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

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Metacognition – What’s So New About It Guys?



I was just about to put the finishing touch on a blog post when I allowed myself to be sidetracked by a post on Harvard Business Review Blog Network. The article is by professor of leadership and of psychology at Columbia Business School and Columbia University, Michael W. Morris. The article is called: Metacognition: The Skill Every Global Leader Needs”  (Oct. 17, 2012) and dives into the importance of metacognition, in particular cultural metacognition for global leaders. The article includes research supporting this premise and Michael seems an insightful, wise, and accomplished man for sure. However, I’d like to change this title into:

Metacognition: The skill that has always been and will always be crucial in business and in life, for everyone, leader or not, global or not.

Okay, I admit. My title is too long to be catching and all that. But really, it strikes me as odd, very odd, that it takes increasing globalization and the NeuroLeadership Summit in New York this week for us to realize the importance of metacognition. Metacognition has been around for thousands of years, because it is inherent to people: We are the only animals with the capability to extensively and intelligently think about our thinking, which is what metacognition is all about.

I specifically wrote ‘capability’ because we may wonder: Do we do it enough and do we do it in a wise and successful manner? That is questionable but we do have the capability and it’s up to each individual to use it and to train it. But whether we are talking about business owners, global leaders, local leaders, teams with members from a variety of cultures, it doesn’t matter that much: Thinking about your own and about other people’s thinking is not only the best way to improve relationships and collaborations, it’s an absolute necessity for a healthy and productive life and business.

As stated, it’s nothing new and in my view important at any level in our organizations. Awareness and knowledge of cognition and how it affects our perception, thinking, acting, and thereby our results dates back a long time. Just to give you one example: It was Epictetus who stated that it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. One of my favorites by this Greek philosopher and in line with the previous statement, Epictetus declared: People are not disturbed by things, but by the view which they take of them. This stoic philosopher is said to have lived AD 55 – AD 135. Shouldn’t we by now realize and act upon the crucially important assumptions and thinking patterns that we and people around us operate upon?

When I started my career in coaching, workshops, and training 22 years ago I worked in different parts of the Netherlands and in Germany, just across the border with the Netherlands. About fifty percent of what I did (and do) with my clients is focused on thinking about our thinking, which is, again, exactly what metacognition is all about (and most of the other fifty percent that my clients work on relates to increasing awareness and other elements of what is now termed Emotional Intelligence).  

My focus on thinking about our thinking originates from my conviction that our actions and feelings are triggered by our beliefs about ourselves, about others, and about the world. They are triggered by the thinking patterns - and thinking ‘mistakes’ - that stem from these beliefs and assumptions. The field supporting this approach, which has brought my clients much success, is called cognitive psychology with American psychiatrist and professor emeritus Aaron Beck as one of the founding fathers. While working with depressed clients Beck theorized that in order to change the symptoms of his clients, he must change their distorted thinking. This belief led to the development of the talking approach called cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT.

When working on my master’s thesis for Clinical Psychology I researched the role of beliefs and thought patterns in depressed elderly people (and that role was substantial), which later drew me to Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Therapy (RET), also known as Rational Effectiveness Training to better appeal to the world of business. In my early career as a coach and trainer I was trained and certified in the practical application of the RET, with the ABCDE model at its core. The A stands for Activating Event or Adversity. The B refers to Beliefs about event or adversity. The C are the emotional Consequences. In D you have discussions and disputations to challenge the irrational beliefs. And E represents Effective new beliefs that replace the irrational ones.


So this leads us back to Epictetus who stated that it’s not people or events that upset us (the A), but the view which we take of them, which is precisely what the B in this model is all about: your beliefs and thoughts about the person or event.

Another area in psychology related to cognition is attribution theory, in which things are explained by indicating a cause. Attribution theory goes into the question: What do you attribute success and failure of yourself and others to? According to Albert Ellis, some people make very dismal and hopeless interpretations of everything. I think we are all guilty at times. Cognitive therapy/training and application of the ABCDE model of Ellis allows you to better understand the logic, or the absence thereof, of your thoughts and to positively influence your thought processes, thereby minimizing distortions and misconceptions, regardless of whether you’re dealing with people from different cultures or not.

Back to the article that drew my attention earlier today. The advise for global leaders given by Michael Morris is to:
- Take positions and assignments in other countries and keep a journal of successes, failures and surprises in adapting to a new culture.
- Develop a checklist of questions to answer before a first meeting with a new contact.
- Use web based tools such as Culture Navigator to test you knowledge about different cultures.

These tools absolutely will increase your metacognition and your ability to effectively collaborate with people from other cultures. But guess what, not everyone is as fortunate, as eager or in a position to live as ex-pats like my family and I have done. Many people will not be moved around with assignments in new cultures but are still facing colleagues, clients, or other business partners from different cultures, whether it be a totally different culture or a different sub culture from the same home country. Enough people who have not had the experience of living and working in a different culture are still faced with leading a company that has branches, suppliers, alliances, or customers or all of the above in several countries. So let’s take the importance of metacognition out of the bubble where many of the privileged global leaders reside, and let’s take a common-sense look at how to increase your metacognition insights and skills, regardless your level of global-ness and regardless of your relocation-rate.

My simple yet not always easy suggestions are as follows:

1.    Develop awareness of your own beliefs and of your thinking patterns and pitfalls. Black-and-white thinking, filtering, self-blaming, mind reading, exaggerating, and over-generalizing are some of the most common thinking errors that we make. Of course it shouldn’t stop with the awareness. The ABCDE model can help you turn thinking errors and irrational thoughts into healthier ones.

2.    Develop an intense non-judgmental curiosity about people, whether they are born and raised in the same area as you are, or whether they just transferred from Sweden or Swaziland. Be curious about their assumptions, their habits and rituals, and what they strive to accomplish – what’s their purpose in life and business? Knowing your own is a prerequisite for course.

3.    For this curiosity to really blossom, perfect yourself in the artful skill of questioning. Yes, there is some art to it, and it’s above all a skill you can learn. Ask questions about what makes other people light up, what and who is in their allergy zone, which assumptions do they operate on, what values form the basis of their thinking and acting, what’s their purpose in business and life… And of course it pays off to know your own assumptions, beliefs, values, purpose etc. so the logical thing to do is start asking yourself these questions.

4.    Train yourself in RET or seek some professional coaching or training to accomplish a solid understanding of your own belief and thinking system and how to make it more rational and effective.

5.    Last but not least, increase your awareness of the fact that your line of thinking, your assumptions and thinking patterns, no matter how healthy they might be according to Ellis’s standards or any other standard, it is just your logic, no more no less. Someone else’s logic, healthy or not, might conflict with yours, creating confusion and tension that can be alleviated by increasing your awareness of your own beliefs and thinking patterns and those of others. An open, candid discussion with genuine interest and with questions that help explore will get you a long way.

Truth be told, yes, my family and I not only greatly enjoy living in different cultures but we also eagerly reap the benefits from extended exposure to cultures that are different from our original one. It’s just not everyone’s world and situation, and it sure doesn’t have to be in order to improve your metacognition. I know too many people who have traveled and lived the world far beyond our few experiences, and who remain to be in the dark about how to effectively use metacognition to positively impact their own performance and their relationships, collaborations, and jobs. A sad situation if you ask me.


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