Tasty Tidbits from Social Neuroscience

I got the opportunity to attend the 14th NeuroLeadership summit in San Francisco last week. So many wonderful insights from social neuroscientists about how the newest brain research is shedding light on our behaviour. A couple of nuggets for you, our faithful blog readers:

  • Brain exercises do not increase your brain power, despite what Luminosity spends on marketing. Use that time to learn a new language, develop new skills or exercise your body; your brain will reap more benefits.
  • Collaboration does often yield better problem solving and more creative decisions, but it slows things down and the best companies reserve it for special occasions, not as a default.
  • The “in group/out group” response by the brain is constant and pretty much random. This means that the brain is constantly assessing whether other people are “on our team” or “not on our team” and this effect can be created by scientists merely telling you that some people are on your team and others are not. You will instinctively see those on the other team as adversaries.
  • Understanding one’s values, articulating them, writing about them and repeating them increases emotional resilience. Not sure how or why yet, but wow, who knew? The best argument ever for engaging in our Leadership Point of View exercise.
  • One of the most robust findings about learning is that the more “spacing” is used while learning – breaking the content into small chunks and repeating it a couple of times over a period of days with sleep between times – the better. Spacing ensures that the content is encoded into long term memory. Cramming information – learning it quickly right before an exam, for example – will result in the information staying in short term memory and then disappearing. A terrific support for Blended Learning!

Never Underestimate the Effect of Change

I recently shared a laugh with a client – we’ll call him Jon – because as he so eloquently said, “You just can’t win.” Here’s what happened.

Jon, by profession an accountant, is head of tax for a global manufacturing company. A lovely human being, he is nevertheless analytical and cerebral, and a 360-degree feedback process revealed that his people perceived him to be cold and unapproachable.

We worked together on practicing some new behaviors: making the effort to get to know folks, stopping to say hello to people in his area – all of whom report to people who report to him.

He worked on and shared his Leadership Point of View (his beliefs about leadership and his leadership values) which his people told him made him much more accessible.

Jon was really enjoying letting people see a little more of him, he was having more fun at work, he was literally wondering what took him so long to experience this very important side of himself.

You would think this could only be good right?

I certainly did.

3D Hand Giving Thumbs DownBut, you can never underestimate the power of change, even good change, to distress someone. Not everyone was thrilled with the change. One of Jon’s direct reports, Emilia, asked for a private meeting during which she reported that she was upset with this new softer, friendlier Jon.

He was shocked – of all people he had thought she would appreciate it the most.

It turns out that she was enjoying the change for herself, but she was worried that Jon’s new accessibility was “undermining” her position with her direct reports. She was concerned that people might feel comfortable going straight to Jon instead of having to get things done through her.

Of course this presented a great coaching opportunity for Jon. But we had to laugh…I had thought in 25 years of coaching that I had heard everything, but this was a first.

Are You Too Comfortable?

Man Relaxing In Easy Chair - Retro Clipart IllustrationUnder the category of “Everything I Need to Know, I Learn from My Clients”: one of them said a remarkable thing last week. We were talking about a new, high pressure, high visibility job he is settling into and the fact that his To Do list far exceeds the realities of the time/space continuum. As we brainstormed what he could let go, reprioritize, or delegate, he kept balking. Then—complete silence.
He took a deep breath in and said, “I was talking to a good friend who recently became CEO of his company. He told me he was struggling with the fact that regardless of what he was ‘supposed’ to be doing, the things he does naturally are the things he loves doing and is comfortable doing. I think that’s exactly what’s going on with me.”
Well, he certainly made my job easy.
When you step into a senior leadership role, the task list is never, ever done. The only way to keep from drowning is to stay focused only on the things that really matter. And the things that matter most are often things that are new to you and, therefore, uncomfortable. You will automatically engage in the behaviors and activities that are easy and relaxing unless you stop, breathe, pay very close attention, and choose to do the stuff that really needs doing—and that isn’t going to be easy or relaxing.
So what happened with the client, you might be wondering. He continued to self coach. He decided that his homework would be to look at everything he was supposed to be doing, delegate the things someone else could do, and focus on the things only he could do.
Feeling overwhelmed? Too much to do? Ask yourself: Am I defaulting to doing the easy stuff that can wait (or be delegated) instead of staying focused on what really matters, even if it is harder.

