Is your mind in the game?

Posted on March 20, 2014. Filed under: Attention Matters, Linda Ray | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

Linda Ray, the co-founder and co-director of neuresource group, coined the term “attentional intelligence” in 2012. In this post, she looks at the ways our brains can get in the way of staying alert to risks and offers a simple tool for taking charge.



Are you in charge of your attention? Or is your brain?

How in charge are we of our focus and attention? Does our biology lead to our attention being placed in a manner that invites us to lose focus on the areas we should be paying attention to? As we learn more about human behaviour through our increasing understanding of the brain, we need to be ready to rethink some of our approaches to how we operate, how we organise our workplaces and how we structure our organisations.

In this post, I explore why we need to rethink our working practice at the individual level with a case study and a new tool we’ve developed at neuresource group, which we’ve named PAPA and which can assist you in staying ‘switched on’.

Switched on or switched off?

How many of us notice where our attention is moment by moment? One of the most important areas we can all pay more attention to is improving our attentional intelligence. Attentional intelligence supports us to be more mindful of what is happening in our domains of attention, including feeling, thinking, and focusing.

Asking questions in each of these domains supports us to be more in charge of our attention. We need to be mindful of when we have unintentionally switched off our attention in one or more of these domains.

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 10.15.59 AM

Getting your mind on the game

In a recent post we looked at the neuroscience of risk awareness. During some of our recent work in a large infrastructure transport organisation, we discovered a problem with their current approach to risk and safety awareness. The key issue happened to be that the very processes, policies, and procedures that were developed to support a focus on risk and hazard identification were, in fact,  getting in the way of their people staying switched on to safety.

Like many organisations that are taking the issue of safety seriously, this company begins new shifts with  meeting that invites people to identify any potential risks or hazards that might be at play on that day. While this focuses attention on predicting the potential risks that might be encountered during their shift, it may have had an unintended effect. By discussing it ahead of the work day, staff members began to operate as though the issue of safety had been covered, and they paid less attention to potential risks, not more.

Neuroscience sheds light on why this happens. The brain is an energy conserving organ and seeks to itemise, categorise, rely on past experiences, and interpret the world according to mental maps that have been formed over a lifetime — all with the goal of preserving precious cognitive resources. It also likes certainty — knowing that something’s been handled, for example. And it’s reward-driven. Motivated and productive workers gain satisfaction moving through their ‘to-do’ lists.

In this particular organisation, savvy managers sought to create more safety awareness without considering how the brain actually works. Instead of placing risks at the forefront of employees minds, by discussing safety matters at the start of a shift, the brains of their employees tended to switch off.  This happened because the need for certainty about predicting possible risks was met early on in the workday at the beginning-of-shift meeting. Without recognising it, many staff members were ticking safety off of their to-do lists.

Further investigations to determine the causes of incidents in this organisation revealed that 96% were the result of human factors rather than technical or mechanical failure. In other words, they were largely preventable. Just how, then, can we stay switched on so we notice risks that may not be predictable but, if noticed, could prevent an incident?

From our experience, the key is in having the tools and the cues that keep us switched on. We need to work with the brain in mind when we develop our practices and policies. Simple tools can provide a cognitive shortcut for the brain that can assist in staying switched on. From neuroscience, we know the importance of the priming effect. When we tune our attention into being on the lookout for something, we are much more likely to notice the areas we want to focus on. We’ve all experienced this. For example, when we decide to buy a new car, we suddenly see that car on every highway and road. There aren’t really any more of them around, we are just more attuned to seeing them.

41NcnRvocWL._SX342_In this particular infrastructure transport organisation, we developed a framework called PAPA (prime, assess, predict, and act). PAPA is a simple framework that can support continued attention to noticing risk. We instituted what we refer to as a  ‘PAPA’ pause — stopping through the day to consider anything that might be a potential risk.

We gave each person a two-sided card with key priming, assessing, predicting and acting questions. As an additional cue to keep attention, we distributed purple shoelaces or a purple bracelet for the workers in order to support priming of focus. Each time they noticed their band or coloured shoelaces, it operated as a further cue to keep attention focused on noticing risk and taking appropriate action.

PAPAUsing PAPA to develop attentional intelligence

We know attention and focus change the brain. In order to grow your attentional intelligence, it may be worth including some PAPA pauses in your everyday work day. Prime yourself to notice where your attention is moment by moment. Assess whether your attention is where you want it to be. Predict the extent to which your focus supports your goals. Act to change the focus of your attention if it’s not serving you well!



Linda is the Managing Director of NeuroCapability and the co-founder/director of neuresource groupThese organisations are playing key roles in developing a new generation of thinking leaders through delivery of the Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership and other innovative programs informed by neuroscience.  Linda is gaining recognition both in Australia and internationally as a thought leader in the neuroleadership field.  She is actively contributing to the body of knowledge that supports the building of individual and organisational ‘neurocapability’.


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2 Responses to “Is your mind in the game?”

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Howdy Linda, Thanks. I have just started reading “Search Inside Yourself” Chade-Meng Tan, HarperOne. Meng begins with the question how do we train emional intelligence (EI, EQ)? His answer we begin by training attention. While at a basic level I know what attention is, and focus is, and understand mindfulness and meditation, your article has helped me move from knowledge to behavior by knowing – having some have a better appreciation and some tools from your post above “Is your mind in the Game” and about PAPA.

Hi Jack, Glad you found the post useful. Building attentional intelligence is key in training focus and using our limited attention wisely. Sounds like an interesting book so thanks for sharing. Cheers Linda

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