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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Insights from Neuroscience Applied to Effectiveness

Early this morning, Mary Casey and Shannon Robinson, both advanced certified NeuroBusiness coaches and founders of BrainSkills@Work, were presenting some of their insights at St. Catherine’s University in St. Paul as part of a seminar series on Leadership which I’m attending.

This is by no means a complete summary of their insightful and engaging seminar. I am merely presenting some of the highlights from their talk and adding my implications for increasing your effectiveness.

There is, obviously, so much more to say about the different parts of your brain and how they function, how they collaborate, and how they sometimes don’t. I love the specifics and the details, however, this is a blog on leadership, change management, and personal development, not on neuroscience. So I’ll let you consult the many great experts and books if you want to dive deeper into the neuroscience. I am just a very interested lay person sharing what was discussed this morning.

à Your brain is wired to be on the defensive – Whether you realize it or not, it appears that you spend much of your time scanning for threats. Makes sense from an evolutionary, survival point of view, and this almost constant scanning for threats results in:
-       Increased negativity and defensiveness
-       Increased confidence that your story is right
-       Perceptual narrowing – the brain wants to focus in, which is preventing you from seeing the bigger picture.

Implication for increasing your effectiveness
Be conscious about looking for the positive, developing a true interest in the other person’s story, listening and asking questions rather than just defending your own point of view, questioning yourself and your assumptions, and putting your energy in getting out of your story and stepping into the bigger picture. 

à According to the speakers, the two main goals of the brain are not problem solving or conscious thought as many people believe it to be, but speed and efficiency. Again, from an evolutionary standpoint it certainly makes sense. Speed and efficiency can collide with problem solving, for which you need at least conscious thought.

Implication for increasing your effectiveness
Push your problem solving hat to the forefront, use whatever model appeals to you to really look at the problem, look at it from as many perspectives as you can imagine, seek to understand it, seek to understand others who are involved, and only then seek to be understood and to resolve – this one is in honor of the late Stephen Covey.

à Your brain has only a limited amount of what is known as “units of attention” and when you’ve used them, they’re gone for the day, and, on difficult days, leave you hanging mid morning with that challenging discussion and the crisis meeting still in front of you. But little or no units of attention left.

Implication for increasing your effectiveness
Find out what you focus your attention on, which can differ greatly of course depending on your day, your mood etc. How often do you switch tasks and move from writing that proposal to another text message coming in? It might feel good, the variation that is a result of switching, but you lose a lot of units of attention merely through task switching. So whenever you still have challenging or complicated tasks ahead of you, keep task-switching limited and be mindful what you focus on: is it something positive or something negative, is it something important or not, is it something that rejuvenates you quickly, is it something that contributes facing the challenge etc?

à Related to expectation management, there is expectation deception, for better or for worse. Shannon and Mary shared an experiment in which an eye-sight test was used to prove that, depending on your own expectations, you literally perform better or worse. A group of people had to do an eye-sight test with the usual letters going from large on the top line to small on the bottom line. When these same people were shown these letters switched around, starting with the small and difficult to read letters first and then moving to the large letters on the bottom line, they performed significantly and consistently better on the small letters.

Implication for increasing your effectiveness
Same letters, same eyes, different expectations. You are probably already convinced that students learn more and better when teachers and parents have high expectations of them. The above experiment shows it isn’t just a motivational and support issue, but also a matter of expectation and beliefs of the subject himself: You are wired (trained) to ‘know’ that you read the top lines better, that you read the top lines well. Even if your eyes ‘normally’ have difficulty with those lines, if you expect to do well, you will do well, suggests this experiment. Your brain performs differently when you expect success. Substitute lines for any challenge you face, and instill powerful expectation beliefs in you. I’m not saying you can conquer the world, but increasing your effectiveness will do too, right!

Note: Persuasive and persistent as beliefs can be, about 50% of the people in the above experiment refused to believe that they did better when reading the reverse-rows list. Now how often does it happen that you, or someone you know, tightly hangs on to their beliefs despite evidence of the opposite?

à We all create stories about our past, present, and future lives, but do you realize that your perception can be locked in your story? You literally see different things than your rival, for example, and you will likely interpret and evaluate differently too, all this to benefit the story that you created, belief in, and want to hang on to, sometimes no matter what.

Implication for increasing your effectiveness
Make a conscious effort not to be too hooked up on your own story. Ask yourself: What if I’m wrong? What if there are more stories? Look for patterns and themes in your stories, they can guide you towards areas than need some work from your side. Even though perception is reality, your perception is your reality, and everyone has his own perception and reality, as valid as yours, and as tainted as yours.

