We are living in a technology-driven environment. Wherever you turn there is another device, application or solution to contend with. Leaders in the 21st century struggle to function optimally with the stress of being online 24/7. Most leaders have become addicted to their iPhones and BlackBerry phones and find it hard to function without them. Some leaders even believe that without technology, they cannot be effective. However, being constantly wired to some form of technology reduces the intellectual ability of a leader by an average of 15 IQ points.
The role technology plays in generating insight for effective decision-making
So, how does a leader remain effective in his or her decision-making? In order to find a solution we need to understand the underlying brain functioning of a leader and what the preferred brain state is for effective decision-making.
In a paper produced for the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), Dr David Rock highlighted three elements that need to be present in order for the brain to generate insight. These elements are discussed in this article. Strategies to assist leaders to deal with distraction and information overload will also be addressed.
Quiet brain state
Operating in a highly stimulated environment creates a “noisy” brain. The brain waves active in this state are constantly firing in order to make sense of their environment. In this stimulated environment, Beta waves are active and allow the brain to be aroused. Research has shown that this state of arousal is limiting when we need to generate insights (see picture). In order for insights to be generated the brain needs to have a spike in alpha brain waves before the insight is generated. Alpha brain waves are present when the brain is reflecting and not busy processing lots of detailed data. The moment an insight is generated, there is a spike in Gamma wave activity, which indicates that different brain regions are communicating with each other. A deep meditation state has lots of Gamma wave activity. Being in a deep meditative state is not always possible in the workplace. However, practising mindfulness is one way of quietening down the brain activity and focusing on the here and now. Being present in the here and now leads us to the next point, which is about being focused on one’s own thinking and making sense of existing mental maps that drive behaviour. Being wired to technology all day creates a noisy brain that inhibits insights and creative thinking.
Most of our day is spent operating in a non-conscious state in that we rely on hardwired memories. This amazing skill of the brain to hardwire thoughts enables us to operate on a functional level and to minimise the energy resources of the brain. The negative of this operating system is that we rely on old thoughts and do not allow for different thinking patterns. Thinking about options and allowing the brain to unpack mental maps requires an enormous amount of energy. In the presence of distractions, poor diet, and inadequate resources, we rely on old maps. The pre-frontal cortex (PFC) must be activated, and as it has about two hours of operating time at its disposal if not rested through taking regular breaks, we automatically rely on the hippocampus or old memories.
Creating a space for quiet reflection devoid of technological distractions needs to become a priority for the workplace in order to facilitate more insights and strategic thinking.
Happy and non-anxious state of mind
In his work on insights, Dr David Rock highlights the fact that there is an increase in the number of insights generated when the brain is in a non-anxious state.
Similarly, when the brain is in a happy state, the likelihood of insights increases.
What does this mean from a technology usage point of view for today’s leaders? In the presence of technology, most leaders operate in a highly anxious state as the demand for immediate action and results will always generate a feeling of being under pressure. Being “happy” at work is also not on the priority list of most leaders and greater emphasis is placed on getting the job done at all cost. Focusing on creating a positive effect at work will go a long way to enhancing insight generation together with productivity and engagement.
In summary, technology usage in the workplace is a fact of life and we cannot avoid the future development thereof. What we can do is become more effective in the way we deal with technology and the demands it places on our brain resources. Your Brain at Work by Dr David Rock provides the leader of today with great strategies for overcoming distraction, regaining focus and working more smartly all day long. Visit the NeuroLeadership Group website for details on how to transform thinking and performance in the workplace.
USB-ED in collaboration with the international NeuroLeadership Institute presents a Certificate in the NeuroLeadership. This programme connects the fields of leadership development and neuroscience in a science-based, action learning framework. This is the only offering of its kind in South Africa and commenced on Monday, 16 April 2012.
Mary-Joe Emde is CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group. USB-ED and the NeuroLeadership Group have established a partnership that integrates neuroleadership and brain-based coaching into leadership development.