The Neuroscience Behind Attitude – Why Growth Mindset Is Critical for Organizational Growth

This blog post originally appeared at Integrated People Solutions.

Recently I worked with two corporate directors, Steve and Gary. Both hold senior level management positions, have worked for a similar number of years and have obtained impressive degrees from notable universities. Both work hard for their organization and attain solid results. However, a while back when the company started an organizational change mandate, an interesting thing happened. Gary’s behavior began to fall short of expectations. It impacted his team and their focus, productivity and attitude. For some reason, Steve didn’t show the same behavior traits, and neither did his team. Why?

It all comes down to mindset. Mindset impacts business relationships, and ultimately the success of an organization’s culture and the bottom line. Gary works hard to show his successes. He’s very good at outlining what needs to happen, but he’s not very interested in promoting his people or making them look good. He sees the world one way and it rarely changes. Steve, on the other hand, is a natural coach who believes that he shines when his people do well. He’s happy taking a backseat to them. He doesn’t tell people what to do and instead asks questions to lead them to the best conclusion. He understands that leaders often fall short because they don’t fully understand or see the ramifications of their decisions. He’s always looking for ways to develop their perspective.

Mindset is an idea about our intelligence and talent. People with a fixed mindset, like Gary, believe that traits are given or “fixed,” and that talent alone fosters success. On the other hand, people with a growth mindset, like Steve, believe that their basic abilities are simply a launching pad for growth and development. People with growth mindsets love to learn. And, more importantly, they show resilience, which is critical to success.

Carol Dweck, Ph.D., is a world-renowned researcher in the field of motivation at Stanford University, and she developed this concept. She says:

· Intellect and talent don’t guarantee success. They stand in its way.

· Praising doesn’t foster self-esteem and accomplishment. It jeopardizes them.

· Teaching a simple concept about the brain raises productivity.

Remember Enron? Did it fall apart because of mindset paralysis? It’s possible. Many companies are driven to hire talent, because it’s seen as the secret sauce that creates success for the organization. In Enron’s case, this strategy backfired because they became myopically focused on being talented and behaving in an extraordinary manner. As a result, their fixed mindset blinded them to collaboration, innovation and external market changes.

Cultures are made up of people, and overbearing and critical leaders are instrumental to creating a closed mindset among their team members. They can force their teams into fixed mentalities that prevent learning and growth. As a result, team members will worry about being judged and about what the boss thinks, rather than customers and the marketplace.

Let’s go back to Gary for a moment. Without realizing it, he’s being an overbearing leader. It’s his operating set point. This was harder to see prior to the change because he was working in an environment that he knew how to navigate and control; one that praised his successes. Moreover, he got away with never being wrong. Now he consistently operates outside his comfort zone. His constant need to be right, to govern and control how work is accomplished and his manipulation of messages to his boss all create undue stress for his people. In his case, one of his most talented business line managers only remained in her position for two years before resigning. No matter what she did to improve the organization, she was always made to be wrong. In addition, Gary comes to work every day feeling uncomfortable and trying to force everyone else to ease his pain by playing by his rules. His people feel intimidated into supporting him while at the same time pulled by the company’s new direction.

In studies, researchers have found that people with growth mindsets make better negotiators. They’re more easily able to push beyond obstacles and to reach win-win solutions. Moreover, managers with a growth mindset are more observant about their employees’ improvement. They don’t remain stuck in an impression that can limit them, and their employees see these managers as offering better coaching and employee development.

Managers with a growth mindset, like Steve, foster a culture of coaching which, in turn, creates opportunities for insight and innovation. Steve has been an ongoing client of mine for three years. We work together to offer growth strategies that open his employees’ minds to the possibilities they’re creating in their jobs. Not all of them will become leaders, but in Steve’s eyes all of them are leaders in their sphere of influence. He manages the most productive division of the organization, and his efforts to promote and build his people have made him a valued member of the executive team.

Gary remains a valued member of the organization, but he’s tested his relationships in the company. I was asked to work with Gary, and we’re focused on changing his mindset from one that is fixed to one that’s open. To do this, he is learning how skills, abilities and talent evolve throughout life. I want him to work to his talents and practice to his weaknesses. This focuses him on the process rather than the ultimate outcome of being the best all the time. We both believe he will succeed and, because the science says it’s possible to learn a new mindset, he’s optimistic. Stay tuned.

