By Noel Brady, Senior Partner, Insideout
Who’s in control — you or your sub-conscious? For many this is a profound opening question. It’s also a deeply important question that executives (and everyone else for that matter) should ask themselves. In any 24 hour day, we are really only conscious of a small percentage of things that we make happen, or that happen to us. The rest of the time we are distracted by our thoughts, worries and daydreams. Our mysterious sub-conscious controls most of what we do and how we react to events — a kind of silent autopilot, if you like.
Our sub-conscious mind contains our individual map of reality which is highly subjective. Our sub-conscious map of reality is directly influenced by our life story. For example, childhood influences such as culture, parental and school style (i.e. nurturing or disciplinarian), social status, political loyalties, key role models, life partners, critical experiences etc. Our sub-conscious is largely conditioned to think and react to events based on our life experiences and influences. External events enter through our five senses. We process them and react to them, largely on auto-pilot without ever engaging our high-level conscious mind — the one that uses logic and critical thinking to make rational decisions (we hope). When we’ve been “triggered” we react from an old subconscious pattern instead of respond to the situation with our conscious mind. That’s why we “fly off the handle”, act impulsively, say and do things we regret.
Emotional intelligence as a concept or theory has been around since 1966. Daniel Goleman popularised the phrase in his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence. One of his key insights is that our outcomes in life, both positive and negative, are largely determined by our sub-conscious.
Goleman identified that emotional responses are held at a sub-conscious level and that they are intricately linked with sub-conscious habits of thinking and behaving. Another concept that we find useful in this area is that of Sub-conscious Potential (SP). Our brain has the potential to be highly effective or ineffective in any given situation or role depending, to some extent on our inherited genes, but to a larger extent on our life experiences.
As an executive coach I used to focus on helping individuals and teams perform to their leadership potential by working on behaviours. Now I focus on helping clients maximise their leadership potential. Through various means we determine which thinking habits need to change. We “upgrade” them to skilfully respond to today’s leadership’s changing needs. The executive learns to use her mind more effectively.
We know from recent advances in neuroscience that the brain has an amazing capability to re-wire itself both positively and negatively depending on what happens to us in life. For example, when a person loses their eyesight, the part of the brain responsible for processing images gets re-used for processing sound and results in highly sensitive hearing. We also know that temporarily induced mental states become more permanent mental traits as the mind influences the brain’s structure. For better or worse, we continuously develop habits of thinking, feeling and behaving throughout our lives, our brains strengthening some neural circuits and weakening others. Knowing this we can choose to deliberately foster positive habits and healthy brains - or not.
Changing long held limiting habits of thinking around life, work, leadership and relationships can be hard, but is achievable. It’s not dissimilar to curing an addiction to harmful behaviour or drugs. In both cases the support of others is often invaluable because, as you might have experienced, and research shows, the presence of an open, caring person increases our ability to focus internally, as well as increasing our accountability, inspiration and perseverance. This is one reason why coaches, therapists and the like, are successful. Secondly, a community can provide role modelling of the intended change, and a social environment in which that change is accepted and honoured, as in A.A. meetings.
The brain is an amazing organ that continuously evolves. It constantly adapts itself to our ever changing and complex environment. It learns and changes itself from before we are born until our deaths.
We now know enough about how the brain works to consciously influence this natural process to our advantage. The six points below are condensed from my long experience of working with executives who successfully achieved lasting change.
1. Make a real decision to change and take 100% personal ownership of the outcome. This is probably the most important step and the one that causes the most problems. If you want to become an inspirational leader, for example, it’s important to really know why. What are the positive benefits for you, your team and your business? Are they really worth the time, energy and personal commitment to continuously push yourself outside your comfort zone? Contemplate what might be the subconscious motivations to become an inspirational leader.
2. Create a personal vision in the area you want to change. A strong vision helps to overcome challenges and moment-to-moment difficulties. It helps us to deliberately focus on how we want to be, rather than how we are now. In the area of a key stakeholder relationship, for example, your vision may be to maximise the strength and quality of the relationship over the long term. If so, then being right all the time and getting the decision you want right now may harm that relationship. Instead of “winning”, you might consciously choose to align with your vision and defer to the stakeholder in order to strengthen the relationship.
3. Practice awareness. Begin to ask yourself — What do I think about the process of my thinking right now? Engage your conscious mind in the process of thinking. Or, ask yourself — What is happening right now? Unawareness makes you a captive of your conditioning, but past experiences are not necessarily a good guide for present moment challenges. The practice of mindfulness is beginning to gain a lot of interest in corporate world. It is often introduced to help executives deal with stresses and the relentless pressures of the modern-day work environment. For some, mindfulness practice is about finding peaceful time to clear one’s mind of thoughts and meditate. However, for me, the practice of mindfulness is less formal. I endeavour to create an ongoing habit of being mindful. This is very powerful because it provides the opportunity to consciously change my old unhelpful habits of thinking that get in the way of maximising my potential as a leader, coach, partner and father. It’s very simple: Mindful leaders make better decisions.
4. Become less self-centric in your thinking. High performing teams are essential to business success, but when working as an executive team coach I invariably find that dysfunctional team behaviour and poor performance are caused by self-centric thinking. Leaders should develop a habit of challenging self-centric thinking in both themselves and others. Be mindful that self-centric thinking is associated with poor outcomes, unhealthy conflict and negative emotions.
5. Reflect on your outcomes. This is a crucially important element of change. Spending some quality time reflecting on important events is part of the process of rewiring our brain to create new connections and thinking habits. Humans have evolved to learn from experience and this is accelerated and deepened by reflection. Ask yourself - what happened during an important event? What worked or didn’t work well? What insights or learnings did you get? What would you do differently next time? Make this a habit and your learning and development will accelerate rapidly.
6. Persevere. Changing unhelpful habits of thinking takes time and repetition. We know from neuroscience that thoughts happen when brain cells (i.e. neurons) transmit electrical signals between each other via connections called synapses. The more often the neurons fire causing a transfer of information with another neuron, the stronger the pathway becomes. Hence, the creation of new habits of thinking. The more neurons fire like this, the more robust the neural pathway. The obverse is also true. As thoughts become less frequent, the neural pathway shrinks.
Use these six points to steer your brain’s development to gain more conscious control of your mind and improve your leadership (and your life).