How to Be Grateful

Coaching isn’t all about achieving happiness, but it certainly is almost always focused on the pursuit of what the client believes will make him happy.  You may have heard already that the happiest people are happy because they are grateful rather than grateful because they are happy.  It is not a chicken/egg proposition.  It is in the research – The Happiness Advantage, The How of Happiness.  Consciously choosing to constantly scan the environment for what you are grateful for, and keeping lists of the same, changes the brain and literally makes you happier.  So if want to be happier, there is one super simple easy thing you can do right now.  Today: this minute.  Be more grateful.  Not just once a year on Thanksgiving, not just when you get a promotion or good news.  All the time.  But how you might ask: how do I be more grateful?  Well, David Steindl-Rast explains it perfectly in his TED talk – you can take 14 minutes and watch it or you go with my Cliff Notes.  Here they are:

 Stop. Look. Listen.

That’s it. 

 Stop. Look. Listen.

 Notice what is going on that you are grateful for – the sun, the rain, running water, indoor plumbing, shoes that fit, electricity, your adorable dog/cat/child, your funny colleague, your car started! Your new desk chair you had to lobby five years to get. Functioning internet. So much.  An endless list.

 When?  As often as possible.  Here are some ideas to get into the habit:

  •  Any time you start obsessing about your To Do list, stop and think of things you are grateful for instead.
  • Anytime you start second guessing what you should have said in your last meeting, stop and…
  • Set a timer on your phone to do it every 15 minutes. 
  • Every time an email/text/tweet comes in.
  • Every time you hear a beep of any kind (I do this; you would be amazed how much beeping goes on.  It makes it much easier not to be annoyed at the sound of trucks backing up!).
  • When waiting at a stop light.
  • When brushing your teeth (Oh the possibilities, unlimited clean water, hot water! toothpaste, dental care!).
  • Every time you sit down at your desk. 
  • Every time you get up from your desk.
  • When you get into bed.

Other ideas? Try it, and see what happens.

Running on Fumes

I recently spoke to a friend and colleague who needed my input on something.  This colleague has the highest IQ of anyone I know ( not exagerating), and an intimidating work ethic.  She is literally the gold standard for productivity in our companygas tank on empty.  After a string of emails, I failed to understand what was required of me so I picked up the phone to chat and found my friend literally incoherent with stress.  It took me several minutes to get her calmed down enough to explain what she needed from me.

It made me stop and think. 

We forget that we are a finite resource.

We can do so much and no more.  Even if we practice (highly recommended by coaches everywhere) extreme self care*, we can do so much and no more

My sister Mia is a lovely person, does for others all day long.  She is chatty, fun, highly engaging and extroverted until about 8 o’clock at night at which point she says “I am out of words”, and goes to bed with a book.  Such a role model.

It is critical for all of us, as  leaders, professionals, parents, and friends to know at what point we “run out”. Out of gas, as it were.  Do you know when you are at a quarter tank?  Do you have reasonable boundaries around your rest time?  I have found that it isn’t so much others we have trouble saying no to, it is ourselves.

Stop and think.  Remember, you are a finite resource.

 *Extreme Self Care: A term coined by Thomas Leonard, a pioneer of the coaching profession and popularized by Shirley Anderson, considered to be a Yoda of the coaching profession. It could be defined as: enough sleep, proper nutrition, exercise, down time, meditation and/or prayer, time to connect with others, and fun as you need to operate at 100%.  Click here for more information about the multiple aspects of well being from a Neuroscience standpoint.

