A practical Coaching case …
What do you think about this statement?
Invoking a more strategic mode of behavior is a sure path to more social or material benefit.
When I ask this question, I usually see hesitance or reluctance. People really start pondering. Interestingly, asked in a workplace environment, the answer is eventually in support of the statement; though the magnitude of the expected benefit varies. Moreover, the answers correlate quite considerably with the hierarchy-level. Upper levels are clearly much more convinced of it than lower levels. And there is less support in private settings as well.
While the many advantages of a strategic mode of behavior are broadly seen, a very common counter-argument is that it may lack authenticity and seem artificial. However, when I then ask to take a stance towards this statement:
We learn our behaviors throughout our lifetime and they all look kind of artificial in the beginning.
There is almost always instant support. So the question is, where the learning stops and the authentic starts, which reminds me of Andy Warhol’s famous quote: “I don’t know where the artificial stops and the real starts.” Or translated onto our purpose: when do strategic modes of behavior become authentic?
The authenticity trap
By the way, isn’t authenticity often confused with an overt demonstration of self-esteem and self-confidence? Don’t we have enough people out there, who perfectly learned to just seem self-confident and knowledgeable? In a recent interview, Simon Sinek has put it this way:
“We’re good at putting filters on things and good at showing people that ‘life is amazing even though I’m depressed.’ So everybody sounds tough and everybody sounds like they’ve got it figured out. The reality is there’s very little toughness and most people don’t have it figured out. So when the more senior people say, ‘What shall we do?,’ they sound like, ‘This is what you gotta do,’ and they have no clue!”
The contemporary notion of authenticity and its importance may be one of the big inhibitors for learning. In Germany, we often use a related quote by Francois Duc de La Rochefoucauld: “The desire to seem clever often keeps us from becoming it.” In a world where lifelong learning has become a mantra for success and happiness: isn’t the mainstream’s notion about the meaning and importance of authenticity worth a revaluation? We need theoretic contributions, which leave classic notions about authenticity behind and praise some that take 21st century realities into account—practice will follow, no doubt. However, in this blog post, I would like to come back to my ingoing statement. And assuming that a more strategic mode of behavior is indeed favorable, let’s focus on how to adopt it.
Neuroscience boosts your chances to succeed
Cultivating a more strategic mode of behavior is easier than you may believe. With their insights into the neuroplasticity of our brains, Neuroscientists clearly invalidate classic views of human malleability. Today, we know that we are able to intentionally change over almost all of our lifetime—our attitudes, habits and even deeper laying traits and beliefs. For the latter, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a belief itself is changed. In fact, it is more likely that an alternative belief is cultivated, which becomes more dominant over time. In that case, being successful means that the new belief regularly dominates our behavior. But both remain available, and the “old” gets more dominant when we get excited or emotional—or simply tired. We are able to change faster and on a larger scale than most preachers keep spreading, and it happens more and more often these days. Moreover, there’s an unprecedented know-how and do-how for cultivating a more strategic mode of behavior.
Focusing on decisions
A major point that I am making here is that a more strategic mode of behavior will raise the quality of our decisions. First the more complicated decisions, and over time the totality of all the everyday decisions that just seem to happen intuitively, or automatically. Leaders and Managers have to make many difficult decisions. I mean the kind of decisions where it isn’t obvious which option is best and ethically most appropriate. Sometimes, the consequences could affect your entire career or the jobs of hundreds of people. We tend to think more thoroughly before making such decisions. However, most decisions refer to smaller issues, where the best options still aren’t always clear, but either their impact is deemed to be low or they have been decided long ago and an “automatized” response has been cultivated over time.
Raising the quality of your decisions—big and small—will inevitably lead to more social and material benefit. Do you want to make better decisions time and time again, even under difficult and uncertain circumstances? Then, how do you improve the quality of your decisions? How do you assess their quality? And how do you decide upon anything at all? Neuroscientists have made tremendous progress in understanding what happens at moments of choice in our brain. Understanding these dynamics and how they affect you and those around you will help you through this endeavor. But to see how exactly it helps, let’s first take a look at “Julia’s” case.
