Five things leaders and entrepreneurs need to understand about their brains

One of the challenges faced by all businesses, be they big or small, is how to balance the drive for productivity and performance and the well-being and resilience of employees. Due to the arrival of technology such as fMRI scanners, our understanding of the brain is growing rapidly. By understanding just a little bit more about the brain, leaders can work with their brains, rather than despite them.

shutterstock_275787230Hilary Scarlett, international speaker and consultant at Scarlett & Grey and author of Neuroscience for Organizational Change – an evidence-based, practical guide to managing change sets out five key things every leader needs to know about the brain.

1. Our brains like to be lazy

Our brains are 2% of our body weight, but use up 20% of our energy so one of the things that our brains like to do is conserve energy. This means that they like to take shortcuts. Much of the time this can be useful to us – we are faced by tens of thousands of decisions every day and we can’t possibly think through each decision. But we need to be careful about where these shortcuts might lead us.

One shortcut or bias that we are often prone to is the sunk-cost bias: the bias that means we feel we must continue with a project because we have already sunk lots of money into it /or a great deal of time. Concorde is often cited as an example of this. At a more mundane level have you ever found yourself sitting in a cinema watching a film right the way through to the end even though you know after 40 minutes you are not enjoying it? So, take a look at the projects in your organisation: are you pursuing them for valid reasons or just because you have started them, you feel you must finish them?

2. Stop multi-tasking: your brain can’t do it

One of the findings from the world of neuroscience is that there is no such thing as multi-tasking. Our brains are just switching rapidly from one task to another, and doing neither task very well. We all know it deep down: we try to be on the conference call and check our emails at the same and we are not doing a great job at either. It takes more energy to shift your attention from one task to the other than focusing on one task. It’s an inefficient use of your brain.

3. Choice is hugely important to the brain

Choice – having some control or influence – is ‘rewarding’ to the brain and when we have a feeling of some control our brains are in a better place. Entrepreneurs and leaders have many challenges but one thing they do tend to have is some autonomy. To stay focused and positive, employees need it too: where can you let go and hand decision-making over to them?

4. Our brains like information and certainty

In this post Brexit referendum world, many people know what it feels like to be facing uncertainty. Our brains crave information. Even bad news is better than no news to the brain because with bad news we can get on and make a plan. Uncertainty means that we waste mental energy being anxious and speculating on different possible outcomes. Where can you give your team or your customers more information so that they waste less mental energy?

5. Plan your day with your brain in mind

Some neuroscientists reckon we only have about two good hours a day when our brains are really functioning at their best, so plan your day accordingly. The most important task during the working day is to prioritise first thing – identify what you need to get done and what’s most important. Don’t get lured into checking and responding to your emails. Even responding to straightforward emails – deciding what to write, how, whom to copy in, quickly depletes your mental energy and uses up your best thinking and creative time.

Hilary Scarlett

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