Monday, October 1, 2012

The Power of Focus

"As a man thinks in his heart, so he is." This ancient proverb from the Bible has been repeated in various forms in wisdom literature down through the centuries. Now we have confirmation from the field of neuroscience of its essential truth, plus an understanding of the physiology behind it.

The next big thing in leadership may well be the application of neuroscience, the study of the anatomy and physiology of the brain. If that sounds too far from the realm of your own expertise to be practical, stick with me. Much of what comes from the research explains what most of us have already observed about human behavior. But understanding why people respond as they do helps us be more effective leaders.

There is also much from neuroscience that refutes conventional wisdom about leadership. Several common management practices are proved largely ineffective. Once again, we've probably already noticed this, but assumed it was simply because we weren't doing it right. By better understanding how the human brain functions, we can be smarter in our approach to improving employee performance and facilitating organizational change.

The focus of this post is how the brain responds to change, which gives us insight into why organizational change is so difficult. Yet the path to successful change may be easier than we've thought—when we apply the power of focus. Let's consider a few basic conclusions from what neuroscience teaches us:

Our brains are hardwired to generally resist change. This is true even when the benefits of change are clearly evident. Consider the fact that only one in nine people who have undergone coronary bypass surgery are successful in adopting healthier lifestyle changes. No wonder that trying to change the way an entire organization behaves is so difficult, with not nearly so much at stake.

Why is this? You might mention that people get comfortable with the status quo and that entrenched habits are hard to overcome. Studies of the brain help us understand the underlying cause. We can retain only limited information in the conscious part of our brain (see the discussion of working memory below). So the brain frees up capacity and energy by "hardwiring" the neural circuitry associated with repetitive, familiar tasks. This enables us to do many routine or habitual activities without conscious thought.

That's a tremendous benefit until we try to change such patterns of behavior. Then we find ourselves working against our brain's circuitry, which can cause significant discomfort and dysfunction. I experienced this recently when I learned that after all these years I was tying my shoes wrong. The difficulty in relearning a task simple enough that a small child can master it was amazing. For several days, when tying my shoes, I felt like I was physically disabled. From the perspective of the brain's wiring, I was.

So change conflicts with existing neural connections or "mental maps" in our brain. In some cases, this can trigger our innate "fight or flight" response when the brain detects "errors"—perceived differences between expectations and actuality. Besides producing fear or anger that further complicates the change process, when this part of the brain is activated, it draws energy away from the part of the brain that supports higher intellectual functions like planning, problem solving, and decision making.

Our working memory has significant limits. Working memory can be defined as the content of our conscious thoughts. It's the part of the brain that enables us to recall information that can be applied to cognitive or physical tasks. If we think of the brain as a vast library, working memory might be thought of as the table where a few books have been spread out for study.

Working memory is, of course, critically important. This is the part of the brain that we utilize for intellectual work. But it has some notable limitations. For one thing, it has limited capacity. Early research indicated that we could store only about five to nine "chunks" of information in our working memory. More recent studies suggest the number is closer to four. So how many things do you try to keep in mind at any given time?

Because our working memory has limited capacity, our ability to multitask is largely a myth. One study showed that switching between two simultaneous tasks resulted in a 20% time loss. Switching between three tasks caused a 50% time loss! Other studies have been more generous, but all have consistently found evidence of lost productivity. This can in part be observed through brain imaging, which shows that multitasking pushes associated cognitive function into areas of the brain not intended for those tasks.

So what's the application to leadership? Company leaders often strain the limits of their employees' working memory by contributing to information overload and increasing the complexity of work tasks. Think about it: When was the last time a management decision in your firm actually made things easier for employees? The byproduct of most management actions is more things to do and more time required to do them.

The findings of neuroscience illuminate our limitations in mentally processing the ever-increasing information and complexity of the modern workplace. Besides restrained capacity, working memory is also easily distracted and energy intensive. To bring out the best in your team as a leader, you want to help focus attention on the things that matter most. Distribute work tasks appropriately, help teammates concentrate on one task at a time, reduce the "mental noise" that so easily distracts.

If a typical day at the office pushes our working memory beyond its limits, consider the impact of change. There's still more information to process while the brain's hardwired cognitive functioning is less useful for the work to be performed. Leaders can help by keeping things as simple as possible, phasing in change over time, and aligning new tasks to old ones to the extent practical. Ultimately, however, you want to facilitate change within the brain.

Focusing attention helps the brain rewire circuits to accommodate change. The brain has remarkable ability to reshape itself in response to changes. We see this in individuals who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, where normal functioning is lost in certain parts of their brain. In many cases, the damaged brains have rewired their circuitry to enable other undamaged parts of the brain to take over the lost functionality.

Similarly, our brain can reshape itself to respond to organizational change and new work tasks. As a leader, you can guide this process by helping people focus attention and activity. Brain research has shown that we can actually stimulate physical changes in the brain by concentrating attention. Over time, this focus stabilizes certain associated connections in the brain, allowing it to rewire itself. This relieves working memory by creating new hardwired circuitry to support new work functions.

Even if you didn't know the neuroscience behind it, you have witnessed this transformation many times. When you first were learning to drive a car, for example, it consumed most of your working memory. You had to consciously think about every step—where the brake pedal was, which way to flip the turn signal, where to position your hands on the steering wheel. But over time, concerted effort and focus enabled your brain to hard-wire much of the cognitive function associated with driving, so that you can do it now with little conscious thought.

As a change leader, you can greatly benefit from having a basic understanding of the neuroscience associated with change. Ultimately, you have to overcome the inertia of people's hardwired brain functioning and set in motion the steps to enable brains to change in order for behaviors to change for the long term. It may not be as difficult as you imagined if you can maintain focus on the right things.

How can you do that? That's the topic of my next post.

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