à When the limbic region of your brain, which is part of your emotional nervous system, is working overtime, it is emotions that reign and you often see what Goleman calls ‘emotional hijack’. You will be in a high defense & protect mode with blaming and projecting outward as behavioral manifestations as well as, again, being absorbed in your own story and feeding on negative thought loops that can become very effective in self-reinforcement. In this situation you need your neo-cortex, your executive director or stage manager and only found in mammals, to get you in ‘neutral’, to get you to a state of conscious thought and of ‘thinking about your thinking’ and eventually focusing on shared interests and co-created outcomes.

Implication for increasing your effectiveness
When emotions reign, when you’re over-heated, take a step back before responding or deciding. You don’t expect your car to just happily and effectively drive on when it is overheated, right! There are many ways to cool down that I am sure you are aware off so I am not listing them here. When successful, chances are high you have much less difficulty seeing multiple perspectives, focusing on shared interests, seeing your own role and responsibility in it all, and seeing the bigger picture. Good luck to you!


  1. A lot of rich insights here, Carolien, and I especially appreciate the direct connections you make to leadership effectiveness;thanks. Based on implications of natural defensiveness or suspicion, I might need to change my mantra of "expect the worst but hope for the best" to simply "expect the best!"

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting Al. Great revision of your mantra. Spread the word to expect the best and work hard and smart to accomplish it. I'm convinced it will have a positive impact on results and relationships.

  3. Your blog reviews the seminar very well. Yesterday was my first time sitting in on a leadership session at St. Kates...I definitely chose the right time. The Spectrum of Dynamic Thinking, which you highlight when you mention not being hooked on our own story, was one of the most insightful aspects of the morning for me. Our brains are, (I believe), designed to defend, protect, transform, expand and so much more. The rich outcomes I've gained from both your blog and the seminar are to simply direct my brain toward transformational thinking by intentionally focusing more on positive emotions rather than checking my email first thing in the morning or opting for co created outcomes over self created ones. All in all what a great blog and great morning of education. BTW great seeing you.

  4. Thanks for your perspective Jennifer. I think you'd enjoy The book Integrative Thinking by Roger Martin

  5. Carolien, what a wonderful summary of this information. I too attended this seminar and have been finding all sorts of ways to apply this information with my work and personal life. Fascinating stuff! Thanks for the summary, which I'll print and keep close at hand to remind me of strategies when I am struggling with something.

  6. Hi Jane,

    Thanks for visiting my blog and for your appreciative comments. I'm glad to read there is application value in my article. Hope to see you again soon at an interesting lecture.

  7. I wrote a long post and lost it all when I tried to publish, so I'll try to repeat it in a shorter version:

    The Vision Test and its Implications: There was research on something called "Stereotype Threat" that also looks at presumptions and their impact on performance. This fits nicely with the concepts of schemas and our preference to assimilate them (make something fit our construction/view) vs. accommodate (changing/modifying our view). We, as humans, would rather make circumstances fit our beliefs, rather than our beliefs fitting our circumstances.

    "Units of Attention": What a great reminder for most people, and especially entrepreneurs! I often put off the large tasks, as they feel so daunting after my many small obligations and shifting attention. I take from this the lesson of tackling the big stuff first.

    Story Lines: This supports narrative therapy and its concepts of "rich descriptions" (supported by multiple perspectives, circumstances, etc.) over "thin descriptions" (not well supported by circumstances and other perspectives). Our lives are so full of complexity that we (in that interest in efficiency) tend to simplify and ignore glaringly large pieces of information. By exploring our lives from many perspectives, we are better able to challenge "irrational thinking", learn from our past and craft our present and future to better fit our preferences, values and hopes.

    Thanks, Carolien! Great summation. Sorry to have missed it, and glad to be able to get an overview :)

  8. Thank YOU Maureen for your interest in my writing. I greatly appreciate yourcomment on challenging our irrational thinking thru exploring issues from different perspectives. As you might know, I'm especially drawn to cognitive approaches based on Beck and Ellis, where our beliefs and thinking patterns (including the irrational ones) play in crucial role in influencing our emotions and actions. Which is not to say that everything can be rationalized or fixed by our thinking. But much of it can. As Epictetus said thousands of years ago: Men are not disturbed by people or events, but by the view which they take of them.