In our always-on/always-connected environment, between work and family, texts and emails, new demands and ongoing change, most of us are feeling like our brains are full. And yet the constant stream keeps coming. It may seem unrealistic to hit the off switch, but we’re hoping to at least find a pause button.
This is one reason for the growing interest among business, HR and talent leaders in mindfulness and deep thinking, practices that just a few years ago would have seemed completely at odds with what it takes to be successful in business.
But whether you’re responsible for helping others develop and grow, managing people and projects, or just managing yourself, it’s easy to see how the distractions of the modern world are taking a toll, not just on performance, productivity and morale but also on people’s health and well being.
How can our businesses continue to thrive if we aren’t able to put our best thinking to work?
In fact, mindfulness is being aware of what's going on in your brain. This is far different than being "mind-full"—letting your brain get so full that you feel overwhelmed by information.
Here are three strategies anyone can apply to increase mindfulness and become more productive as a result.
1. Understand your thinking preferences
All of us have thinking preferences that help us—and sometimes hinder us—in our productivity. I have natural preferences in the area of research and analysis as well as thinking about the big picture and exploring new ideas. I have lesser preferences for dealing with details and getting organized.
I work hard to not let my desire to research and explore get in the way of actually getting a project done. This takes intentional effort, but becoming aware of your preferences is the first step in getting more deliberate about how you apply your thinking.
2. Get out of your own way by removing distractions
The goal is to manage your thinking processes rather than letting them manage you. We create obstacles to this by getting lost in multi-tasking: responding to a text while trying to have a conversation with somebody sitting in front of us, or checking email and browsing the web during a meeting.
Recently, I was talking to someone and heard an alert from my computer that I'd just received a new email. At that point my eyes ever so furtively glanced at the screen, read the subject line of that email and missed three or four sentences of what the other person said—the most important sentences in our conversation. I had to sheepishly ask that person to repeat them.
We know that the brain is not a parallel processor. In other words, it can only do one thing at a time well. To be more mindful and more productive, shut down the sources of distraction. If necessary, write down any thoughts that nag at you so that they no longer tug at your attention.
3. Warm up for a deep dive
Finally, when you have a certain type of thinking to do, give yourself permission to do a deep dive. This includes warming up to the task and allowing time for your brain to function at full capacity.
For example, our ability to move between analytical and empathic thinking is limited. We can do both. But if we try to do them both at the same time, our efforts will cancel each other out.
So if you're doing a task that requires you to be in tune with another person's feelings, then prime your thinking. Recall an event that left you with positive emotions about another person. This helps you to engage in a deep way with someone else.
If you want to a deep dive into a task that requires analytical thinking, then make sure you have what you need. Get your brain into that mode by looking at data. Shut down Facebook. Get focused. Block time on your calendar to get the thinking done.
What strategies are you using to help take control of your thinking rather than letting it control you?
What makes a good match? Whether you’re putting together a workplace mentoring program or just thinking about your prospects for Valentine’s Day, thinking preferences provide some clues.
On the work front, many organizations have begun setting up mentoring programs recently. With another estimated 4 million Baby Boomers expected to retire this year, these companies want to make sure their valuable knowledge, experience and critical thinking skills don’t leave along with them.
But just like any pair, not every mentor match is made to last.
HBDI® Certified Practitioner Lynne Krause has used thinking preferences as her guide in pairing mentors and mentees at the US Naval Command, and we’d challenge even the best of online dating sites to equal her 99% success rate!
Of course, it’s only natural to be curious about the connection between thinking preferences and your personal relationships, too. Here’s what we can tell you on an anecdotal level:
In working with thousands of people over the years, we’ve asked them where they think the preferences of their partner, spouse or significant other lie, and anecdotally, we can say that opposites attract—at least in first marriages.
On the other hand, couples in second and third marriages, as well as unmarried couples who are living together, are generally more similar in their thinking preferences. (Could it be that the unmarried couples think so much alike that they don’t feel the need for a formal contract?)
Being with someone who has significantly different thinking preferences from your own can be challenging, both in the positive and negative sense of the word. It doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed to fail, but maybe couples in their second and third marriages have figured out that they just don’t want to work that hard anymore!
The keynote I delivered at World Financial Group last week had more than 200 leaders in attendance, all seated by their HBDI® thinking preferences. It’s always so striking to see how that validates people’s learning about themselves and others, both as they discover their HBDI® Profiles and begin applying what they’re learning.
