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We’ve been talking about equality in the workplace for thirty years now. We’ve been talking about diversity and race relations. We’ve put Band-aids on a lot of issues, but maybe we need to rip some of those Band-aids off so we can finally understand our bias, where it comes from, and how to overcome it.

If you listened to (or read about) my recent interview with Phil Dixon, the CEO of the Academy of Brain-Based Leadership, you know that 11 million bits of information land in our brains at every moment. Most are processed unconsciously. As a result, Phil told me, we make a lot of decisions based on judgments that we’re not even aware of.

Which brings me to another conversation I had, this one with Tony Pottle, the chief business development officer and a founding partner of the Academy of Brain-Based Leadership. Tony and I had a chance to continue the discussion about neuroscience, what we’re learning about the brain, and how it can help create great organizations.

“I was trained at an IT services company,” Tony told me. “I came up through the ranks as an engineer. It was very much about process and how you did things. But when the company grew from 40,000 employees to 90,000 and then 140,000, all of a sudden there started to be cracks in what we were doing and how things were working.”

As a fan of the book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Tony started thinking about the emotional component of business and how people can learn to change the interpersonal habits that hold them back.

A well-known study by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found that 70 percent of large-scale change initiatives fail to meet their stated objectives. “It’s been that way for a long time, even though you’ve got all these brilliant programs and processes,” Tony said. “So, by better understanding our brain and its limitations, we can look at these programs and do what I call neuro-cleansing. Now that we know more about how the brain works, how can we change with a higher rate of success?”

Why we don’t like change

In stressful social situations, particularly when those situations threaten our sense of safety and stability, our brains respond as if we’re in physical danger. When we sense that something is uncertain or unfamiliar, unconsciously we begin to draw back.

“We want to be safe,” Tony said. “We want to be secure. And so that’s the first thing we’ve got to address.”

One of the most important factors in successful change, Tony said, is helping people see that the change is going to be helpful for them as well as good for the company.

By the time a new corporate policy is announced, the leaders may have had time to think it through, but the workforce hasn’t had a chance to internalize it.
What goes through people’s heads, Tony said, is something like: “My job is going to change. My friends are going to change. I might not have the skills to do what I need to do.”

“Language is very powerful here,” Tony said. “As I mentioned earlier, we’re influenced by things we’re not even aware of, and language is one of them.”

For example, “When we’re put in a situation where we don’t feel we’re part of the in-group, the brain is definitely going to say, okay, this is a dangerous situation. Get ready to fight it or run out of it,” Tony said. “When we move into that state, our thinking and planning and decision-making resources are diverted. All of a sudden, we’re not thinking as well. We don’t show up as well, we don’t perform as well. The very thing we don’t want to happen, happens. It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

How your smart phone makes you dumber

Believe it or not, a recent study showed that using a smartphone and other media devices actually makes you less productive and may even change the structure of your brain. “At the beginning of our workshops, we quote this study and tell people that just having your smartphone on reduces your IQ by five or 10 points,” Tony said. “And we have fun with that. But it’s a reality. The area of our brain that does the decision making and planning cannot multitask.

“When your smartphone is on, your brain is continually saying, ‘Hey, is there something going on, is there something going on?’ We get into that threat state I talked about. And when we get into that state, our ability to think clearly decreases. The brain shifts the resources away.”

Another study showed a 21 percent drop in cognitive thinking when participants were in a threat state.

The 17 capacities of your brain

On the website of The Academy of Brain-based Leadership, there is an assessment test for leaders, teams, and organizations that measures aptitude in 17 capacities, including emotional intelligence, processing speed, flexibility, and attention. One of the most important categories is recognizing emotional cues — the ability to connect with others, identify hidden biases, and recognize how they influence our behavior.

Frequently, executives who are not connecting well with their teams will score low on the test measuring one’s capacity for empathy, Tony said.

“In the past, these people might have done well,” Tony went on, “but as the world grows more complex and we see more globalization, all of a sudden they’re struggling because they can’t make that connection.

“These leaders may be doing well on their performance goals, as well as their growth, service excellence, and client loyalty goals. But where the cracks are starting to show are in the engagement scores on their teams.

“If you have high turnover rates and low engagement, that’s not sustainable.”

He described one executive who, through coaching and brain training exercises, was able to double his capacity to identify emotions in others. “All of a sudden on his next performance review, his team responded, ‘Hey, this manager actually notices and I feel like he cares.’ ”

It all makes perfect sense. Too many executives and business leaders are more focused on task execution than on being real strategic thinkers and connecting with their people. They’re talking a good game, but they’re not creating a culture where people feel valued and excited about being there. They don’t know how to touch the hearts and souls of people. And that’s a critically important thing.

As I pointed out in my book Winning With Transglobal Leadership, to be successful in a global business environment, you have to be able to pick up on cues and emotionally connect with people. This kind of perceptive responsiveness is absolutely essential if we’re going to create sustainable businesses in places that are different from where we’ve operated in the past.

Take the test and see how you rate

Interested in how you measure up on the 17 leadership capacities test? Go to the Academy of Brain-based Leadership website and click on the “Get-In-Touch” box. The Academy will contact you to discuss how it can support you and your organization.