What C-Suite Execs Need to Know About the Brain to Cope with Rapid Change

    By Lauren Kress, The Business Scientist | Blog, Article |

    Leadership requires a deep understanding of the self and what it is to be human.

    Whether you believe we are in the third or fourth industrial revolution there is no denying that the ways in which technology is now enabling us to interact with one another is unprecedented.

    As a result, C-suite executives are required to cope with the exponential rate of change and flux that these interactions bring about.

    (Prefer to listen rather than to read? Download the podcast version of this discussion here)

    This means continual improvement, constant innovation and the ability to understand and predict what will change (and what won't) has already become business as usual for the companies that are thriving.

    I've dedicated the past 10 years to understanding human behaviour and how the brain works in relation to decision-making for business growth.

    Today I'm sharing how this relates to the fast-paced change and disruption that we are all witnessing in the fourth industrial revolution - and it has nothing to do with trends, and everything to do with universal truths about what it is to be human and how our minds work.

    1) Beware of autopilot decision-making

    Our brain is essentially a very brilliant pattern-recognition machine. In fact most learning and decision-making occurs without us even realising it - it is automatic.

    "Our motivation, behaviours and decisions depend on our own pattern-recognition machinery - what we've learnt about the world around us."

    In his book "Blink: the power of thinking without thinking" Malcolm Gladwell talks about how we default to making judgements and decisions with little information.

    He explains the benefits this has to "expert judgement" - like a doctor who "just knows" something is not quite right with a seemingly well patient or the pro-golfer who knows how the perfect swing feels.

    And also the downsides - how biases and stereotypes can result in injustice, discrimination and even wrongful death.

    As explained by Daniel Kahneman in "Thinking Fast and Slow" we don't only think fast, automatic and effortlessly - we also think slow, consciously and strenuously.

    When we're learning something new - we're thinking slow, when we're doing complex problem solving, like counting backwards from 200 in 7s - we're thinking slow.

    Our brain doesn't like to think slow - it takes up more energy. Since our body favours the conservation of energy, we don't think "slowly" for hours or days at a time.

    But, when we're making hard, high-impact decisions, it's important that we don't fall into the trap of lazy thinking, when deeper analysis could be the tipping point for our business growth in 2019.

    "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." - Albert Einstein

    The key here for executives is to:

    a) Recognise what decisions are being made from poor assumptions on autopilot versus expert recognition and thought-processing.

    b) Set the intention for a bit of slow thinking over a period of time for high-impact decisions to have the space, discussion and reflection they need for positive change.

    A great book to read to explore this concept further as it relates to business specifically is "Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counter-intuition" by Michael J. Mauboussin

    2) Let thinkers be thinkers, doers be doers and know your people-people

    A homogenous workplace is a huge threat to business growth. Celebrating diversity doesn't end with stating that it is nice to have a mix of people in the office - it is your greatest leverage point for creating value - so really, truly: "Woohoo!"

    One of the most important things to recognise about people is that their behaviour is largely dependent on three things: their personality, their situation and their mood.

    "Behaviour is largely dependent on three things: personality, situation and mood."

    That means personality - something fairly constant and unchanging - is only one part of the puzzle - and everything else is heavily influenced by workplace leadership especially in terms of the culture, confidence and community we foster within the organisation.

    If our goal is to leverage the people that we work with then knowing who these people are in terms of the constants - their strengths, weaknesses, values, goals, beliefs - and how their work relates to what they want to feel, achieve, learn, acquire and belong to - is key.

    Then we need to factor this into the situations and roles we create for each individual to thrive. Belbin (who I'm not affiliated with in anyway) is a great tool for delving into this in more detail but here's a few highlights:

    People who are great at implementing will get frustrated in roles where there isn't a great deal of doing.

    People who thrive at research and ideation may struggle with project and task management.

    And there's a reason people-people hate being stuck behind a desk with no social interaction - instead, let them be the champions of business relationships and reputation - encourage them to keep their finger on the pulse of your industry and to become a thought leader and ambassador for your business: don't let the desk and rigid office hours get in the way of this huge leverage point.

    The fact of the matter is, small businesses founders and solopreneurs are a lot better at doing this - they may struggle with other aspects of business, but it is easier for them to create an identity as a thought leader for innovation - particularly in disrupted markets.

    That is a big topic in of itself...and perhaps deserving of it's own article but what is key is to recognise that the conventional office hours and setup doesn't enable all people to thrive equally - and it is costing your business big time.

    3) Change how you think about change

    Have you made a new year resolution that you've already broken 5 days in?

    The reason new year resolutions generally don't work is that they usually rely on will-power without making changes to the environment.

    Want to motivate your staff to work differently in 2019? It starts with understanding how behavioural change works - and it doesn't come from recognising the change needs to happen and wanting it to be so.