In The Whole Brain Business Book, Ned Herrmann shares a story of the “aha” moment that came from just such a seating exercise. Presenting to a leadership group of a large company, he had assigned people to tables based on preferences (unbeknownst to the participants), and it turned out that the company’s chairman/CEO and president/COO had opposing profiles.
Elected as spokespeople for their respective tables to discuss the kinds of work they really loved and were energized by, it was almost as if they were speaking directly to each other, Ned recalled, as the “source of their 15 years of arguments and differences of opinion and frustration was being revealed.”
They realized they had a huge opportunity they were missing out on because they hadn’t been appreciating and taking advantage of their differences and cognitive diversity. It was not only a memorable public demonstration of the consequences of thinking preferences at work, but also the beginning of a true partnership between the two leaders.
Wayne Goodley, Director of Herrmann International in New Zealand, makes the point that seating by quadrant preference is “the best way to ease leaders into the appreciation of the HBDI®” and break down barriers to learning, adding that “the lively and often robust discussion which follows eliminates any doubts as to the effectiveness of the learning process.”
For HBDI® Practitioners out there, what’s been your experience with seating based on thinking preference? How has it affected the learning process and outcomes?
The “shocking” to “disturbing” headlines about employee engagement are almost routine these days. Study after study turns up numbers in the range of 70 to 80 percent of the workforce that’s either not fully engaged or actively disengaged at work, costing companies billions in annual turnover.
It’s not that executives aren’t throwing money at the problem. In fact, by some estimates, companies are collectively investing upwards of $1.5 billion a year into trying to turn it around, without much to show for it in return.
But there have been a few positive signs beginning to emerge. Modern Survey’s Fall 2014 Employee Engagement Index showed engagement levels are beginning to inch up, while disengagement is at its lowest point since the study began.
Sounds good, right? Well, keep reading.
That same survey examined “who wants to leave” and found that, surprisingly (or “alarmingly,” as they put it), nearly a quarter (24%) of fully engaged employees are currently looking to leave their companies.
Something is clearly wrong when companies are spending billions of dollars on engagement, and they can’t even count on their fully engaged people to stay.
One of the biggest culprits? By and large, leaders, managers, and even L&D and HR professionals don’t know their employees. They don’t know what they care about, what matters most to them or what they pay attention to. This is the critical “homework” that has to be done before you put all that money into engagement and retention efforts.
Because work of any kind is primarily a mental activity, the best way to get to know your employees is to start by understanding how they think. This is the filter through which they communicate, listen and process information. It influences how they approach a task and what kind of work they find stimulating (or draining).
As part of the process of writing the second edition of The Whole Brain Business Book, we looked at some of the data around work satisfaction, and generally speaking, we found that the highest satisfaction comes from those who have a strong alignment between their thinking preferences and the mentality of the work they’re assigned to do. The lowest are associated with those who are misaligned—unless they’re looking for a challenge in that specific assignment and have been prepared and are motivated to stretch.
And that’s why this isn’t just about them; it’s also about you. Unless you’re intentional about your thinking, which is what Whole Brain® Thinking is all about, your own preferences will become filters and blind spots, impacting how you communicate, make decisions, assign work and create development plans for others. When fully engaged people are still looking to leave, being able to see past your own preferences and “get inside their heads” is the critical missing piece.
So before you make assumptions about what’s going to engage and retain them, start with thinking. In our experience, it’s the much more cost-effective—and just plain effective—route.
How do I become a better leader in a changing world?
It’s a question that’s been on the minds of so many I’ve talked with recently. It was also the question that lingered in my mind this past year as I was deep in the process of putting together the second edition of The Whole Brain Business Book.
The response we hear so often is, Be more agile. Build your agility. But how? And what does that even mean?
Well, for one, I believe it means unleashing your full brainpower. The only way you can keep up with change and lead through the chaos and uncertainty and distractions and complexities and big data and on and on and on…is to get more conscious about your thinking and how you apply it.
Unleashing your full thinking potential can be uncomfortable, though, whether you’re a highly structured thinker who needs to experiment and take more risks, or a highly imaginative person who needs the discipline and organization to be more productive with your time.
Fortunately, brain research supports the fact that you can stretch and overcome your mental blind spots to become a more agile thinker and leader. It’s something we talk about throughout the newly updated Whole Brain Business Book.
Although the second edition won’t be on the shelves until this spring, you don’t have to wait until then to get started! Here are 6 tips from the book you can apply today to make thinking agility your leadership advantage in a changing world:
- Get used to being uncomfortable: Discomfort is a sign the brain is engaged and learning. Instead of wanting to avoid those who make you uncomfortable, recognize the opportunity they offer to help you stretch your thinking. Hire and enlist them. They can become your biggest asset. Make it a personal challenge to work through the discomfort to new understanding.
