Our Leaders Say

How sensitive is your brain to change?

Posted on February 5, 2015. Filed under: Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

This week, Martin Turnbull, an independent learning and development consultant based in Brisbane and a graduate of neuresource group’s Diploma of the Neuroscience of Leadership, looks at how the human brain responds to change and why making a change can be so difficult.


image credit: RG Daniel

Image credit: RG Daniel


When it comes to organisational change, we like to think of change as beneficial. We strive to embrace the new way of doing business, and actively encourage colleagues and staff to do so as well. Unfortunately, many tend to reject change outright. In general, this happens because of the internal stress and anxiety triggered by uncertainty: we worry about how change might affect our comfortable, predictable world, and this makes us resistant.

Evidence from neuroscience and psychology studies reveals that our view of the world depends on a combination of the common way our brains have evolved and the growth of unique neural networks influenced by inherited traits, environmental factors, and our experiences. This unique combination gives rise to substantial behavioural differences — even among individuals from the same environment who experience the same events.

This insight is important for leaders who are embarking on organisational change. A key element in any organisational change process is communicating requirements to those who will be affected. Looking at this through a neuroscience lens, we see that, at the physical level, change messages are received by sensory inputs, passing through the central nervous system to the brain to be decoded and acted on. One of the first areas to receive sensory signals is the limbic system where the amygdala, reacting to emotional content of the decoded message, prepares our body to fight or flee by altering our biochemistry if the change is interpreted as threatening. Signals continue to spread neuron-to-neuron through the actions of hormones, bioelectric signals, and neurotransmitters to many brain areas, communicating and combining with physical and emotional responses that precede conscious thought.

This tidal wave of action passing through different parts of the brain eventually reaches the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) — the executive controller of our working memory — where it’s evaluated. Based on our internal traits and our stored memories, the PFC makes a judgement call, thus contributing to future thoughts and emotions as we transfer and project existing memories onto new thoughts to match our expectations, needs, and beliefs.

What we perceive as real includes not just a representation of the stimulus world but also that which our psyche adds to or subtracts from as it is translated into new actions and memories, all of which give rise to our unique reconstruction of the external world. However, by the time conscious thought and decision making are possible, our brain may have already settled on an initial course of action.

Unfortunately, in the case of change management strategies, this type of emotion-laden action may produce responses counter to the changes you’re hoping to enact.

Something else to consider is an individual’s innate ‘approach’ or ‘avoidance’ bias, which is due to differences within their septo-hippocampal system and PFC and may dramatically influence the acceptance of change plans. There have been numerous studies on these behaviours that attempt to explain and measure individual differences of approach or avoidance personality traits. Perhaps the most influential is a theory proposed by Jeffrey Gray describing behaviours that are thought to be governed by separate approach and avoidance systems within the brain. Gray’s theory (known as the revised Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory (r-RST)  suggests that individual differences in innate approach-avoidance traits are affected by three systems:

  1.  The Behavioural Approach System (BAS) comprises personality traits of optimism, reward-orientation, and impulsiveness, consistent with extroversion
  2. The Behavioural Inhibition System (BIS) is responsible for the resolution of goal conflict through the assessment of uncertainty and risk using input from memory and the environment
  3. The Fight-Flight-Freeze System (FFFS) is responsible for mediating reactions to all aversive stimuli, including fear, to reduce the difference between threat and safety

If we view the relationship between innate approach-avoidance traits and an individual’s initial reaction to change, in terms of the r-RST, it’s possible an individual will react in one of four ways as depicted in Figure 1:


Figure 1

A.  Those with ‘approach’ personality traits, who initially reject change, typically vocalise their dissent and openly criticise and undermine the change strategy. They do not see any reward in changing and will fight to retain the status quo. This type need convincing through messages framed with positive language to activate approach actions towards accepting change.

Your skills make you a valuable employee and a key player in the roll out of the new computer system. Your support will be essential in helping others to adapt and together we can be competitive and deliver better outcomes for our customers.


B.  Those with avoidance traits, who initially fear change, are likely to experience levels of anxiety due to internal conflict and uncertainty that inhibits movement towards change. By playing upon this group’s innate pessimistic outlook it’s possible to create motivating messages using avoidance framed language emphasising that not changing is clearly a greater threat than the change itself.

I know you are concerned about the forthcoming introduction of the new computer system and the extra work that will be initially required. However, we need you to start developing a personal change plan as soon as possible to ensure that the roll-out in your area goes smoothly. Failure to do this will mean we risk losing our competitive edge and let down our customers, which will certainly lead us to downsize

C.   Those with approach traits, who initially embrace change, actively seek and facilitate change and pose few, if any, problems for change managers. The more extroverted ones can be put to good use as ‘change evangelists’ to influence those who are undecided or not fully committed to accept change — the ‘fence sitters’ who are easier to move in the right direction than those who reject change outright.

D.  Those with avoidance traits, who recognise the need for change, tend to react easily to aversive stimuli thus recognising that stagnation is a greater threat than change. This type needs reassuring throughout the process that change is still the better option. One way of doing this is to celebrate any short term wins so as to make change goals appear closer and the threat of not changing to appear further away.

The Motivation-Trait Model uses our current understanding of r-RST approach-avoidance processes to understand why certain individuals either embrace or avoid change and encourage behaviours that recognise and react to threats in appropriate ways, rather than rejecting change, being too frightened to act, or not knowing what to do.

By knowing your team well and having a clear understanding of the underlying factors at play and how each innately responds to the idea of change, you are in a better position to manage an organisational change plan. And you are also more likely to succeed.

This article is based on the paper Turnbull, M. (2015). A Model of Motivation for Facilitating Sustainable Change. Neuroleadeship Journal Volume 5, (January 2015).

List of References

Martin Turnbull Martin Turnbull is an independent learning and development consultant based in Brisbane, Australia, with an interest in the practical application of outcomes from the fields of organisational development, positive psychology, and neuroscience. Martin holds a number of qualifications, including Master of Education (Leadership & Management), Bachelor of Arts in Adult Education, Diploma and Post-Graduate Certificate in Project Management, as well as other credentials within the Australian Qualifications Framework. Martin is a graduate of the first cohort of neuresource group’s Diploma of the Neuroscience of Leadership in 2012.

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5 things you can do to as a leader to make your organisation more productive

Posted on July 18, 2014. Filed under: Our Leaders Say, Practical Strategies | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, looks at how applying neuroscience to work practices can make organisations more productive.


Artist: Egon Philipp

Photo: Egon Philipp

Most organisations are committed to keeping apace of technological advances, updating equipment frequently, and devoting resources to state-of-the-art processes and materials. The general feeling is that constant upgrades are a necessity to survive in an increasingly harsh and competitive economic climate. It’s perplexing, however, that this attitude doesn’t extend to any organisation’s most important resource – its people. Dated thinking, old-school beliefs, and outmoded approaches are all-to-often applied to how people work together. And leaders are left wondering why productivity falters. Outdated management thinking insists the psychology is not relevant to business. However, what we are discovering about the brain tells us that this just isn’t the case. We now have scientific evidence that what goes on inside the brain, from emotional responses to higher cognitive skills, impacts everything we do and should be incorporated into how we structure work. Brain functions affect perception, emotion, and conscious thought. More and more, leaders are borrowing from neuroscience research, and we are beginning to see practical applications – and big rewards – in the workplace.