Note: I have permission to tell this story but cannot use the real name of the company or the individual and had to remove the company’s logo from the reference list on my website.
Julia is a plant manager, directly reporting to the CEO of a market leading food-packaging company. At the age of 33, after an impressive career, she became the first woman on this position in 2012. When the firm was suffering under a lasting stretch of diminishing profits, Julia had ideas to turn things around, but she was not included in the firm’s strategic discourse. Instead, all plant related issues — including product developments, reorganizations, layoffs, automations, new IT systems or programs — were delegated to her.
One year, she had to integrate people and equipment from another plant, which was shut down as part of an ongoing restructuring. 45 of the 180 employees and two production lines from the closed plant were relocated to Julia’s plant. She managed to make the integration, and thereby the entire plant restructuring was a broadly celebrated success.
But though she was so successful in operational and executional terms, the board members were having a hard time involving her into their strategic discourse. They believed that she was not ready to step out of her subjective, role-related perspective to take a more comprehensive stance in thinking through the firm’s problems. They thought they wouldn’t be able to talk openly and think freely in her presence, because they would have to be too cautious not to get in conflict with her interests as a plant manager. Another important point was that they thought her capacity to evaluate and discuss strategic options was not developed enough for the tough discourse, which the board members believed it would take to find the best possible solutions. Based on their experience in dealing with her, they feared she would consider it as being oppressive if they would dispute her ideas and comments as harshly as they normally did.
Julia, on the other side, made up a totally differing case of it. She was very disappointed about all this, because in her eyes, good leadership would need to be much more inclusive. And she could not think of any valid reason to exclude her. She believed to have everything it takes. Hence, she began to suspect why. For instance, she felt that the firm’s leaders don’t respect her: “… although I have contributed so much in the past”. Or: ”I’m just a plant manager, all important work is done by members of the board.” She used to assume these were accurate statements of reality. Over time, she increasingly focused on a variety of such deceptive brain messages that raised her negative stress and impaired her interactions.
As the company’s situation became even worse, more and more initiatives were raining down on her. She believed to have little support from her leadership, felt that she was tested, and under that pressure, she increasingly considered her direct reports as screw-ups who need to be tightly managed. She developed a tendency to see everyone but herself as prone to error. The tight management she conducted consumed lots of her time. Time she didn’t have. Negative stress took its toll. Julia worked 70 hours or more per week. Her relationship was seriously suffering, as was her family planning. She began to come to work anxiously and that became increasingly obvious within the organization. Deteriorating performance reviews left her panicking that if this goes on much longer, she won’t be able to cope and lose her job.
First step on the way out: Build up behavioral knowledge
Fortunately for Julia, there were people, including the CEO, who helped her see what was happening. As part of that, the CEO, with whom I have worked before, introduced me to her. After some introductory meetings, lunches and diners, we told the organization that we were conducting a culture study and that Julia was leading the internal efforts. I started to accompany Julia in her daily work from time to time—just attending, no contributions or comments from my side. In parallel to that, we went through an in-depth introduction into the neuroscience of behavior and interaction as well as into Neuroculture—a brain based concept of culture. This was complemented with reviewing important insights from sociology and psychology.
Julia learned how her notions of the world—how things are, what’s normal, right or wrong, etc.—were embodied in her neural system, and how they shaped the way she perceived, decided and acted; i.e. behaved. Of course, that included the deceptive brain messages (notions), which constituted her problem. She gained knowledge about what happens in her brain, when she thinks, (self-)reflects and decides. And she learned what happens, when she becomes emotional; how stress and emotions affect her ability to think and her behavior. We went through emotion regulation strategies and tested them. We exemplified it all along actual happenings of those days. Julia gained in depth insight into the power of focused thinking and reflecting as a means to modify neural networks in her brain. Creating and strengthening neural connections is the neurobiological correlate of changing attitudes, ways of thinking or acting (including habits).
