Over the past 50 years we’ve made an intense, abrupt shift when it comes to leadership and how businesses operate. With our humble beginnings rooted in the mass production of the Industrial Age, technology catapulted us through the Information Age and landed us smack dab in the middle of what’s now aptly being deemed the Conceptual Age. Oh my how we’ve grown. Seemingly. While our business evolution from an external perspective has made enormous strides, leadership from an internal perspective has grown increasingly complex along with it. The real rub here of course is that most of our methods for adapting as leaders are still lagging sorely, and in many cases excruciatingly, behind.
This is largely due to the fact that the mechanistic model of running businesses around processes no longer works. Methods of pressing factory workers to improve efficiency may have been wholly appropriate in the Industrial Age, but knowledge workers and creatives we now manage in the workforce need a more sophisticated style of leadership. More than anything, they need us to help them think more clearly. In fact, improving the quality of thinking of employees is one of the most essential areas today’s leader must master in order to improve performance.
Thankfully, as a result of discoveries in neuroscience, we now have greater insight into how to help your people build better brains. For simplicity’s sake, here are the top three techniques we recommend:
1. Understand Their Mental Map. We all have automatic perceptions about the world around us. Given the intricacy and quantity of the information our brains process every second, we constantly look for associations and connections between thoughts, skills, and memories to make sense of it all. Through complex neural pathways, we create what are known as mental maps. It’s our version of the reality we experience. But the map is not the terrain and everyone’s map is different. The way one person interprets a circumstance is entirely different than another person will interpret it. As a result, you have to look at how they view the event, not how you yourself do. Getting out of your own head can be a real challenge for some, but it’s key to look for clues into how your employees see the world if you want to understand their perspective.
This can be as simple as deepening your focus when they speak and being more observant. What words do they use to describe their experiences, goals, or challenges? What consistencies do you notice keep recurring in their speech patterns? How to they approach changes in their environment? Are they eager or reluctant? How do facts play into their decisions? What sparks their excitement and enthusiasm? The more attuned you become to the subtleties of how they interpret information, the greater your ability to assess their brain terrain.
2. Reconfigure Your Own Hardwiring. Thoughts are mental maps held in working memory. Habits, however, are maps hardwired into the deepest parts of our brain. Hence why they’re so hard to change. The key to changing habits is to pay attention differently. Anything we pay attention to becomes embedded in our brain, so by consciously shifting our attention we can override the less than desirable mental tendencies that often get in the way of influencing others.
For those of us who perhaps have too limited a viewpoint around situations or react too brusquely to challenges – or anyone interested in improving their social interactions, this can be incredibly useful. When a project starts to go south, if your natural reaction is to become hypercritical of yourself and others or become frustrated, try distancing yourself and evaluating an alternative way to view things. Often when we step back, we gain a much clearer perspective of our reactions and are thus far more able to see circumstances for what they are rather than what our brain interprets them to be. Not only that, but enhancing awareness of your default patterns allows you to change the aspects of the relationships you’re responsible for in a way that benefits both you and your employees.
3. Empower Them to Create Improved Connections. There are over 300 trillion connections contained in our mental maps. They, inevitably, are not all conducive to peak performance. We all respond emotionally to events around us and given the negativity bias of the brain (we pay four times more attention to negative information than positive information) we can get stuck in the ruts of these mental maps on detours that impede focus and lessen our ability to think clearly.
Providing feedback and positive reinforcement can be a powerful method for counteracting the tendency for employees to steer toward negativity and emotional hijacking. When trying to influence performance, its best to address the specifics of what needs improvement from an objective stance, rather than lay blame on the employee subjectively. This will allow her to see the area for improvement without personally attaching to it. You’ll want to combine this with a discussion of how this area relates to the future. There’s no sense punishing for past mistakes; this only reinforces the employee’s negative view of her performance. Instead, shift toward what lessons can be learned from it and encourage her in a way that is authentic and sincere. This will help her move forward in a way that fosters positive emotional connection to her performance. Over time, this positivity can build and yield greater productivity, satisfaction, and ultimately, retention.
While we may still have some growing pains to endure to catch up with the changes business demands of us, there’s hope not only for keen leaders who understand these concepts but their employees as well. Through greater attunement to the way our brains work, it’s possible to think more clearly and build brain power among our people. The future of business belongs to those who can harness these vital adaptive abilities.