“Change your thoughts and you change your world.”
– Norman Vincent Peale
In any given workday, anyone in a leadership role needs to get things done (manage tasks and advance projects) and make things happen (lead others to achieve results). Yet anyone experienced working within an organization will know that often accomplishing these two deliverables can seem impossible. Why are some leaders able to advance projects, while others seem to meet barrier after barrier? Why are some staff members productive, while others stall and fail?
Whatever the underlying reasons for a lack of productivity in the workplace, neuroscience provides us with knowledge that we can use to make things happen in nearly any situation. In this post we’ll focus on CHANGE, because when the existing state of affairs is not getting results, change is required.
The Brain: “A Lazy Piece of Meat”
Individuals and organizations both fall into routines and habits, which is not surprising when you realize that every human brain has evolved to execute familiar patterns. The brain is built to be efficient—which is why neuroscientist Gergory Berns calls it “a lazy piece of meat.” If the human brain can make an assumption, take a known path, or find a shortcut, it will.
So the most important source of human influence, decision-making, and innovation—the brain—is in fact much more efficient at simple tasks that involve seeing familiar patterns and executing known routines. The cost of readily adapting to and instigating change is so high that the brain will avoid doing it, unless we help it along.
Leadership Challenge: Change the Brain = Change Results
As every leader knows, change is often required to make continuous improvements. Leaders know what numerous studies in neuroscience have now proven: to achieve a new goal, overcome a challenge (physical, mental or interpersonal), or to make any kind of significant change requires that individuals’ perceptions need to be altered.
“If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.”
– Mary Engelbreit
Unfortunately, changing one’s perception is an incredibly difficult task for the brain, which prefers to see and travel familiar routes through the world. This is where the creative aspect of leadership comes into play.
Shocking the System
Neuroscience has shown that one way perception changes occur—whether the change happens in your mind or a staff member’s mind or throughout an entire organization – is through a shock to the system.
“The need for change bulldozed a road down the center of my mind.”
– Maya Angelou
As Albert Einstein famously said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” Let’s say you feel like you are banging your head against a brick wall every time to try to get a critical point across to a particular colleague. It’s frustrating, but your brain actually likes being stuck in that rut, because it requires almost no energy to stay there. It’s just repeating familiar patterns by rote.
The only way out is to put your brain into a situation for which it has few or no previously learned navigation skills. Forcing “the system” (i.e. your brain or an organizational pattern, etc.) out of its comfort zone is often the only way to trigger a change in perception, which will be followed by creative solutions and changes in action.
If you are struggling with the need for change, try this assignment on your own:
- On a piece of paper (must be paper, not an electronic device), write down one aspect of your workplace that you want to change. Describe how you want to change it and be as specific as possible.
- Next, write down something—some action or experience—that would force you to go way outside of your comfort zone. This could be related to the change you wrote down in #1, or it could be completely unrelated.
- Post your completed assignment on your bathroom mirror, desktop background, cubicle wall or another place where you will see it and read it daily. Leave it there for at least three months.
And that’s it—that’s the end of the assignment.
Getting it Done: One Perception Shift at a Time
Humans are creatures of habit and routine. In fact, routines are important for the brain to conserve energy for really important tasks, like breathing. To truly challenge ourselves, our teams, or our organizations requires great neural effort.
A major aspect of our leadership development work at The Leadership Group is coaching leaders, managers and executives to shift perceptions: their own, those of their staff, colleagues and superiors. We invite you to talk to us about patterns that are frustrating you or change that you want to make happen.