Julia was skeptical in the beginnings. But over time, she became enthusiastic up to the point where she seemed to love the whole matter and was extremely motivated to go forward. She began to drive the entire process in an incredible pace and we started to discuss things on grounds of a whole new knowledge and vocabulary. The sparring between Julia and me became much more productive. Consequently, she made a stunning progress in only six weeks.
We continuously reflected her situation, including her behavior, the behavior of others and things that were happening in the company. We did all this along the model of Neuroculture, identifying relevant dispositions in the building blocks Reflexivity (R), Notions (N) and Emotions (E). Using an approach, modified from Gerhard Kleining’s Qualitative Heuristics Approach, we iteratively reappraised various aspects of her situation. Two important guidelines of this approach are (1) an openness to repeatedly change the current understanding, and (2) to integrate all available information into a coherent/consistent whole.
This exercise really stepped up her ability to choose alternative ways of looking at her own situation. Figure 1 shows a summary of where we ended up.
Figure 1: Result of the analysis of Julia’s situation
It goes without saying that it takes a lot of conversation and confidingness to agree on statements as unadorned as those in Figure 1. Remember, not too long ago, Julia was considered to be a rising star. Very successful with great steps forward in her career. Now, she was deeply convinced that the statements in Figure 1 were accurately representing her situation. And the essence of that is that some very deceptive notions dominated her behavior, and that she was lacking reflexivity in many ways in order to maneuver out of this vicious circle. She simply would not zoom out and reflect her situation or challenge crucial notions thoroughly enough.
The essence in Neuroculture
- step up reflexivity to engage more in strategic and less in automatic behavior
- alter content and dominance (presence) of some most relevant notions
Julia had to generally lower the power of notions on her behavior (automatic mode). In the mean time, she had to increase her overall reflexivity (strategic mode). Reflexivity describes the way we think and reflect: how deep, sophisticated, multi-perspective, frequent etc. Reflexive acts may result in changed notions and cultural dispositions in general, which lays the grounds for changed behaviors. That’s why reflexivity can be seen as a kind of development sphere of the currently prevailing culture. For more details about reflexivity, please look up my blogpost “How are Culture and Neurosciences intertwined?”
In the automatic mode, behavior is dominated by the most present notions and emotional patterns. We tend to judge other people’s actions instantly, from our subjective stance, and we are prone to get angry or elicit other emotions with a destructive impact. In this mode, conscious thoughts and considerations do occur, but only in limited ways. And even though these include some basic needs and desires of others, they still stay within subjective boundaries. They are part of our “fast” system, which means that everything that happens here is limited in time and complexity. Our behavior in this mode is fluent and appears to be intuitive, authentic.
The strategic mode of behavior is much slower. It allows us to reflect situations dispassionately for higher benefit and broader value in the long run. It’s not just oriented to our personal success, needs and desires, but to the overall long-term benefit of the whole system. It offers us the much more detached perception of a clear minded and neutral observer who considers multiple perspectives. People who are good at it develop a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of other people, which helps them manage others more effectively.
Interestingly, there is a different pattern of brain activity for thinking/reflecting in each of these modes of behavior. Thinking in the strategic mode comes along with a high activity, for example, of an area called dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC), while the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is more active in the automatic mode. Symbolically, the dmPFC is located just above the vmPFC. Obviously, “higher” thinking employs “higher” laying brain structures.
The practical side of making it a success that sticks
During the four weeks after we came out with the result in Figure 1, we emphasized on increasing Julia’s reflexivity. Besides the measures that Neuroculture suggests, she practiced mindfulness-exercises, played chess (not in a professional manner, i.e. not memorizing positions but basically thinking through the most likely next steps), and employed some other techniques to increase her reflexivity. Overcoming inertia and testing one’s own limits is a crucial aspect of this. Mindfulness exercises, for example, help to disengage from mind-wandering. Being prone to mind-wandering makes you more likely to engage in automatic behavior. Hence, they help to disengage from automatic behaviors and to engage in more strategic ones. There are several other ways to reinforce this.