I have known Sophia Kristjansson for several years now. She is also one of Integrated People Solutions iPeople partners as well. Her recent blog post hits several solid points home that are common with many of the leaders we place through our executive search work here at Integrated People Solutions.

Mindful Leadership: A Closer Look at an HR Trend

Post originally appeared at Emergenetics International.

I just returned from a week-long session with a group of HR leaders at which we discussed current trends in leadership development. One quickly percolated to the top – the mindful leader.

Mindful leadership is a phrase that gets thrown around to describe a leader-like characteristic organizational leaders want to see in others and also incorporate into their own lives. In general, HR leaders agree that organizations need leaders who are not only self aware, focused, strategic and creative, but who also are mindful of how they make decisions and interact with others. Relationships are key in today’s economy. So to help their employees grow, some of these companies practice mindfulness exercises as a part of their leadership development smorgasbord.

This fascinated me. While it’s well documented that mindfulness is generally beneficial, I wondered how these organizations wove a traditional Buddhist practice into their cultures. How was it affecting those who learned a meditative practice as well as those who didn’t choose it? Did employees feel it was mandatory? Who taught the classes? Did the teachers know how to help the students through tough patches? Of those who started a practice, who continued on?

These questions circled because I recently coached an executive who worked in an organization that practiced mindfulness exercises as an option for decreasing stress at work. He was so excited about what he was learning and how it made him feel that he decided to integrate a short meditation into the first 60 seconds of his team and division meetings. Bad call. Because of his status in the organization, people felt obligated to follow his lead and didn’t want to offend him. However, the practice wasn’t a fit with most of his colleagues who felt he should keep his mindfulness discovery to himself. He came close to losing the trust and respect of the people with whom he worked.

Five years ago I started a daily mindfulness practice. I generally enjoy its benefits, but at times I can’t concentrate because of external thoughts or physical discomfort. To be honest, sometimes I don’t want to sit and meditate for 20 minutes so I skip it. I do have a teacher who draws me back in for one reason – I feel less stressed when I meditate on a regular basis. With it I’m more centered, observational and creative. I know this is not very scientific, but I feel better. However, the process isn’t easy and takes focus, drive and commitment. This kind of choice isn’t for everyone; in fact, it’s very personal.

The HR leaders in my group pointed to current research showing that practicing mindfulness leads to more grey matter in the brain. In one particular study, “concentrations of grey matter increased in areas of the brain responsible for memory, learning, emotional regulation, self-referential processing and perspective.” Here’s another point: After an eight-week mindfulness practice, part of the brain’s flight, fight and freeze center, the amygdala, showed decreased density by imaging on the right side. As the amygdala shrinks, the prefrontal cortex, associated with awareness, concentration and decision making, becomes thicker. These relatively new findings seem to hold a lot of promise.

As the HR leaders talked, something else tugged at my thoughts: If someone practices mindfulness, develops better awareness and decreases stress, she’s able to better regulate her environment. After all, if she is more capable, she can work harder and longer. So, who really benefits from the mindful leadership training if it’s sponsored by an organization?

In that moment we were talking about the upsides of mindfulness, but a negative side could be perceived. Furthermore, I know from experience that many organizations like to take on programs without fully thinking through all the ramifications of their choice. The client situation I mentioned earlier in this post illustrates a possible negative outcome. I told the HR leaders that I’m not against the practice, I simply wanted them to realize any potential pitfalls in their desire to help their people. After all, they are uniquely placed to be stewards of organizational culture and leadership development.

Instead of using a traditional Buddhist approach to mindfulness in organizations, I suggest a secular approach that involves noticing the moment. I’ve been drawn more and more to Ellen Langer, Ph.D.’s work in mindlessness and mindfulness at Harvard University. Some have dubbed Dr. Langer the Mother of Mindfulness. She describes mindfulness “as the simple act of actively noticing things with a result of increased health, wellness and happiness.” She encourages people to focus on the present state. She’s never meditated in the Buddhist sense and she says that “eastern notions of meditation inspire post-meditative mindfulness, which is different from actively noticing in a present state.” Her unconventional studies illuminate what neuroscience pinpoints: “Our experience of everything is formed by the words and ideas we attach to them.”

Actively noticing things is quite specific and more powerful than simply saying that one wants to be present. What does “being present” really mean, especially to someone who is potentially unaware or mindless to the present moment? The act of noticing immerses us in the present state and allows us to observe something that will alter our perception of the experience. When I sit back and observe someone, I can either rely on my experience of that person or my judgment, which won’t get me anywhere new. If, on the other hand, I decide to look for three new things about that individual, my perception of the person evolves and grows. All of a sudden it opens a new world based in curiosity. This is awareness at its core.

