Too much left brain?

July 21, 2015

In modern society we have highly valued a certain type of person and a certain type of mind – people such as engineers who can analyze data, computer programmers who write code, MBA’s who can crunch numbers. 

This type of individual draws heavily from the left side of the brain – that part of our mind that we understand to be rational, analytic, and logical. The left side of our brain reasons sequentially, excels at analysis and handles words. A person with these strengths is definitely the kind of person you want doing your taxes.   

In contrast, those we have considered ‘right’ brained may be artists who express themselves non verbally, writers who create beautiful images, futurists who see patterns and suggest trends. This type of person draws more heavily on the right side of the brain which is nonlinear, instinctive, it reasons holistically, recognizes patterns and interprets emotions and non verbal expressions. This is someone we want as a coach or counsellor.

In A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pinkhe summarizes 3 decades of research on the brain’s hemispheres to 4 key differences:

  1. The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body; the right hemisphere control the left side of the body. 
  2. The left hemisphere is sequential; the right hemisphere is simultaneous. 
  3. The left hemisphere specializes in text; the right hemisphere specializes in context.
  4. The left hemisphere analyses details; the right hemisphere synthesizes the big picture.

I have recently facilitated strategic planning meetings with two management teams that had a heavy weighting of technical skills, or what we’d call left brain skills. Our meetings included an workshop where we identify barriers to achieving our desired future state. The process of brainstorming options went well – many ideas were generated. The process of organizing the ideas into clusters went quickly, albeit with a more linear approach to organizing ideas.

Once ideas are clustered, we look for the larger pattern of causation and the deeper meaning. We’re seeking the root of the issue to assign a name to the cluster. This name, then represents the obstacle that requires future attention.  

What a challenge for these left brain-centric teams. 

They struggled to see a larger pattern; they struggled to see context and they struggled to assign larger meaning. The left brain was struggling and there wasn’t enough right brain thinking in the room to offer balance. A certain level of frustration began to arise. Soon the groups began taking a name from one cluster and assigning to another cluster with a small modification, to get the job done – the root of the issue may have been missed.

I happened to read Daniel Pink’s book a week or so later and had a giant eureka moment; to get a left brain crowd to do right brain work was going to require much more instruction, direction and example from the facilitator. The group won’t automatically jump into the more holistic, pattern identification work. It’s not that the group doesn’t have these capabilities, it’s that for these groups, the right brain skills were under developed, in part because we have valued these skills less in our ‘Information Age’. It will be necessary to ‘wake up’ their right brain thinking prior to such an exercise. 

Our brain has two halves that work together, not independently. The left side of the brain hears the words that someone says, the right side creates meaning. Damage to one side of the brain impacts our entire being. We aren’t ‘half brained’ even if we pull on skills associated with one side of the brain more – both sides of our brain work together. 

So, this leaves me asking questions: what are the implications for businesses stacked with left brain thinking? What are the risks for organizations that value sequential thinking over the holistic and pattern thinking? What are the potential impacts to long term success if organizations dissect the problem without synthesizing the bigger picture?

Can a business that values both its ‘right’ and ‘left’ brain be more successful?

… I’d love to hear what you think.   

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