- Challenge your assumptions. The brain is very efficient, and it will “fill in the blanks” for you when you’re looking for a solution. But when you’re trying to see something in a different way or find a new way of doing things, the quick leap to conclusions can ultimately be a trap. When you begin to make an assumption, flip it around. Ask yourself, “What if this was not true?”
- Embrace the unknown. It’s your ally, not your enemy. Change presents a great opportunity for new thinking, but only if you deliberately and consciously take advantage of it.
- Optimize your toolkit. Use your own thinking preferences to determine the tools that work for you. For example, if you’re a highly visual thinker, a linear, spreadsheet-style planning tool may make the task of getting organized even more difficult for you. If the techniques and processes aren’t helping, look to thinking preferences for clues and help on how you can find or create a more workable solution for you.
- Lighten up. Unconventional approaches free the brain and stimulate new ideas and perspectives. Find ways to jolt your thinking, and have fun with it!
- Make it a mental habit. Decide what you want and go for it, making your desired future outcomes a reality.
Especially in today’s knowledge-intensive world, your greatest strength lies in your ability to get smarter about your thinking—to make your thinking work for you instead of being trapped by it. Try it, and see how it makes the difference!
(And if you want to get more insights from the book—and be among the first to get a copy—be sure to join me at the ATD 2015 International Conference & Exposition in Orlando this May.)
Recent research suggests looking at cute things can improve performance. We figure it’s worth a shot!
Resolve to put Whole Brain® Thinking to work for you in the new year by spending some time outside your thinking comfort zones. Remember, if you aren’t just a little uncomfortable, you probably aren’t learning!
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Clearly define work goals for next quarter.
- Use logic in your decision making.
- (Re-)organize your filing system and/or your desk.
- Plan out a project in detail and follow through with it.
- Spontaneously recognize another employee in a way that is personal and meaningful for them.
- Be aware of your non-verbal communication and make it friendlier—smile, be relaxed.
- Set aside time for idea generation, and think of at least one “crazy” idea per day.
- In your “mind's eye” (with eyes closed), imagine your organization ten years from now.
You have access to your entire brain, so use it! Happy New Year from all of us at Herrmann International
When you’re delivering a presentation, conducting a training class or just having a conversation with someone, of course it’s important to focus on what you’re saying. But what about the rest of that equation?
It pays to think about your listening skills. Marian Thier, an HBDI® Practitioner and cofounder of Listening Impact LLC, says they’ve found that companies whose leaders are excellent listeners have a strong advantage, outperforming the competition by a factor of three. But there’s more to being a good listener than just stopping talking.
In a recent Fast Company article outlining the habits of good listeners, Marian discusses how important it is to be able to adapt your own preferences to how others communicate. The better you are at planning your interactions and keeping the other person’s preferences in mind, the better you’ll be able to meet their needs. It seems obvious when we’re talking about talking, but it applies when we’re talking about listening, too.
So the next time you’re meeting with a client or facilitating training (or maybe having a conversation with a family member at the holidays!), try applying Whole Brain® Thinking as a listener and as a speaker, and see how that changes things.
As the playwright Wilson Mizner once said, “A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while, he knows something.”
You’re on a roll, tearing through that 20-page document, making changes and getting it all down. And then it happens:
Your computer freezes up on you.
It’s the ultimate frustration. Your system just won’t work, and the only way to move forward is to shut it down.
Something similar happens when you’re mentally stuck. Sometimes you need to change your entire operating system, but sometimes you just need to reboot.
There are advantages to both. Why and when would you want to reboot rather than change systems?
Well, a reboot is easier. It builds off of something you’re familiar with and allows you to feel like you still have momentum. Doing a zero-based budget is a great example of a reboot. Some years ago I was looking at needed cutbacks, and I as went line by line through the P&L, I got lost in the detail of it all: Did we really need this item? How much?
I felt overwhelmed and wasn’t making any progress. So I rebooted by trying a zero-based budget. I started with a clean spreadsheet and listed out all of the items that were must haves if I were starting the company today. Having the clean page gave me a fresh start, took the noise out of the process and made it all much easier. And I knew I could always go back and look at the old P&L if needed to.
You can do this with a project or any plan you get stuck on. (And if the blank page makes you feel even more stuck, try “walking around” the issue by viewing it from the perspective of each of the four quadrants of the Whole Brain® Model.)