Here’s what it comes down to: If you actively notice someone’s behavior, you’ll start to see things that weren’t perceptible before. By doing so, you may learn something new about that person that questions a belief or perception you had. That’s what the Emergenetics Profile sets people up for beautifully. By illuminating behavior on a sliding scale, you’re given a framework in which to operate. This is a simple way to practice what Dr. Langer describes as mindfulness—and, according to the research I mentioned above, get smarter in the process.

The Neuroscience of Creativity and the Aha Moment

The Brain, a Tic-Tac-Toe Chicken, and Self Awareness Insights for Leaders and Teams

You know that feeling when you just can’t solve a problem? When I was younger, I’d force myself to focus on it until I came to a conclusion, which naturally led to a creative block and unnecessary frustration. Today I like to think I’ve wised up enough to step away from the problem and allow my mind to do a “slow simmer.” Then…Boom! The solution hits me when I least expect it. This is called the Aha Moment.

In a 2009 study, John Kounios, Jessica Fleck, Deborah Green, Lisa Payne, Jennifer Stevenson, Edward Bowden and Mark Jung-Beeman conducted a study called the origins of insight in resting-state brain activity. The researchers wanted to show the effect a resting brain state would have on the strategies people use — either sudden insight or methodical searching — to solve problems or anagrams. Ascertaining this tendency would allow the researchers to further clarify whether one’s thinking process is determined by the problem at hand or if more fundamental neural processes exist that influence the inclination to use one strategy over another. Fascinating.

Using electroencephalography (EEG), the researchers recorded the brain’s activity in subjects while solving the anagrams. Immediately after reaching the solution, subjects self reported their problem-solving techniques; insight or methodical searching. The findings regarding insight drew my interest. Highly creative people tend to mind wander, or use diffuse thinking processes, allowing for a broader range of input while solving a problem. Conversely, those who are more methodical tend to focus their attention more narrowly, allowing less input to enter into their thought process. And people using insight tend to make errors of commission at the same rate that methodical thinkers make errors of omission.

Researchers also found that goal-related thinking (thinking that’s related to solving a specific problem) is not only determined by goals or tasks at hand. Rather, individual differences in one’s resting brain state activity can also influence the thinking strategy employed. Thus it’s possible to conclude that genetics and life experience play a role in how each person’s brain rests and subsequently approaches problem solving.

Check out the picture above. Those subjects who solved the anagrams by employing insight showed a sudden burst of EEG activity in the temporal lobe at the moment the solution became available–the Aha Moment. How cool is it that scientists can map the moment of insight within the brain? (Picture courtesy of Mark Beeman, Cognitive Neuroscience: Insight in the Brain.)

Now enter the tic-tac-toe chicken. While listening to a story on WBEZ’s This American Life, I learned about an attorney, Scharlette Goldman. She defended prisoners on death row, and in one particular case was faced with an impossible situation that called for a chicken. The chicken was enough to pique my interest, but what followed beautifully described the Aha Moment in action.

Here’s what she said to make me stop and listen more intently: “Well, a fluffy, red-combed leghorn deserves his moment in the sun. I mean just the image — and I’m not talking about any chicken. I’m talking about — you can just picture it — this beautiful leghorn, his tail perked up, and that red comb sitting at kind of a rakish angle on his head, and his head kind of cocked to the side, and he looks at you with his little eyes. That’s what this story is about.” Not only was this woman passionate about our feathered friends, she somehow used a chicken to creatively solve a problem she faced with a client.

But what does a chicken have to do with the law?

Scharlette practiced in California and at the time she was defending an inmate whom she believed was legally insane. (He was schizophrenic with an IQ of 58 and very much out of touch with reality.) She had to prove his insanity to the court to save this man’s life because it’s illegal to execute someone who is unable to understand why he is being executed. The state of California didn’t agree with Scharlette’s interpretation of the defendant and had him medically assessed. The psychiatrist testified that she believed the defendant was able to understand his fate because he’d played tic-tac-toe against her and won. Scharlette believed that one’s ability to win at tic-tac-toe did not indicate the ability to appreciate the finer points of execution. But the court agreed with the psychiatrist.