The top five ways to use what we’re learning from neuroscience to improve productivity

Manage expectations Because motivation plays a critical role in how and why people function the way they do, it’s important to understand that the brain is essentially a social organ. Research clearly shows that the brain’s primary organizing principle is to detect whether incoming stimuli is a reward or a threat.  It’s part of our early survival mechanism that allows the brain to quickly classify the “danger” level of any situation. Understanding this, it’s possible to manage expectations of employees and clients alike. Because no two brains are alike, this can be complicated, but it’s well worth the effort to learn what motivates each person and to what degree. Wolfram Schultz of Cambridge University in England has studied the links between dopamine and the brain’s reward circuitry. When a cue from the environment indicates you’re going to get a reward, dopamine is released. Interestingly, unexpected rewards release more dopamine than expected ones. This means that the surprise success, like unexpected praise, for example, can positively impact your brain chemistry far more dramatically than an expected promotion or pay rise. On the other hand, if you’re expecting a reward and don’t get it, dopamine levels fall steadily. It could take some time for a person to internalise this disappointment, re-frame it, and regain lost momentum at work. The savvy leader anticipates where expectations might be overshooting the mark and works to minimise them as much as possible. Keeping expectations low avoids disappointment if a goal isn’t achieved and sets up a situation for happy surprise and delight if it is. Understand emotions Remember, emotions are contagious. The moods of others, especially those in positions of power, can have a real and lasting effect on individuals and groups. Toxic bosses, bullying environments and aggressive cultures can infect every one. Leaders play an important role in their ability to influence the spread of certain types of emotions over others. Your emotions matter because they impact on those around you. A growing body of evidence emerging from the social cognitive neuroscience field suggests that many of our emotion regulation strategies not only don’t work but are bad for our health and those around us. Matthew Lieberman, of UCLA, found that learning to label our emotions maximises cognitive ability.  He’s found that using simple language to ‘name’ anticipated and experienced emotions, actually lowers the arousal of the limbic system producing a quieter brain state. This in turn, allows the prefrontal cortex – the brain’s CEO – to function more effectively. Suppressing emotion is the most commonly used emotion regulation strategy. Studies show that suppressing emotion physiologically impacts on those around you and increases heart rate and blood pressure of those you are interacting with. The discovery of mirror neurons has also shown how we are wired to detect and mirror emotion of others. The brain is highly tuned to emotions in others, which can in turn generate reward or threat cues. Many studies examining the emotion contagion effect are showing their impact on morale in an organisation. Fear, anxiety and anger are contagious but remember so is enthusiasm and joy. Develop attentional intelligence Attentional intelligence allows you to effortlessly but ‘mindfully’ notice where your attention is at any moment and to intentionally choose where you want it to be. This kind of mindfulness can have a huge impact on productivity. In a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, conducted by Zindel Segal and colleagues, mindfulness meditation has been found to be as effective as antidepressants to prevent depression relapse. If it’s that powerful for people overwhelmed with troubles, imagine what it can do for those who are healthy and motivated. Greater focus, more effective planning, and greater stress reduction are just a few of the benefits. If we operate in the present, rather than brooding about the past or feeling anxious about the future, our minds are clear to deal with the issues at hand. It’s a simple principle, really: what we pay attention to gets accomplished. What we think, what we do, and what we focus on actually changes the structure and function of our brains. But, like any training, it takes practice for this to take full effect. It ultimately enables you not only to become calmer but also more creative. Cultivate creativity Image of young man sitting on floor looking at photosA number of large surveys done in the past few years show creativity at the top of the business leader’s wish list. It’s instructive to know then, what creativity needs to thrive.  Old notions still prevail about creative types – that like leaders, creatives are born, not made. This just isn’t the case. We are all creative. In fact, it’s one of the defining characteristics of being human. However, creativity does require cultivation. Different parts of the brain and different areas of focus yield different results. For example, holding big picture ideas and day-to-day details in your mind at the same time can lead to major stress. This common problem was first identified by J.P. Guilford in 1967 as two different types of thinking that occur in response to a problem: divergent thinking generates ideas, while convergent thinking sorts and analyses these ideas towards the best outcome. This concept explains why we find it so difficult to come up with a snappy title that completely illustrates everything in that detailed power point presentation you’ve just written. Respect your limitations Respecting our limits isn’t something modern Western culture encourages us to do. We are taught to break down barriers, reach for the stars, and never-say-never.  However, acknowledging that you are tired or burned out or unmotivated can be incredibly liberating and ultimately restorative. As long as you take positive action to rest, relax, and nourish yourself. As long as we are grounded in our human bodies, there are basic needs and limits that warrant respect. Eat when hungry, rest when tired, say no when too busy. Attitudes towards sleep also plays a role against ‘nurturing’ the seeds of creativity and productivity. Yes, sleep! Getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis can do wonders for productivity. When our alertness dips mid-afternoon, as it’s genetically programmed to do even when you are well-slept, responding with a powernap is a proven way to boost mood, concentration, alertness and memory.   An awareness of how advances in neuroscience might best be applied to the workplace can bring about amazing results in performance and productivity. The best news of all is that it doesn’t take a big organisational overhaul. Incorporating small shifts in thinking and doing yield big results.


  . Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with over 20 years experience. She contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals and has won awards for her fiction. Writing about developments in neuroscience is her latest passion. . . .  

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Collective intelligence: building smart teams

Posted on July 10, 2014. Filed under: Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, looks at what is central to human motivation and how we can tap into it to build smart teams that perform.




Getting ‘social’ right

Sociologists and economists have long studied human capital as a driver of productivity in organisations, something they define as the amount of intelligence, experience, and education a person has. Traditionally, the reward for an individual possessing high levels of human capital has been an equally high salary. In the past twenty years or so, this has been shown to be ineffective  – even counterproductive.

Researchers have struggled to explain why. Charles M. Elson, director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, and Craig K. Ferrere, one of its Edgar S. Woolard fellows have studied CEO salaries and conclude that, contrary to the prevailing line, that chief executives can’t readily transfer their skills from one company to another. In other words, the argument that CEOs will leave if they aren’t compensated well, perhaps even lavishly, is bogus.

Dan Ariely, from the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience and the Department of Economics at Duke University, has participated in numerous studies relating to the complexities of human behaviour, the conclusions of which he explains in his book The Upside of Irrationality. Overwhelmingly, Ariely’s research has confirmed that, for tasks that require cognitive ability, low to moderate performance-based incentives can help. But when the incentive level is very high, it can command too much attention and thereby distract the person’s mind with thoughts about the reward. This can create stress and ultimately reduce the level of performance.

