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.   

All fun is not superficial

July 7, 2015

“All fun is not superficial, not everything serious is profound”, says Chris Whitnall from Talkforce.  

Words to live by when you’re a facilitator preparing for a meeting.

Why do facilitators prepare ‘fun’ activities at a meeting?  Why do they make you fly airplanes or play with building blocks? Why does this happen at offsite meetings? Serious money is spent on offsite meetings, shouldn’t we be focused on serious things? 

Neuroscience tells us that our brains easily traverse old neural network paths. These well traveled paths keep us safe; warn us of threats and are in part the reason why we drive to work ‘in a fog’ and get there safely. The neural connections are deeply embedded and regularly traveled. This is also why we are good at post-mortem analysis, forensic examinations, and deductive reasoning – because our brains have been there before.

Solving new problems, creating new ideas, delving into long term visioning, or imaging future states is much harder work for our brains. Our brains need to create new pathways or connect old pathways in new ways which takes a great deal of energy and requires a different catalyst.  

Have you every had a ‘eureka’ moment during your morning shower?  or during a run? Have you woken up part way through the night with a brilliant idea. Have you been talking about something and suddenly experienced a flash of insight on an unrelated matter?  How often have you woken up in the morning with the distinct sensation that you have a solution just below the surface that you can’t quite access… but you know its there. If you can find a way to re-enter that state of semi consciousness you might find it again.  

We’re all familiar with the movie cliche where the brilliant inventor has a massive aha moment, doing something quite fun, or completely unrelated to the problem to be solved. (There’s a great moment in a bar scene in The Imitation Game). 

What you are experiencing or witnessing is examples of new connections being made in your brain; the catalyst has been something that had nothing to do with the subject at hand. A common scenario is that the brain is in a relaxed or calm state and is free to expel energy on new connections.  

Generally, work environments are not very calm. Humour and fun at work allow us to relax, thereby reducing our defensive instincts. When we are less defensive and more relaxed, there is space and opportunity for new connections to be made, for eureka moments to be had, or even more simply, to be open to an new perspective.

Facilitators know this and work ‘creative space’ into meeting planning. There is method in our madness when we ask you to make a paper airplane or build a duck from building blocks. A single exercise may have multiple purposes. 

Offsite meetings are serious money and serious outcomes do need to happen.  A bit of fun can create a climate for serious ideas to emerge.

 

It’s not the money, it’s the principle

April 14, 2015

We humans are not as evolved as we might like to think, and we instinctively care about fairness.

Research on brain functionality suggests that much of our motivation driving our social behaviour is governed by the principles of avoiding threat and seeking reward. Interestingly, our brain uses the same networks for social interactions as for primary survival needs.

According to David Rock, our primary survival needs are governed by the more primitive parts of our brain and operate in a fairly binary mode: feel good -> move toward reward and feel threat -> move away. Our primitive brain networks process threat and reward cues almost instantly and tell us what is meaningful. The layman would say this is a ‘reflex or instant reaction’. To put this in day to day terms…meeting strangers at a cocktail party activates the same brain networks as if we were being approached by a woolly mammoth…threat is imminent!

The SCARF model (David Rock, 2008) identifies 5 domains of human experience: Status is about relative importance to others. Certainty concerns being able to predict the future. Autonomy provides a sense of control over events. Relatedness is a sense of safety with others and Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between peopleWhen any of these domains is threatened our primitive avoidance responses kick in (withdrawal, retreat, anger, threat).  Check out his TED talk.  

Fairness is a domain that is particularly acute. In fact, research suggests that fairness is so essential to humans, that we will give up money in exchange for a perceived ‘fairer’ outcome. How many times have you heard the expression “it’s not the money, it’s the principle”;  “it’s not what he did, it’s the principle”.  Fairness is a significant and primitive motivator for people.

In a sports context: a red team plays a blue team.  The red team wins. At the conclusion of the game, the blue team identifies and awards an MVP (most valuable player) to the red team. The player happens to be the coach’s child. The award feels fair. We are happy, we congratulate the MVP.  

On the other hand, if the red team’s coach selects the MVP award and it also goes to his child – it feels unfair. We have an immediate threat response which may be anger, disbelief, or frustration. In these two situations, the outcome is the same but the manner in which the event occurs creates a completely different response from our brain. It’s the principal that counted. Fairness mattered. 

In your day to day office environment, how often is perceived fairness threatened? What effect does it have on dialogue and understanding? What about collegiality? decision making? What can you do to minimize the threat/avoidance response in your team? (spoiler alert – performance reviews are huge ‘threats’ in corporate life).

So what are the implications when facilitating?  How do you encourage people to share openly and freely? How do you prevent someone from feeling threatened and ‘shutting down’? If you spot someone demonstrating signs of feeling threatened, what can you do to make it neutral or rewarding? 

This is a key reason facilitated workshops spend time on icebreakers, warm ups and introductions. We are less ‘threatened’ when someone is no longer a stranger. Another techniques is to record the words of people ‘as is’;  avoid paraphrasing and repeat as many specific words as possible. This ensures people feel heard, thereby lowering threat response.

I’d love to hear from you – what do you do, in your meetings, workshops, 1:1’s to reduce the ‘threat’ response?  

Sources:  

David Rock

http://www.your-brain-at-work.com/files/NLJ_SCARFUS.pdf

Social Neuroscience, SCARF Model and Change Management

http://thehypertextual.com/2013/04/23/social-neuroscience-scarf-model-and-change-management/

 

 

Empathy and strategy… is such a thing possible?

Mar 9, 2015

Any person who has spent time in a corporate planning role becomes aware that strategic plans rapidly devolve to a number driven exercise, in order to populate a financial model. Anything people centric tends to end up on the cutting room floor, allegedly embedded in the numbers or dismissed as ‘discretionary’. The only ‘emotional’ aspect of the final output is the pressure to meet a deadline.

Recently, I facilitated a 2-day strategic planning workshop with a senior team whose organization had previously been acquired by a larger entity. Head office was now remote and communication barriers had emerged. Several years into the relationship frustrations were running high.

With a historical scan, we identified high points and low points, as well as key turning points over the last 20 years. When we named the time periods between turning points, we began to uncover some very real emotions: a period of vitality and energy; a period of transition and confusion; and a period of disappointment and frustration.

When the CEO stood up and acknowledged the disappointment on both sides of the relationship, the discussion shifted from blame to problem solving. It was a pivotal moment catalyzed by a brilliant display of emotional intelligence. The CEO demonstrated both empathy and optimism which in turn re-shaped the planning discussion, affirming my belief that there is room for empathy in a strategic planning process.