Scharlette had only a short period of time to prove her client was mentally insane. Here’s her Aha Moment: She remembered visiting the fair when she was young and seeing chickens that could play and win at tic-tac-toe. She searched for and found her upstanding chicken to prove that one doesn’t need a high IQ to win at tic-tac-toe.

Sometimes I think the brain is a funny organ. It collects random pieces of information that we don’t know if we’ll ever use and then, Boom! One of these random pieces partners with a current problem we’re trying to solve and we’ve got a tic-tac-toe chicken who could possibly save a man’s life. Our brain simmers in the background and offers a sudden solution we never saw coming.

I bet you’re asking yourselves what the Aha Moment or a clever chicken have to do with the Emergenetics Profile. In 15 years of leadership development, I’m often hard pressed to find open-ended tools for clients – ones that help them think outside the box. I find that leaders are offered pre-determined or prescriptive solutions that end up putting them in boxes. Sometimes these kinds of tools are appropriate; however, they require a type of methodical thinking that can rob us of the valuable creative thought so important to innovation in today’s

workplace. Leaders need to be able to ponder solutions. By doing so, they’ll make better, more innovative decisions for the companies they work for.

Although the Emergenetics Profile has 15 different thinking preference combinations, infinite possibilities for interpretation exist because nobody is the same. When folks take the Profile and use it, they’re immediately intrigued by their Profile. More importantly, the learning doesn’t stop there. As time goes on, they gain awareness of their personal styles and as their brains work on a slow simmer, opportunities for additional awareness pop up at unexpected moments — like how they affect others and how they’re perceived. They start to observe each person’s unique qualities because although we all share the same hard wiring, we differ in our genetic makeup and life experiences. I’ve seen the Profile become the foundation for personal and team Aha Moments, and it’s fun to be part of that process.

What about the chicken? Although it was not allowed its moment in court to play tic-tac-toe, Scharlette won her case. Keep Scharlette and her upstanding chicken in mind when you consider all the creative possibilities you have to offer to the people, teams and organizations you lead. You never know when your “Aha Moment” could save someone’s life — or at least impact it for the better.

The Role of Neuroscience in Facilitating Successful Organizational Change

This post originally appeared at Emergenetics International.

How Change Affects Teams, Divisions and Organizations

Do you remember last month’s post about the difficulties of individual change? We work to maintain an equilibrium we know and understand. At the slightest perception of danger (or change), our reptilian brain can activate and start a cascading effect that inhibits clear problem solving, creativity, memory retention and decision-making, especially if change is mandated by some for others to implement. More troubling is that our resistance to change creates stress that amplifies the entire process, creating a trickle-down effect within teams, divisions and highly matrixed organizational structures. Unfortunately, instead of using courage in the face of opportunity, we mitigate in the face of fear. All this affects both the bottom line and employee satisfaction.

One characteristic remains constant throughout all the organizational change I’ve witnessed: People with good intentions make ill-informed decisions because they don’t fully understand their decisions’ impact. We tend to keep our heads down when we’re faced with stressful change; however, it’s at precisely this moment that we need to lift our heads up to observe how we’re moving forward. One of my clients, a great guy named Jack, is a leader who took a chance and lifted his head up to investigate new approaches to change in order to minimize the potential disruption to his organization.

Jack, a c-suite executive leading the global sales function of a Fortune 500 multinational organization, is intelligent, experienced and socially adept. His job is “high stress and high stakes,” which he thrives on in normal situations. However, these days his job stresses him. Sales in several key markets are declining, and it’s starting to get under everyone’s skin. The sales team lacks innovative punch and is in trouble.

Jack feels consistent pressure from the CEO to turn this critical issue around. Having tried everything they know to increase sales, he and his team find nothing sticks. In fact, as soon as they analyze and seemingly understand market trends, they’re surprised by something new, and their sales in highly competitive markets suffer. The new reality is that the market is unpredictable and changing so quickly that nobody can keep up with it.

Jack asked me to help him affect change across his organization, but he’s nervous that adding change onto everyone’s plate could tip the balance in a negative way. The truth is that before we can address any change, we must tame Jack’s inner reptile. His pet peeve is walking into market review meetings with fellow c-suite members and having to explain shortcomings. The focus is negative, and it ends up feeling personal. Since his stress level is so high, his limbic system is in overdrive and it negatively affects his thinking. Others are starting to see this too. To affect change on a large scale, across divisions, markets and countries, he and his CEO first need to understand one another and walk in lock-step, but let’s save that relationship for March’s blog post. Let’s focus here on how to address the complicated team situation.