Why should this counter-intuitive outcome be the case?  Enter Matthew Lieberman, Professor and SCN Lab Director at the UCLA Department of Psychology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences. Based on a decade of research in social neuroscience (how our brains respond to social engagement, in other words), he concludes that our need to connect with other people is even more fundamental than our need for food and shelter.

Lieberman argues that our success as a species and one of the reasons we’ve evolved large brains in the first place is because of our need for social connection. We are motivated by something beyond self-interest: the drive for social connection. Lieberman concludes that the adaptive value of brain systems is that it give us insights into others. These include not just the social cognition network but a network for ‘mentalising’ (intuiting what others are thinking), another for ‘harmonising’ (using self-control to keep from alienating others) and so on. Relationships are a central part of a flourishing life and working collaboratively is at the centre of human activity.

“Given what we know about the social brain, creating the right social environment in our workplaces should be a top priority for anyone who wants the best out of themselves and those around them,” says Lieberman. “Yet most organisations don’t get ‘social’ right.”

Towards a new theory of group performance

28290bc95af9907a474cefd3d0bf4090Thomas W. Malone, director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence,  is one of the leading thinkers in how to tap into the collective intelligence of groups.The centre’s ambition is to  bringing together insights from social psychology, computer science, group dynamics, social media, crowdsourcing, and the centre’s own experiments in group behavior. The results could help business teams get ‘social’ right and thereby develop a new theory of group performance.

According to Malone, the critical factor appears to be social perception.  In general, social perceptiveness is described as having an understanding of other’s verbal and non-verbal behaviour and actions. This can include having to interpret a combination of what they are saying as well as their tone of voice, body language, gestures, and facial expressions. Being socially perceptive is important in all social settings, but – because so much is often at stake  – especially the workplace.

Some people may not be aware of their lack of social perceptiveness and how it potentially impacts on relationships and interactions with others at work. For example, they may not be able to recognise when a co-worker is stressed and may ask for assistance at a bad time. Women, in general, are more socially perceptive than men. Simply adding women to a team can dramatically improve team cohesion and productivity.

Anita Woolley, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behavior and Theory at Carnegie Mellon University, concurs:

What do you hear about great groups? Not that the members are all really smart but that they listen to each other. They share criticism constructively. They have open minds. They’re not autocratic. And in our study we saw pretty clearly that groups that had smart people dominating the conversation were not very intelligent groups. 

Woolley looked at the collective intelligence scores of 192 teams against the percentage of women on those teams. Teams with a higher percentage of women were found to be more effective and productive than teams with a higher percentage of men. This fact may be what’s behind the thinking of the Australian federal government’s push to get more women on boards by tripling funding to a scholarship program for top-performing corporate women.

It’s difficult to know if strong teams naturally result in a higher collective intelligence or if building the elements of a high collective intelligence lead to strong teams. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter. The good news for leaders is that because we are driven by a desire to connect, social perceptiveness can be easily learned and practiced. Building it into how teams function can have dramatic results on team harmony and overall productivity.



Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with over 20 years experience. She contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals and has won awards for her fiction. Writing about developments in neuroscience is her latest passion.




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Balancing act: the neuroscience of negotiation

Posted on June 12, 2014. Filed under: Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |


Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, looks at what we can learn from neurobiology in order to improve negotiation and mediation processes. 



Pencil on a finger


Emotions are central

In Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (1995)neuroscientist Antonio Damasio outlined a groundbreaking discovery. He studied people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. He found that they seemed normal, except that they were not able to feel emotions. But they all had something peculiar in common: they also couldn’t make decisions. They could describe what they should be doing in logical terms, yet they found it very difficult to make even simple decisions. This means that even when we believe we are motivated by logic, the very point of making a decision is based on emotion. Damasio’s discovery has had a profound impact on those who are involved with negotiation and mediation processes.

Jim Camp, the founder and CEO of The Camp Negotiation Institute, believes that:

In general, if you can get the other party to reveal their problems, pain, and unmet objectives, then you can build a vision for them of their problem, with you and your proposal as the solution. They won’t make their decision because it is logical. They’ll make their decision because you have helped them feel that it’s to their advantage to do so.


Ten neuro-principles of the negotiation process

Building on Damasio’s work, mediation specialist  Jeremy Lack and his colleague François Bogacz, an expert negotiator, posit ten ‘neuro-principles’ that influence negotiation and dispute resolution situations:

    1.  We consume our brain’s resources efficiently, and create patterns/scripts/memories
    2.  We predict according to our patterns/scripts/memories
    3.  We are conditioned to avoid and be far more sensitive to danger/fear than to  reward/pleasure, which we seek 
    4.  We first perceive via emotions (unconsciously) before being able to self-regulate (consciously or by habit)
    5.  We seek safe or comfortable status positions at all times
    6.  We relate and empathise in-group (but not ‘out-of-group’)
    7.  We believe in ‘fairness’ and react negatively to ‘unfair’ behavior
    8.  We need autonomy/feelings of autonomy and feel/suffer if it is lost
    9.  Our ‘social’ stimuli are as powerful as our ‘physical’ ones
    10.  We operate cognitively in two gears (‘reflexive’& ‘refleCtive’ modes) but tend to favour X-mode

According to their research, these principles have practical implications for the way negotiators can prepare, generate options, and seek compliance.They also reveal insight into how mediators and leaders can best intervene in conflict prevention and resolution processes.


The cognitive bias effect

Since all information is perceived, filtered, distorted, and framed according to individual patterns, scripts, and memories, and since decisions are based on emotions, cognitive bias plays a huge role in how negotiations unfold. Bias can take many forms, but there are those that directly affect negotiation, ranging from an irrational escalation of commitment to the mythical belief that the issues under negotiation are all fixed to the process of reactive devaluation.

For example, initial commitments may become set in stone, and a desire for consistency prevents negotiators from changing them. This desire for consistency is often exacerbated by a desire to save face or to maintain an impression of expertise or control in front of others. No one likes to admit error or failure, especially when the other party may perceive doing so as a weakness. And then, all too often, negotiators approach negotiation opportunities as zero-sum situations or win–lose exchanges. They assume there is no possibility for integrative settlements or mutually beneficial trade-offs, and they suppress efforts to search for them. Reactive devaluation is the process of devaluing the other party’s concessions. The very offer of a particular proposal or concession — especially if the offer comes from an adversary — may diminish its apparent value or attractiveness in the eyes of the recipient.

As you can see, each of the biases described above could potentially operate as a significant barrier to agreement. And these are only a few of the cognitive and psychological factors at play in a given negotiation process. (See our comprehensive list of cognitive biases.)

Gender matters

15_Glass_Ceiling_6045There’s another aspect worth noting. For all the advances women have made in the workplace, when it comes to negotiation unconscious bias works against women more than it does men.

Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In and the chief operating officer of Facebook, recognises the difficulties of negotiation. However, she urges women not to be paralysed by fear but to take direct actions in their own best interest.  Nevertheless, many psychologists who study the role of gender in negotiation advise otherwise.

This type of caution is confirmed by Hannah Riley Bowles, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the director of the Women and Power program, who has been researching gender effects on negotiation. Using the results of laboratory studies, case studies, and extensive interviews with executives and employees in diverse fields, she concludes that our implicit gender perceptions mean that much of the advice women are given may not have the intended effect. As much as we hear that women should stand up for themselves and assert their position strongly in negotiations, it can and often does backfire.

In several studies, Bowles and her colleagues found that people penalised women who initiated negotiations for higher compensation more than they did men. According to an article by Maria Konnikova for The New Yorker, “the effect held whether they saw the negotiation on video or read about it on paper, whether they viewed it from a disinterested third-party perspective or imagined themselves as senior managers in a corporation evaluating an internal candidate.”

A delicate balancing act

So what can be done?

Lack and Bogacz offer some suggestions. First, priming, framing or reformulating are very important, as they offer ways to shape how initial patterns of behavior and negotiations unfold. Even the use of a single word – like keep instead of lose – in the presentation of options can unconsciously influence the conscious choices people make. Furthermore, in addition to words, we need to be conscious of the para-verbal and non-verbal communications that pervade negotiations and group dynamics.

Lack advances a view of mediation that tries to take neurobiology into account, claiming that it is not simply facilitated negotiation, but a facilitated social, emotional, and cognitive process. He considers the social and in-group scripts that are triggered by the process itself to be a key concern and feels that attention should be given to  how participants are primed and prepared for coming into the process.

In the words of mediator David Plant (who died in 2012), “We have to start by defining the process as part of the problem.” We need to be aware of human tendencies and how they might influence negotiation. And, finally, we need to be aware of how our own perceptions influence outcomes and how the process itself can trigger first impressions and affect the participants’ social scripts and patterns.

Emotions and emotional intelligence should be seen as central to effective negotiation, rather than something to be overcome. Teasing out which cognitive biases might be involved in a given situation is also critical. It’s a delicate, sometimes perilous balancing act – there are just too many complex variables involved. By applying what we are learning from neuroscience, however, we may arrive at the negotiating table with an advantage.



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Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with over 20 years experience. She contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals and has won awards for her fiction. Writing about developments in neuroscience is her latest passion.

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Mental priming: a powerful tool for high performance

Posted on May 22, 2014. Filed under: Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, discusses how business leaders can adapt the techniques elite athletes use to perform at their best in high-stakes circumstances.




Mental priming has been widely used in sports training with great success. Now advances in neuroscience provide real evidence to show how mental priming functions in the brain. Leaders and managers who embrace the field of neuroleadership have adapted the method sports coaches employ to enhance their own performance and to foster those of their employees. Utilising priming even in small doses has seen dramatic improvements in both workplace engagement and productivity. Here are a few tools you can borrow.

Mental imagery

Imagine you’ve been asked to give a high stakes presentation to a large audience. Did your palms begin to sweat? Nearly everyone suffers from performance anxiety, but there are ways to subdue it.

Intense pre-event preparation can transform your experience. You might even enjoy yourself.

Mental imagery is one technique you can practice in the days and weeks before a big event. Whenever panicky feelings arise, imagine you are taking the podium feeling really confident and relaxed. You look at the audience, take a deep breath, and smile. Imagine enjoying yourself and think about the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel afterwards.

Almost all elite athletes and most sports psychologists employ this kind of mental imagery, and it’s worth adapting their techniques to the more complex workplace environment. Stress, fatigue, a brain deprived of oxygen from sitting down all day, fear of failure, constant interruptions, deadlines are everyday obstacles to peak mental performance. As for focus, which is everything to an athlete, many workers learn to get by on divided attention.


Managing emotions is also critical, since emotional stress downgrades brain function into survival mode. All too often, negative emotions spill over from one interaction to the next, carrying with it an emotional wake that affects everyone you comes into contact with. Researchers from Deakin University have found that when employees are trained to take a moment between work and home to reflect, rest, and create a positive intention for their next behaviour, their mood on arriving home improved by as much as 41 per cent.

Subconscious factors

In addition to focused visualisation, emotional regulation and a good distraction management plan, workplaces can intentionally create positive environments that prime for high performance by appealing to employees’ subconscious influences.

2-working-together-gatesA series of studies reported in Europe’s Journal of Psychology has found that prosocial behavior can be increased if a person is subjected to messages that encourage collaborative or helping behavior. These messages may not be seen or noticed consciously but the limbic drivers of prosocial behavior see them and take note. What this means in practice is that if you are giving workshops in collaborative behavior it’s a good idea to gently prime the attendees to do the right thing both before and after the workshops.

It’s not just what we do in the moment, but what we bring to the moment is also an important factor. Dr Fei Song of Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management and her colleagues also studied the subconscious behaviour of employees and their drive to compete. Focusing on gender roles, the research suggests that gender stereotypes originate from the social roles that men and women have traditionally occupied in a society.

“Stereotypes are learned early in life, become part of one’s cultural understanding, and are internalised as personal beliefs and values,” says Song. “People extend stereotypes to develop self-concepts, which are characterised by associations between the self and stereotypical personality traits, abilities and roles. Such stereotypes are likely closely related to the differing levels of competitiveness exhibited on average by men and women.”

The participants in the study were drawn from male and female MBA students at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. The authors hypothesised that women who chose to follow such a professional career path would often experience conflicting role identities: a professional identity that is highly competitive, competent and ambitious and a gender/family identity that is warm, supportive and caring.

Song’s findings reveal that we bring our own deeply held perspectives and cognitive biases to the workplace. This means that the positive priming that works for one person might not be right for another. Finding ways to educate individuals about their own motivations and the factors that influence performance is an important step.

The power of priming

Positive priming, when used properly, can provide increased motivation, better mood, and ultimately higher performance. However, because priming works on the subconscious level, it’s important to remember we are as much influenced by negative environmental cues as positive ones. If priming people with a positive word can change both their moods and their work performance, the wrong word or tone as well as negative subliminal messages can change things for the worse.

In addition to understanding their own complex motivational psyche, strong leaders need to understand what motivates each of their employees and to what degree. They must pay careful attention to the kind of information – every single word, in fact – their employees are exposed to.



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Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with over 20 years experience. She contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals and has won awards for her fiction. Writing about developments in neuroscience is her latest adventure.





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We are what we say: how language shapes our brains

Posted on April 17, 2014. Filed under: Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer and an expert in linguistics, has been thinking a lot about the neuroscience of language and the effect it has on our behaviour. She includes a round up of some of the latest thinking on the subject.




Languages differences

Since human languages vary considerably in the information they convey, scholars have long wondered how this might affect how we think and how we behave. According to Lera Boroditsky, an Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD, in a 2011 article for Scientific American, “A solid body of evidence showing how language shapes thinking has finally emerged. The evidence overturns the long standing dogma about universality and yields fascinating insights into the origins of knowledge and the construction of reality. The results have important implications for law, politics, and education.”