We focused and refocused attention on some aspired notions and behaviors—repeatedly picturing them in front of our minds eye and verbalizing them. Doing this again and again strengthened the respective neural networks, making them more responsive, more present (dominant). Julia went through a dramatically accelerated process of stabilizing and automatizing her newly gained view of her own situation and of other things. She became increasingly more capable of focusing on more constructive and strategic ways of dealing with situations.
Over time, the aforementioned practices—focused thinking and reflecting practices in particular—also improved her ability to think more intensely and deeply. Short-term neuroplasticity is the neural basis for this phenomenon: so-called spines, small thorn-like protuberances on dendrites, grow through practice and add synaptic connections to neural networks, augmenting their excitability. This increases their processing-performance and makes them more responsive, more present.
The combined effect of all this was that Julia developed a “high-voltage” way of paying attention and thinking. That made it considerably easier for her to alter the presence of neural networks (notions) and circuits (thoughts), and thereby their dominance on her behavior. It also skyrocketed her ability to capture accurate pictures of other people’s behavior and other events. But maybe most importantly, she not only started to change some notions, emotional patterns and modes of reflecting, she now could proceed all by herself. And while doing so, Julia developed a highly effective habit to switch on the strategic mode: an inner dialogue as a default way of reflecting situations—as if she would speak to herself.
A new reality
Less than three months after Julia was about to give up, she became much more engaged in strategic modes of behavior and found herself in an entirely new reality.
- Before making critical decisions herself, she considers multiple perspectives and conducts focused thinking to find a solution that work best for the whole company and for many people.
- She returns to the most promising alternatives and refocuses her attention on them again and again, playing them through in front of her minds eye.
- Before any major meeting, she thinks about how others might respond to the points she will make. Her success rate in this regard was/is terrific.
- Based on that, she predicts where and how certain people would jump in, and she smartly weaves that hypothesis proactively into her argumentation.
- In all this, she takes a stance of a disinterested observer who was asked for guidance and perspective, and discusses her ideas with her virtual sparring-partner.
As our time came to a close, Julia asked me to suggest her some things she could do without me. I recommended her to read Edgar Schein’s terrific book “Humble Inquiry” and I offered her to call me and talk about it whenever she wanted. Ever since, she continuously improves her ability to avoid judging too early and to engage in humble inquiry—the fine art of asking questions and of drawing someone out, in order to figure out their “reality” as accurate as possible.
Today, more than a year later, Julia is regularly invited to conversations about strategy. Many people seek her advice first when they face a problem or if there is a possible crisis. The company’s prospects are stably turning around, in part because of initiatives Julia has brought up and is following through. Julia started to multiply the kind of guidance that she experienced within her plant. So far, the results look very promising. The plant’s overall performance indicators are on a constant rise. By the way, the return on the efforts made is astronomic. During the time of producing this article, Julia was in discussions about the next step in her career. Her plans for establishing a family were part of that discussion.
Looking back, it wasn’t the ever-stressed loooong time until behavior began to change. No. The learning was the hard part; but once it “clicked” in her head, everything started to flow faster than what’s most commonly expected.
In general, all this may have been possible without all the spooky neuro-stuff. But in Julia’s case, I doubt she would have made it without the “hard” knowledge about the neuro-behavior-culture-interface. She would not have changed so fast and so sustainably with the kind of information that Psychology and Sociology has on offer for the business world these days. And I believe that this is true for the vast majority of people.
What’s in it for you?
Unless you are quite unusual, you are much more engaged in automatic behavior than necessary. The better you are able to engage in strategic behavior, the more effective you will be. Invoking a more strategic mode of behavior is not a miracle. It isn’t a sure way of becoming rich or successful. But it is a sure path to more social or material benefit—big or small. It will make you more aware of beneficial opportunities, you will be more likely to act on them, and more able to make your efforts a success. And it seems to be a reliable process for building your behavioral acumen. With regular practice, it can become habitual for you to step back and look at any situation—in your organization or in your personal life—with a strategic frame of mind.