    In fact what we really want to aim for here is developing habits for continuous improvement - don't change the process, make change part of the process.

    "Don't change the process, make change part of the process"

    For example...

    If you want to change the way sales operate, don't ask your sales director to enforce a new process - invest in the tools that will enable the business to constantly be learning and adapting to the market.

    If you want meetings to be more efficient - change the rules for how a meeting is run and put barriers in the way for going back to old habits; make the purpose and agenda of the meeting required fields to secure a meeting room, ask everyone to stand up for the duration of the meeting.

    If you're expecting people to change because you or any other leader has asked them to, it's time for a reality check. Behavioural change requires old habits to be broken and new habits to form.

    People generally choose the path of least resistance, invest in creating the right environment for your employees to thrive.

    4) People are more productive when they have more breaks

    According to a recent survey by Tork and explained here in this recent Forbes article people feel refreshed and ready to get back to work after a lunch break.

    This is especially important to pay attention to considering that the average full-time employee spends 3 hours a day doing productive work.

    This isn't surprising considering how our brain works.

    As explained by Daniel Levitin in "The Organized Mind" our brain operates in two modes - the "executive mode" and the "mind wandering" mode.

    The executive mode is operational for getting things done - it is bad at doing more than one thing at at a time, and it begins to tire after about 20-50 minutes depending on the person.

    That's when mind-wandering mode kicks in. You know you've switched out of executive mode when you remember other things you need to do, or come up with an idea.

    Mind wandering mode is powerful at making connections between different ideas and is crucial to creative problem solving and looking at things from a different perspective.

    That's why a lot of people say they have their best ideas when they are in the shower or when they are out on a walk - mind wandering tends to happen when we're bored or relaxed.

    When we feel overwhelmed we often consciously favour our executive mode and try to get as much done as possible - but without those crucial breaks we can end up procrastinating, multi-tasking and get to the end of the day feeling like we have nothing done.

    It's not just about productivity though - in an organisation, the best ideas don't come from the top-down - they come from the bottom-up.

    Needless to say that when it comes to innovation, 5 people thinking is better than 1, 10 is better than 5 and 100 is better than 20. Nurture ideas from all parts of your business to keep up with the rapid changes that your employees "at the frontline" deal with everyday.

    If you aren't giving your staff time to think and cultivate ideas for the business, then it's unfair to expect them to create this kind of value for the business.

    If you'd like to know more about the Organized Mind - here's a short video on what it taught me about how to get more done in less time.

    5) Know how performance works - and leverage it

    85% of people hate the job they're in and this is largely to do with a lack of engagement in the work we do.

    As I discussed in a recent interview with Chris Isley on Perth Tonight, there are 5 predictors of well-being we can use to understand how to foster greater job satisfaction. This is based on Professor Seligman's work on positive psychology known as PERMA theory - with the 5 predictors being:

    Positive emotion | Engagement | Relationships | Meaning | Achievement

    We know that when people are no longer being challenged by the work they do they become disengaged and they underperform. Not only that, but more than likely, that person is turning up to work because they have bills to pay (and they are probably looking for another job).

    That isn't a great frame of mind to be in to cope with a disrupted market place or to generate ideas for innovation.

    So what we really want our managers to do is to make sure they are keeping employees engaged with challenging projects and tasks that stretch a person just outside of their comfort zone.

    This is not a new idea - in fact it's about a century old and comes from research by Yerkes and Dodson on how far we want people to step outside of their comfort-zone:


    If you're interested on how this relates to peak performance check out this article.

    People like to know they are doing a good job, but they also need to be challenged to stay engaged and create value for the business.

    So find ways to challenge your employees outside of BAU where it is safe to experiment, play, make mistakes, learn, brainstorm - all the things we need for ideation and creativity. Famously, Google did this for a number of years with great success - becoming the source of some of their most well-known products including Gmail, Adwords and Google Maps.

    What does this mean for leadership and growth?

    Coping with change and navigating uncertainty begins with understanding how to constantly evolve our businesses and relating this back to what can be continuously improved (and what can't).

    The human brain has remained the same for approximately 50,000 years - we're working with the same hardware as our prehistoric ancestors - so don't expect that to change anytime soon.

    Where the human brain doesn't perform well, technology is becoming better and better at enabling us to do amazing things in the world.

    Not only that - it has enabled us to connect, communicate and trade value with one another in a myriad of ways that have not been seen before.

    If you'd like to learn more about leadership and coping with fast-paced change in 2019, here's a short 10-minute video to get you started:

    Lauren Kress is the CEO of The Change Makers and one of the few scientists and innovators of the millennial generation whose knowledge of investment-led growth is transforming decision-making in the business world.


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