And business, one might add.

Research in Boroditsky’s lab, as well as in many others, has been uncovering how language shapes the fundamental dimensions of human experience, including space, time, causality, and relationships with others.

Some examples:


Asifa Majid and her colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics have conducted research on the neurocognition of language and space.  She says: “Think where you left your glasses. Of course, they were to the right of the telephone! This is the sort of everyday coding of spatial location we use. But some people in other cultures think differently about the same situation: they would code the glasses as being on the telephone’s own left side, or even as being north-east of the phone!”

For example, there’s a language called Guugu Yimithirr (spoken in North Queensland, Australia) that doesn’t have words like left and right or front and back. Its speakers always describe locations and directions using the Guugu Yimithirr words for north, south, east, and west. So, they would never say that a boy is standing in front of a house; instead, they’d say he is standing (for example) east of the house. They would also, no doubt, think of the boy as standing east of the house, while a speaker of English would think of him as standing in front of the house.

Since directions and spatial relationships are constantly reinforced for speakers of Guugu Yimithirr, they have a great sense of direction while we English speakers, who have grown up with a different spatial cognition system, keep getting lost.


Through a number of complicated tenses, English is a language that imparts a lot of information about when events occur. We can understand, for example, just by the tense that is used, that something occurred in the past and is continuing to this day, that something continued for a long period of time but is now over, or that it happened in the past but only once. We have the simple past, present and future, the past, present and future continuous, the past, present and future perfect, and the past, present and future perfect continuous — not to mention the subjunctive and the conditional tenses. This has made English speakers acutely aware of time-frames, timelines, and deadlines. In other languages, time might be left out of a communication altogether. The listener or reader is left to deduce from the context whether an event happened in the past, is going on now, or is scheduled for the future.


As English speakers, we’ve been taught to avoid the passive voice (something that Word’s grammar check constantly reinforces). For example, when we hear the sentence “A $3000 bottle of ’59 Grange was given to the Premier”, we understand that some information is left out. Our suspicions are raised and we want to know who gave such an expensive bottle of wine to a premier and why.

As Boroditsky says, “Nonagentive language sounds evasive in English, the province of guilt-shirking children and politicians. English speakers tend to phrase things in terms of people doing things, preferring transitive constructions like “John broke the vase” even for accidents. Speakers of Japanese or Spanish, in contrast, are less likely to mention the agent when describing an accidental event. In Spanish one might say “Se rompió el florero,” which translates to “the vase broke” or “the vase broke itself.”

Relationships with others

Economist Keith Chen observes that to say, “This is my uncle,” in Chinese, you have no choice but to encode a lot of information about the uncle. The language requires that you denote the side the uncle is on, whether he’s related by marriage or birth and, if it’s your father’s brother, whether he’s older or younger. “All of this information is obligatory. Chinese doesn’t let me ignore it,” says Chen. “In fact, if I want to speak correctly, Chinese forces me to constantly think about it.”

This is the case with many Asian languages, where loyalty to the group takes precedence over the individual. Relations among people are more important than the ‘business at hand’. Direct language is valued less to convey  meaning and more to assist in relationship building and creating an atmosphere.

In many western cultures, where relationships are not as overtly communicated in languages, individualism trumps collectivism.

Implications for workplaces

raceThe fact that language shapes our brains more than was previously thought has a number of implications for the business context — particularly in our increasingly multi-cultural workplaces.

Diversity and flattened organisational structures are generally the most innovative, however, there could be a cost involved. While different ways of thinking and operating are a real benefit, diversity can also create misunderstandings at fundamental levels. An awareness that language shapes our brains as well as the culture to which we belong is the first step.

We need to rethink the relation between the neurocognitive underpinnings of  the concepts we use in everyday thinking, and, more generally, to work out how to account for cross-cultural cognitive diversity in core cognitive domains, such as those described above.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that our language has forced a certain view of time or space or relationships on us; it could also be that our view of such basic concepts is reflected in our language, or that the way we deal with them in our culture is reflected in both our language and our thoughts. It seems likely that language, thought, and culture form three strands of a braid, with each one affecting the others.



Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with over 20 years experience. She contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals and has won awards for her fiction. With a graduate degree in linguistics she is fascinated with how language impacts our everyday lives (and vice versa!). Writing about developments in neuroscience is her latest adventure.

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Top posts: the ways neuroscience will transform how you work

Posted on January 30, 2014. Filed under: Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

We thought it would be fun to look back over the past 12 months and revisit the most popular Brainwaves for Leaders posts.  Please let us know if you’ve tried any of the ideas explored below. We’d love to hear anecdotes of your successes!



ways-to-eliminate-distractions2Attention Matters: Taming Distraction By Developing Attentional Intelligence

Linda Ray is the Managing Director of NeuroCapability and the co-founder and co-director of neuresource group.  During the past seven years, she has been interested in building ‘neurocapability’ using insights from neuroscience.  In this article, she turns her attention to the subject of ‘attention’—more specifically on ways to build productivity through ‘Attentional Intelligence’.

…Think for a moment on your day to now. Where has your attention been focussed? Given the average worker spends around 2.5-3 hours per day on distractions, I suspect for many attention is not always focussed where we want it to be or where it is most productive….  




Fish jumping out of waterChecklist For Brain-Friendly Change Management

The participants in the 2012  Diploma of the Neuroscience of Leadership program join together to offer their solutions for brain-friendly change.

…In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Walter McFarland states that the way to effectively engage the support and creativity of a company’s employees during an organisational change lies within the field of neuroscience. After spending nearly a year studying how the brain works and the ways this new knowledge may be applied to the workplace, the 2012 NeuroCapability ‘thought-leaders’ participated in an informal survey about their ideas on the best ways to implement organisational change…  




golden-circleThe Three E’s Model Of Neuroleadership: Energy, Effort And Engagement

Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, investigates how leaders can direct energy, effort, and engagement by connecting employees with intrinsic values and meaningful purpose.

…One of the central challenges in learning and leading is the ability for people to connect, to collaborate, and to find the common ground needed to work out the intense polarizations that lead to so many of the terrible headlines we see. While humans have a fierce independence, we are actually social animals, and mirror neurons are evidence of this interdependence. It’s our organisational leaders who set the engagement climate, and they also set levels of energy depletion and energy restoration. It’s a delicate balancing act, and one that’s difficult to achieve…




abstract-conversationBusiness Leaders Agree: Empathy Is The Single-Most Important Skill In Business Today

In a recent workshop on The Neuroscience of Collaboration, undertaken as part of theDiploma of Neuroscience of LeadershipAdair Jones was inspired by the significant role empathy plays in human relations and how it can be effectively utilised in the business realm.

