oneself as a leader takes on more challenging assignments.

It would be great if one could delve into the workings of the default system and train leaders to help the default system in this process of reflection, instead of a situation where the default system just throws out random thoughts from the past/future.

For one, how do we catch ourselves as we see the default system take over? Does that mean we increase the power of observation? How do we then seed a certain thought that relates to an experience we have had and are looking at patterns of learning? How do we record those patterns? Does constantly thinking of these experiences lead us somewhere? Can we then connect all of this “working” of the default system to some learning at the workplace?

The brain does not like multi-tasking!

Neuroscientists are clear that multi-tasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time. Although you can do a few things at the same time like walk and talk, it is only with activities that your brain is habituated to and those that do not need focused time and attention. The brain is a sequential processor, unable to pay attention to two things at the same time. Although research clearly shows that multi-tasking reduces productivity and increases mistakes, today's workplace praises multi-tasking and believes that an employee is a high performer because he or she is able to multi-task.

One of the reasons business needs people to multi-task is because of the pressure on resources and the expectation to get more done from less. The other reason is the advent of office communication technology that enables one to do e-mail, message on instant messenger, be on a Web conference and text someone on the phone all at the same time. In other words, the environment is pushing you to do something that the brain is not ready for.

One of my clients has just been given a larger responsibility. In addition to running a team of 400 employees across three geographies working on a software product he is now in charge of running the strategy and operations of a sales and marketing function. Two jobs that require very distinct and different sets of skills. Although he is a highly capable individual and has the needed qualifications for this additional assignment, his challenge clearly is getting through the day with a level of multi-tasking between the two roles so that he is productive, is able to take the right decisions as well as improve business performance.

The two roles are very distinct and you must have different strategies in your day to deal with them. Both require your pre-frontal cortex (the executive of the brain) to be functioning at top speed from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. (because of the geographic spread). Based on my understanding of multi-tasking, here are some of the coaching tips I had for him:

Have clear days in the week when you will spend on one business more than the other, ensure there is a rhythm in place for reviews and meetings.

Ensure you have only one executive assistant who will help you with both businesses; that way you outsource the time-juggling part of the job to just one person.

When you need to move from one meeting to another which is a completely different topic, ensure you have 15 minutes in between to transition. This way you can do a closure and follow up on the last meeting and a quick prep for your next meeting.

Announce a no-meeting time between 12 noon and 1 p.m. everyday — this is your time to think and reflect. Also, announce a no-meeting time between 5.30 and 8.30 p.m. so that you can go home, unwind and be with the family before you start connecting with other locations.

Announce a 90-minute window once a week as open-office time — so that you continue to be connected with people and they feel you are still approachable.

Ensure you have e-mail time built into the calendar every day so that you are not distracted in meetings.

Use 45 minutes on Sunday evenings to review your calendar for the week and do any prep you need to. Assign the prep to people who can help you be well prepared for each meeting.

Try and sign up for a yoga instructor for an hour a day to help with mindfulness.

Try and eat small meals every two hours to keep your blood sugar steady and fuel your brain.

(Kalpana Sinha is Director - People and Organisation Capability, Microsoft)

Published on February 20, 2011

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