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Insight Requires a Quiet Brain

The integration of the neurosciences with organisational behaviour is unearthing some interesting perspectives. One of the most surprising is how we think creatively and get insights. Increasingly, and especially in knowledge economies, people are paid to think rather than to just do; so success will depend on the company’s ability to create optimal conditions for that to happen.

Encourage creative thinking and insights in your people.

What do most of us do when we are trying to think of a solution? Hold our heads and say to ourselves, “Come on, think harder!”. However, most people seem to get insights when away from work or the situation to be dealt with, perhaps on a Sunday walking the dog, or in the bath.

Companies like Google have recognised this and experimented by allowing engineers time away to work on completely different things. Due to the hard-wired, pre-conscious and highly efficient way our brains tend to operate, we find that most problems are not solved rationally. It seems, according to Dr Jeffrey Schwartz, a psychiatrist and researcher in the field of neuroplasticity at UCLA, we cannot even explain how we arrived at the solutions in around 60% of the problems that we solve.

Two things are going on in the brain. Firstly, in his book, Quiet Leadership, David Rock

elucidates the pioneering work of Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman with Amos Tversky, asserting that insight seems to come from being able to access weak associations.

That means you have to quieten down the narrative, problem-focused circuitry in the brain to allow insight to come.

Secondly, anxiety appears inversely related to ability to generate insight, i.e. the more anxious you are, the less likely you are to get insight and vice versa.

The limbic brain tends to activate rapidly in response to threat. Think of needing to come up with a solution really quickly before the boss blows his lid. But in doing so, it drains the prefrontal cortex of metabolic energy, the area of the brain engaged in rational thought, computation and creative decision-making. What does this suggest you do now vs. what might you do differently?

One of the leader’s jobs is to create conditions for people to think better for themselves - conditions that have trust at their core, so people feel safe to experiment without fear of ridicule or political fallout.

It also serves to help create better team dynamics by helping leaders create good thinking environments at work, saving considerable time in unproductive meetings.

If we can stop second guessing what we think people’s brains need, as seen through our own eyes, and help them become masters at thinking for themselves, things will get better. Defining solutions, not problems, is pivotal to this. It helps people have their own insights. A problem focus embeds old mental templates further. A solution focus builds resilience rather than strengthening old pathways.

Generating higher attentional capacity in your people encourages neural growth. Our hardwiring is driven by automatic perception, but our conscious thought only changes according to how we choose to focus or reframe our thinking. A practical thing leaders could do would be to replace the “why didn’t you…?” with “what do you need to do to…?”

Consider the transformational effect of each individual having one good insight each per week at your firm. Think of the rich seam of ideas that would ensue, genuinely stitching people and teams together in common purpose, driving huge productivity improvements. The standard response, training, is largely ineffective - giving advice, solving problems for them, trying to work out how people think and then correcting it. Save your money. It rarely works.

Self-generated insights emit a rush of dopamine (a brain chemical associated with reward) and encourage the individual to focus attention on turning those insights into something more concrete.

This creates a virtuous circle of positive change that creates results that encourages further positive change and so on. It would seem that brain science is telling us something management probably suspects anyway, but are fearful of: that people do not want to be managed, they want to be unleashed.

This article is reproduced by kind permission of James Parsons, who started his career on the trading floor of large financial institutions in the City of London. He is now a leadership coach and a Partner with Strengths Unleashed.


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