…Empathy is the oil that keeps relationships running smoothly. We need to think of it as valued currency. Empathy allows us to create bonds of trust. It gives us insights into what others may be feeling or thinking. It helps us understand how and why others are reacting to situations. It sharpens our “people acumen”.  And it informs our decisions.  All of this is too important to ignore…




??????????????????Linking Emotional Intelligence To Neuroscience

Nick Mills, a Neuroscience of Leadership graduate and the Principal Consultant at Eureka Training, shares his thoughts on emotional intelligence and what learning about the brain can do to help you link the heart with the head.

…neuroscience and emotional intelligence can be complimentary tools for effectively managing engagement and those that believe that EI is all based in black magic and hoo ha!…



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Taming your L.I.O.N and Steering your S.E.A.L

Posted on November 7, 2013. Filed under: Our Leaders Say |

Clare Edwards is a highly motivated organisational development professional and a current Diploma of the Neuroscience of Leadership student.  With an intuitive ability to empower individuals and teams to perform at a higher level, she offers her own lively take on Linda Ray‘s strategies for self-regulation.



Easy-to-Remember Strategies for Self-Regulation 

“Roll up, roll up, the circus has come to town!”  Well, not exactly.

In this case, our animal friends are metaphorical representations of two self-regulation strategies that neuroleadership pioneer Linda Ray has come up with.  (So you can heave a sigh of relief that no animals have been harmed during the writing of this article.)

Our brains — the pre frontal cortex (PFC)  in particular — love information to be memorable and easy to recall, which is why pictures and visuals are critical in the learning environment. Acronyms also fall into this category as we are able to make associations, form context, and store the information (thanks to our hippocampus) in ways that make it easy to retrieve at a moment’s notice.

L.I.O.N. and S.E.A.L. are two strategies related to self-regulation and, since we sometimes need to be call on them at a moment’s notice, having them neatly packaged as acronyms comes in handy. These strategies relate to action we can take to reduce limbic activity as well as to increase processing in the PFC when we are faced with situations that cause us to ‘go limbic’.

Taming your L.I.O.N.

Lion Tamer Female ThreeDo you remember the story of the ‘Wizard of the Oz’? What was it the lion believed he lacked? Courage! As with the other key characters, this film is a superb metaphor for helping us see that we already have all the resources within us to survive and succeed.

When faced with a threat (in whatever form), we sometimes sense that we lack courage, but thanks to Linda Ray  we now have access to a simple yet powerful self-regulation strategy that we can summon instantly.  I’ve taken Linda’s system and rearranged it to fit with the LION  acronym.

Let’s go through the steps first:-

Step 1 – Label (Name it to Tame it)

Once you label an emotion, it dampens down the limbic system and transfers resources to your pre frontal cortex, which operates as the ‘executive function’ of your brain. You will begin to think more clearly and your body will calm down.  Remember, however, you only want to name what you’re feeling without going into detail. Simply identify that you’re scared, nervous, or stressed — then stop.

Step 2 – Interest (Get curious)

Instead of panicking, tell yourself, “That’s interesting, ah it’s just my brain again”. Curiosity is a form of dissociation and helps us to become the observer, which in turn helps to dampen down the limbic system and activate the rational and logical processing of the PFC.

Step 3 – Origin (Explore where this has come from in terms of S.C.A.R.F.)

Building on steps 1 and 2, identifying the origin of your emotion helps your brain to make sense of the reaction and allows you to process reactions in a way that supports you to gain some perspective. Consider the social need that is being threatened. An easy way to do this is to use David Rock’s S.C.A.R.F.® model of core social needs. Ask yourself, What past experiences or memories might be affecting this response? Again, we don’t need to analyse in detail, just to be able to form connections to the origin. I recently used LION when about to present a talk and found that the origin of my fear was related to having had to sing solo a verse of a hymn in grade 8 and being laughed at. (It’s okay – I’m over it now!)

Step 4 – New meaning (Reappraise and look for the gift in the challenge)

Ask yourself, “Is there a different way of viewing this? How is this an opportunity? What can I take away from this? How can I turn this into a positive?” We will have retrieved a memory in order to complete step 3, and we are now able to give that memory a different more resourceful form and meaning through reappraisal.  Our memories, like our brains, are plastic.

You can learn to tame your L.I.O.N. in a very short period of time. I used it most recently when preparing to present to a group of professional speaking peers for the first time and took myself through the process silently while being introduced. This made the difference between me not needing to revert back to my notes and having the courage to deliver with confidence.

We know from neuroscience that the best way to embed learning is to teach, and I recently taught L.I.O.N. in a workshop that unpacks and addresses the fear of public speaking. This little process was so effective with the participants that they created a little roar to employ just as they were to speak — it became an instant reappraisal!

Steering your S.E.A.L.  

Male fur seals on the beach of the Antarctic.

The elite US Navy SEALS have learned effective self-control in high stress situations and are able to reduce the time it takes to transfer processing from the limbic system to the PFC.  The SEALs (which stands for Sea, Air and Land fighting) undergo rigorous training continually confronted with situations that range from no threat to extreme threat. They have no idea which type of situation they will be confronted with and have to make instantaneous decisions regarding how they respond.

The success of this training has led to increased pass rates from 25% to 33%. The good news is that we too can learn from the SEAL’s mental training which includes four steps: -goal setting, mental rehearsal, self talk, and arousal control.

Because of our preference to have information memorable and easily retrievable, I created an acronym from the word SEAL:

    • Self-talk
    • Envision success
    • Arousal Control
    • Little goals

Let’s look at each one briefly.


When faced with a threat, real or imagined, talking positively to yourself can really make a difference. Positive self-talk has been used successfully for years with sports psychologists and athletes. It can also work for us. Simple phrases such as “This too shall pass”, “Onwards and upwards” or “Come on, let’s do it” involve sending our brain positive commands which our subconscious will follow. This reminds me of Henry Ford’s famous quote

Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right.

Envision Success

Again, we turn to the field of sports psychology for evidence of success. Dr Denis Waitley first worked with NASA astronauts, then elite athletes in perfecting motor visual rehearsal, where the athlete runs the race in their mind first, then instinctively follows through on the rehearsal with the real thing. Usain Bolt has already run, and won, the 100 metres well before he’s off the blocks! With the navy SEALs, one of the most frightening challenges they face is having their breathing equipment tampered with when undergoing underwater training, something that invokes an immediate and high limbic response. By visualising a successful outcome in advance of the training, the SEALs were able to stay calm and pass this toughest of tests.

Arousal Control

The most effective use of arousal control is breathing. Remember when your older relatives used to say, “Take a deep breath and count to ten”? Well, there’s wisdom in this, as the act of breathing also dampens the limbic system and helps decrease the production of adrenaline and cortisol so that we can think more clearly. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian Jewish psychologist who survived three years in the concentration camps sums it up exquisitely: 

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Little Goals

How do you eat an elephant? One mouthful at a time! The SEALs use extremely short-term goal setting as a key survival skill. “What can I do to make it to the next hour?” is a little, yet potentially life-saving goal. We too can adapt this to challenging situations and take them on one step at a time. This form of goal setting also helps us stay mindful, present, and 100% focussed on the task at hand.