What about in life? You can zero-base your life planning by simply asking yourself: If I only focused on what I want and needed from this this day forward, what would that look like? What if the past didn’t matter?
Feel overwhelmed by the never-ending number of commitments you’ve made? Zero-base your activities by imagining you have a totally clean slate to work with. What are the value-added activities you would choose to have in your life?
Feel that your team is riddled with baggage? Give yourselves permission to zero-base your team’s world. Start as if you were onboarding together as a new team. What meetings, processes and structures would you need to be most effective?
The key is to move everything down to zero and then add back in the items that are most crucial. It’s a great way to reboot, shift your thinking and get a clearer view.
Ready to try a reboot? To ramp up your brain first, check out this video that asks, what would you choose to do if money were no object? It will free you up to think differently!
Today’s world generates a lot of cognitive load, where our work and personal lives overlap and create even more complexities. We’re checking e-mails in the evening and on weekends, and making phone calls to resolve personal issues during the day.
We forget how much of the chaos in our lives is self-imposed. We complain about the complexity of our lives, we survey our crowded calendars and cluttered garages, and we wake up to the day already feeling overwhelmed. Yet at some point we agreed (or acquiesced) to taking on all those things. We complain about information overload even when we choose to over-consume information—a habit that we can control.
Here’s an idea: Don’t just do something—stand there!
When faced with a packed schedule and long to-do list, the natural inclination is to get busy and do something—anything. There is another option: Before you dig in, stop to think. Is everything that’s on your plate truly worth doing? You might be able to get the most important things done by filtering out the stuff that doesn’t really matter.
Because most of us are unconsciously allowing more possessions and commitments to stream into our lives. Stuff comes in so fast that we don’t realize how much we've accumulated. In contrast, letting go of stuff calls for mindfulness, new ways of thinking, focused action.
If you really want to get things done, you have to get more conscious about what you choose not to do. In other words, fight distraction with subtraction.
Imagine what it would feel like to have to have one more unscheduled hour in your life every day. What would become possible for you with that added space in your schedule? Now visualize a life where your weekends are largely unscheduled and you leave your office by 6 pm at the latest on a workday. It’s harder to let go than to take on, but it can be done. It just takes some practice over time.
Here are some tips to get you started:
1. Write a three-item to-do list. Keep a master to-do list, then choose the next three things you intend to do and write these down on a Post-it. A three-item list is doable and inviting. In addition, crossing off those three tasks provides a dopamine-driven sense of reward and momentum.
2. Clean out your inbox and unsubscribe to any automatic e-mail list that you do not always read. Purge your subscriptions to magazines, newspapers and newsletters.
3. Outsource your cognitive load. Draw out a map of your cognitive load:
- Take out a blank sheet of paper (or use a Walk-Around Pad), and map your cognitive load against the different thinking preferences as depicted in the four quadrants of the Whole Brain® Model:
A Quadrant: Financial, technical issues
B Quadrant: Unfinished projects, plans, organizational issues
C Quadrant: People and interpersonal issues
D Quadrant: Long-term concerns, “big picture” issues
- “Unload” by writing down the key areas that represent cognitive load for you, those areas that weigh heaviest in your mind, for both work and personal.
- Now look at the list. Is there anything you can outsource or delegate?
4. Stop the madness by creating a no-to-do-list. Attending meetings with no clear agendas or end times, spending large chunks of time on low-value/low-return activities or clients, mindlessly filling out unnecessary reports or other activities “because we’ve always done them,” checking emails throughout the day instead of at scheduled intervals… name your not-to-dos and then stick with it!
5. Get offline. Yes, you can.
You can balance FOMO (the Fear of Missing Out) with TOTO (the Thrill of Throwing Out). Savor the pure pleasure of a calendar with more blank space and a life with less stuff.
What have you chosen not to do? What about your team, colleagues or employees? How can you encourage them to overcome distraction with subtraction?
What’s your biggest leadership challenge?
Preparing emerging leaders to step up?
Building high-performance teams?
Developing a leadership mindset across the organization?
If you’re like most training leaders today, the answer is “all of the above.” The good news is, you and your leaders already have the best tool for navigating an “all of the above” world—the brain.
Even better news: Kevin Sensenig’s webinar for Training Magazine has the practical strategies and steps you need to take full advantage of your brainpower and consciously shift your thinking when the situation requires it.
The webinar recording and follow-up resources for Developing Leadership Agility for an “All of the Above” World are available now for on-demand access.
Take a moment to check it out and download the materials, because particularly as the world grows more complex, the time you spend now getting your thinking in order will pay off exponentially in 2015.