5 Step Checklist for Behavior Change

You can’t get a personality transplant but small behavioral changes can make a big impact. A 2% Shift in direction will affect your Destination

1. Once you have noticed how your intent is different than your impact, articulate the gap.  Put words to where you are now, and where you want to be.  This helps you to understand the nature shift and makes it real.

Old Behavior ___________________

New Behavior ___________________

Start Date: ______________________

2. Notice when you might practice your new behavior; define triggers that will soon remind you to do your new behavior.


3. Try on your new behavior in a safe environment.  Do your new behavior every time you get a trigger in a safe environment.

 4. Try on your new behavior in an “unsafe environment”.  Promise yourself to do it ONCE -  Once a day, once per opportunity, define a minimum for yourself and reward yourself every time you do it.

Minimum: _________________________________

5. Discuss the upside of your new behavior with a sympathetic champion of you.  The more you remind yourself of the benefit, the more you will be inclined to do it.

Who to talk to: ___________________________________________

 TIPS For Trying on new things:

  • Tell the people you feel safe with that you are trying something new.  Prepare to be teased. Teasing is good, generally people who like/love you tease you.
  • Ask for help in tweaking your new behavior
  • Ask for support  in identifying triggers, and in holding yourself accountable
  • Breathe deeply to avoid freezing up
  • Keep your feet on floor and feel your feet when you feel scared.
  • You will not be good at your new behavior.  You will fail, and you will feel foolish.  However, you will not die so keep trying and you will get better.  I promise.
  • Stick to one thing. Try on new things one at a time.  You can make a lot of changes, just not all at once.  Give yourself a chance to master one thing first, then you can move on to the next thing.


Taking the “UN” out of Un-Leaderlike Moments

It is perfect that this blog post coincides with a live cast with yours truly, Madeleine Blanchard,  that The Ken Blanchard Companies is sponsoring at 10 am Pacific today, October 30th. In the workshop we examine some of the ways you can increase your self-awareness and minimize behavior that you know might be weakening your leadership effectiveness.

So our blog readers get the Readers Digest version!   If you think you could be a better leader pay attention to:

Intent and Impact – Make sure you are having the impact you intend, watch people’s faces!  If you make an impact you do not intend, STOP, call it out and deal with it right in the moment. 

Habits – Take a look at what you complain about – that will give you a clue as to what bad habits you might have.  For example, if you are always late and complain about the traffic, you might have a habit of blaming circumstances for things that you actually have control over.  This will undermine your credibility as a leader.  

Also, you may have good habits – habits that you developed that have made you successful but might now be holding you back.  Take a look at what you do that has always worked that it might be time to let go of.  Best book on this topic:  Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

Strengths – You heard it before and I am saying it again:  the more you are able to leverage your strengths, the more powerful you will be.  There are several ways to assess your strengths, you can buy StrenghtFinder 2.0 by Tim Roth and it provides you with a code to use for an online assessment.  You can take a free assessment immediately at the VIA Institute on Character website.   Another book:  Standout by Marcus Buckingham.

Blind Spots – you have ‘em but they’re blind spots, right?  So you don’t know you have them.  Ask someone you trust what they think yours might be.  Or, look to the spot where you have pain – an ongoing conflict you have with someone else, or an intractable problem, and ask yourself, “What am not seeing about myself that could be at the root of this?”  Painful, yes, but so much better to get the harsh beep from the person you are swerving into than actually get into a car wreck.

Limiting Beliefs – There is a good chance that you are a less than great leader because you are still playing small.  Cut it out.  Seriously, listen to the nasty voices in your head that hold you back by asking “Who do think you are?” and then talk back to them and tell them to shut up.  What limiting belief do you have that you would you challenge if you heard it from a friend?   

OK.  So what do you do if you really want to change a behavior?  Next week, I will share a 5 step plan for behavior change. Stay tuned!