So there you have it!  You’ve tamed your L.I.O.N. and steered your S.E.A.L. for effective self-regulation! A final brain-friendly tip: It’s often best to practise just one technique and keep practising until it’s embedded firmly in your basal ganglia before moving on to the next.

Good luck, go well, and look after your animals!



For a look at the brain science behind how the Navy SEALs stay motivated:



Screen Shot 2013-11-04 at 3.02.30 PMClare Edwards is a highly motivated organisational development professional with extensive experience in the hospitality industry and corporate business. Her particular strengths lie in her intuitive ability to sense challenges and opportunities in inter-team dynamics, to help organisations create or enhance their culture, and to empower individuals and teams to perform at a higher level.

An energised, enthusiastic and authentic speaker and facilitator, Clare combines her knowledge, skills and experience to engage her audiences on a number of topics including Thriving in Change, Brainsmart Leadership, Emotional Resilience, Personality Type, and Storytelling for Leadership.

Clare spent 16 years working at senior management level with International Organisations (McGraw Hill, SAP, XO Communications) before transitioning into people development. In 2005, Clare relocated to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, where she consults and facilitates various programs for her corporate, not for profit, and public sector clients locally and inter-state.

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Change Agility is the New Capability

Posted on November 1, 2013. Filed under: Our Leaders Say |

Change management expert John Findlay of Maverick & Boutique explores organisational agility in today’s increasingly complex world.  John will be speaking at the neuresource group working breakfast on 13 November 2013 in Brisbane.

Register now for a morning of networking, sumptuous food, and important news about organisational transformation.


Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 1.03.08 PM

A Complex Adaptive Operating System (CAOS) Approach to Organisational Agility 

We live in an era of unprecedented complexity and disruptive change. In order to thrive, organisations must respond quickly and creatively to shifting market, social and political conditions. People within organisations must be adept at collaborating effectively across the boundaries of disciplines, sectors, and cultures.

While our technology has become extraordinarily sophisticated, our organisational operating systems—the ways we coordinate, act, and interact—are no longer up-to-date. And most efforts at change fail simply because the methods we continue to use no longer work as well as they once did.

The science of complex adaptive systems (systems such as markets, ecologies, and the human brain) offers great promise as an operating guide for 21st century organisational success.

At the American firm of Maverick & Boutique, we have developed the Complex Adaptive Operating System (CAOS) and the Complexity Model of Change, an approach which assists organisations to become more agile and adaptable.

Using Complexity to deal with Complexity

For much of the past century, with its intense focus on “scientific” method, organisations have attempted to manage their processes and their people in a linear way—as if they were machines. As the world has become exponentially more complex and rapidly changing, we’re experiencing huge failures in our ability to create the financial and human well-being that seemed a sure bet when Fredrick W. Taylor, one of the first known organisational consultants, wowed the industrial world with his efficiency movement.

According to the 2013 Gallup State of the American Workplace report, a mere 30% of the American workforce considers itself engaged, which results in $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity annually. Clearly, something has to change; and yet it’s generally accepted as axiomatic that 70% of organisational change efforts fail.

Poor odds, indeed. It seems that nothing short of a miracle will do.

There’s a saying that a miracle is just a change in perspective, which, we suggest, is precisely what’s needed to begin to sort out our predicament. Rather than using the metaphor—and science—of industrial age machines to understand and manage our organisations, we can turn to the science of complex adaptive systems, which was developed to understand the behavior of ecologies and the weather, and has since been expanded to include human systems such as markets, cultures, and the human brain.

Complex adaptive systems are made up of multiple sub-systems, which interact with each other and evolve over time as a result of that interaction. In the same way that there are patterns in linear or algorithmic systems on which we can rely to operate machines, there are patterns in complex adaptive systems that we can leverage to successfully influence the future of our organisations and their people.

The CAOS Approach to Organisational Transformation

Key to this approach is the concept of phase transitions, or disruptive transformational change, where the whole system “jumps” from one state to another, like water becoming steam. Examples of this phenomenon in the human realm are personal growth through successive stages of development, when groups become high performing teams or when society undergoes a major socio-technological shift. When this happens, we experience major transformations in how we work and learn together.

Complexity650-300 At each transition, the structure of the whole system changes dramatically, transcending and including previous states of the system. How we understand the world, the tools people use, the ways we interact and coordinate, the roles we play and the relationships that follow are all are transformed. That’s how the model works…on paper.

In reality, of course, these transitions are messy, with parts of the system existing in different stages. For example, an organisation that produces cutting-edge Knowledge-age technology may still be managing its HR component in a hierarchical, Industrial-age way, which interferes with its ability to attract and retain young, bright talent.  An executive may move to a thrilling new level of cognitive development while her emotional development lags behind, making it difficult for her to relate to and support her team.

The idea is to align these different sub-systems, so they are all pulling in more or less the same direction. When we do, we realise huge gains in productivity, cultural alignment, and human well-being.

The CAOS Toolkit

New tools are needed to improve the dismal rate of change effort success. Maverick & Boutique have created or adapted a number of useful tools to approach change in a different way:

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 3.14.15 PMThe Complexity Model of Change: At the core of the CAOS approach is a model of socio-technological change, which provides a robust explanation of thescale transformations— known as phase transitions—that have occurred over the past 200 years, and provides a general indication of future trends.

Fractal Leadership: As its name implies, Fractal Leadership is self-similar at every scale. All members of the project team or organisation are expected to acquire the skills of fractal leadership, which can be learned easily and applied as simple rules of interaction. The skills need to be consciously practiced until they become a natural part of engaging with others.

A Fractal leadership approach recognises the importance of the dynamic interplay between people, between teams and between organisations with widely differing world views or centres of gravity. It addresses their resistance or willingness or adapt to change, and helps leaders develop and maintain trusting relationships with peers, teams, and stakeholders. The result is that, as circumstances change, they are able to work transparently and collaboratively with others to identify and implement new, satisfying solutions in a timely way.

Polarity Thinking: At the heart of many complex organizational issues are paradoxes or wicked problems, which pose significant challenges to the leaders and their teams, and result in ongoing conflict, disengagement, and sub-optimal performance. Many of these messes can be untangled using polarity thinking.

Each perspective, or pole of a polarity, may appear to be the ‘answer’ to a problem; but, when we focus on one pole to the exclusion of the other, we achieve sub-optimal results over time. The polarity thinking method supports us in developing concrete strategies for realizing the benefits of both points of view and early warning signs for detecting when we are focusing on one pole to the neglect of the other. This creates a “dynamic certainty” and flexibility in the system resulting in risk reduction, conflict resolution and enhanced benefits realization.

The complex adaptive meeting environment: In order to successfully deal with the diversity of world views, interests and activities of complex stakeholder systems, it has been necessary to develop innovative tools for the creation of new knowledge and for its wise application. The goal is to help people rapidly share their opinions, make sense of their collective ideas and concepts, develop shared mental models and create and apply new knowledge together.

A complex adaptive meeting environment, known as Zing, creates a safe collective thinking space for bringing key players together at any scale, across the boundaries of participating organizations, between organizations and their stakeholders or within functional teams. The tool makes it possible for people to think together and create a robust, shared model of the system they are collectively dealing with.

Interests integration and knowledge co-creation: This approach leads to the expansion of the possibility space for both internal and external stakeholders, by creating win-win-win synergistic outcomes. Participants are encouraged to develop ‘both-and’ solutions: for example, where some aspects of the project will be centralized and other aspects decentralised; or ‘transcend and include’ solutions: where the project has an overarching aspect operating at a highly integrated, complex or sophisticated level, but includes functions operating from a more rudimentary level. This integration is achieved by using dialectical discourse, whose primary purpose is to create overarching conceptual models that incorporate the interests of all parties.

With these tools and approaches, managing change isn’t the arduous task it’s frequently considered to be. In fact, we think of change as an opportunity. It opens the space for new knowledge, new discoveries, new thinking. In today’s increasingly complex environments, an organisation that possess agility when confronted with change is well-positioned to benefit from unexpected opportunities. After all, change agility is the new capability.


John Findlay copyJohn Findlay, Maverick & Boutique

A native of Australia, John brings an international perspective to organizational change. His complex adaptive systems model of socio-technological change offers a robust explanation for the hyper-chaotic period currently being experienced in every realm of human activity as we make the shift to a new and higher level of social and technological order.  John has translated the complex adaptive systems model into a diagnostic that gives people and organisations a roadmap to the future.  John has a PhD from the University of Wollongong and an MBA from Southern Cross University. He is also a research fellow in the Economics Faculty at the University of Wollongong.


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Smart leaders go for ‘flow’

Posted on October 3, 2013. Filed under: Attention Matters, Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, looks at the concept of the “flow” state and how the best leaders create conditions that are conducive to it–not only for themselves but for their teams.



In the moment, present, in the zone, on a roll, wired, in the groove, on fire, in tune, centred, singularly focused… We’ve all had moments like this. The lucky ones among us have experienced it in our work. What these terms describe is focused motivation, single-minded immersion–in other words, ‘flow’.

The concept of ‘flow’ was first proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in the 1970s and as the complete absorption in what one does. It’s defined as the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. 

Csíkszentmihályi and his colleagues have identified six factors as encompassing the experience of flow: 

        1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
        2. merging of action and awareness
        3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
        4. a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
        5. a distortion of temporal experience (one’s subjective experience of time is altered)
        6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding

Csíkszentmihályi is quick to point out that while aspects of these factors can appear independently of each other, it is their combination that constitutes the experience of flow. 

The brain likes things ‘just right’

In order for a flow state to occur, you must see the activity as voluntary, enjoyable (intrinsically motivating), and it must require skill and be challenging (but not too challenging) with clear goals towards success. You should feel as though you have control and receive immediate feedback with room for growth. Interestingly, a flow state is characterized by the absence of emotion–a complete loss of self-consciousness. However, in retrospect, the flow activity may be described as enjoyable and even exhilarating.

What Csíkszentmihályi tapped into long before neuroscience was a common area of research is the fact that our brains want optimal conditions for optimal performance. Think about it. If you are unskilled in a situation that is not challenging, you will most likely experience apathy or boredom. There just isn’t enough going on to keep you engaged. Should the situation become more challenging, but you don’t have the skills to manage it, you’ll tend to experience worry or even anxiety. On the other hand if you are feeling challenged and also confident that you have the ability to meet the challenges, you’ll begin to feel more engaged.

This confidence will keep you feeling relaxed and in control as you’re met with increasing demands. The ideal, of course, is when your skills are met with appropriate challenges. This is when intrinsic motivation takes over, time falls away, your actions and awareness merge, and you begin to experience a state of flow. This feeling is so pleasant that most people seek to maintain it as long as possible and to re-experience it as frequently as possible. A lucky few succeed.

Collective flow

, the co-author of Team Generosity, suggests we devote more study to the notion of “collective flow states”:

In a world where collective problem-solving has been hampered by conflict, dissension, confusion, and mutual incomprehension, any experience that can enable people in groups to work, create, and achieve more effectively and joyfully together seems to be profoundly necessary–and important.

Walker proposes some activities that enhance the potential of groups to experience collective flow states, something leaders can use to build more cohesive teams: 

      • Share minds and spirits as you share a meal. A flowing conversation occurs in which everyone listens and everyone participates–sometimes producing a collective flow state.
      • Take people out of their everyday routine. MIT Professors Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer have described the productivity leaps experienced by groups after tackling “stretch, group challenges” when used in the middle of their normal work assignments.
      • Experience “being present” with others. The more you “feel” the collective flow state, the better you can model it for others.
      • Become deeply conscious of others. It takes leaders with managed egos and refined listening skills to properly motivate employees.
      • Train your mind to be more present. Harvard professor Dan Gilbert has found that aimless thoughts occupy our minds 46.9% of the time. If you can teach yourself to be more present by reducing the wandering thoughts, you’ll be more likely to be able to listen to others, connect with others, and have a collective flow.

The secret to happiness

artistic brainAfter many decades of research, Csíkszentmihályi became convinced that achieving flow states is not only important for productivity in work, but it is essential for happiness. In an article for Forbes, Jon Katzenbach and Zia Khan, the authors of Leading Outside the Lines, state that emotional sources of motivation are more powerful than money. Unfortunately, however, money all too often becomes the default motivator because it is measurable, tangible and fungible. Katzenbach and Khan cite recent studies by the neuroscientist Jeffry Schwartz, who has identified several motivators that influence behavior more effectively than money: 

For one, people want to elevate their status. Organizations often assume that the only way to raise an employee’s status is by a promotion, but status can be enhanced in many less costly ways. The perception of status increases significantly whenever people are given credible informal praise for daily tasks rather than waiting for annual results.

People are also motivated by having autonomy, but more money doesn’t often equal greater perceived autonomy. In fact, you usually have to give up autonomy to rise up the compensation ladder. The real heart of autonomy as a motivator, however, rests with the perception that you are executing your own decisions without a lot of oversight or rules, which is hardly common in the corporate world today.

Similarly, feelings of relatedness and fairness are motivators. They are determined more by informal interactions, social networks and daily perceptions than by money or formal promotions.

Finding mastery, meeting challenges, staying engaged with activities we enjoy–these are not only the way to be motivated but also the secret to happiness. A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that flow is highly correlated with happiness, both subjective and psychological well-being. Furthermore, it has been found that people who experience a lot of flow in their daily lives also develop other positive traits, such as high concentration, high self-esteem, and even greater health.

Watch Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TEDTalk on flow

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Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with over 20 years experience. She contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals and has won awards for her fiction. Writing about developments in neuroscience is her latest adventure. 



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