Change initiatives tend to take prisoners and/or fall short because of the failure to understand one critical point: Every person contains a unique brain architecture. Even though we each share the same neurological wiring, our picture of the world and our experience of it sit squarely in our genetics, experiences, perspectives, points-of-view, and cultural beliefs, to name a few. All these elements affect our perspectives, expectations and attitudes about life because they’re dependent upon our focus. In a 2005 study on the placebo effect, R. Coghill and his team illuminated this point. Study participants who were administered a sugar pill but told they were taking a pain-reducing agent decreased their perception of pain by 28.4%. Here’s the kicker: The perceived decrease in pain rivaled “the effects of a clearly analgesic dose of morphine.” WOW! To me, this says that our expectation of an experience drives our perception of a situation, and this is dependent upon our neurological wiring and where we place our attention. One could argue that in a company, individuals perceive the organization differently because they’re uniquely wired. Therefore, approaching change with a prescriptive solution guarantees failure.

Although Jack was delighted to only be working with the sales organization, which tended to attract a particular type of Profile, he still had many differences to overcome– experience level, cultural background, language spoken, and market experience to name a few. When I told him this is where the fun would begin, he thought I was being facetious, but I wasn’t. I told him the key was creative insight. He stared at me in disbelief because he felt this was exactly what his team had been doing for the previous three months. I have a different take. I believe they failed to identify market changes because they didn’t know how to remove themselves from their thought processes. What they thought was innovation was simply information processing based on how they’re wired. Moreover, they’re working with the same people each day. The teams have created systems to organize thought, and this robs innovation.

In my coaching process, creative insight is the fundamental tool to lead the client through organizational change. This is achieved by asking questions to provoke thought and action on the client’s behalf. In this model, there’s no mention of negatives because that will set off a limbic reaction–remember Jack’s inner reptile. Instead, we define the outcome and work as partners to achieve it. The client’s autonomy and sense of control create empowerment, naturally sidestepping a limbic reaction because of practiced focused attention. As a result of becoming more objective, innovative thinking and better problem solving are increased and the perception of pain and stress are reduced. This is self-directed neuroplasticity in action and, when practiced over time, it will create long-term change.

Creative insight is my passion and I’m dedicated to furthering it in the workplace. Mark Jung-Beeman of Northwestern’s Institute of Neuroscience (and another of my favorite neuroscientists) has made a fascinating discovery about it. Just prior to the brain’s moment of insight there is a burst of high-frequency 40 Hz oscillations. These gamma waves foster the brain’s ability to create connections across it. In addition, he found that a part of the brain was activated that perceives and processes important social cognition processes, emotions and facial stimuli. His work suggests that at the moment of insight, new and complex neurological connections are being created, and it’s possible that these new connections could enable us to overcome our resistance to change. Think about it. When we’re focused on a new idea, there’s no bandwidth to reflect on how painful the change might be.

A solid creative insight process is key but to succeed it must be followed with repetition over time and concentration on the goal at hand. This is what my clients and I work on over and over again. To my delight, Jack became vested in this process and together we implemented a unique model for his team. Another approach with tremendous results that increases insight and problem solving is the Emergenetics suite of WEteam workshops. The WEteam approach helps people relax into the process of change because it teaches them to focus on a common goal, and it follows the process through to long-lasting change- organizational change, team change, and personal change.

I’m happy to report that Jack still loves his job. Often we chat about his experiences and how to further the creative insight process. The bottom line is that his people were so inspired by the notion of self-directed neuroplasticity that they bought into the creative insight method we developed. It’s changed the division and today they enjoy an increase of 30% in sales revenue. Remember, in today’s economy we’re paid to think, therefore it’s essential to find ways to further our ability to problem solve, create and innovate. Here’s to quiet reptiles and happy brains!

The Neuroscience of Change – The Power of Mental Force

A 4-Step Focused Process for Change and Creating New Habits

Happy New Year!

(Originally appeared at Emergenetics International.)

Everything feels fresh, new and possible in January, and this tends to be when many ponder their expectations for the upcoming year. Yet it’s well established that once we get back to our regular lives after the holiday indulgences, we forget what we wanted to achieve. The gym membership sits idle; the weight loss plan falls to the bottom of the list; the new approach to work-life balance is forgotten. Do we no longer want to improve our lives? Or do we have too much going on to focus on the change we want to create? Habits are hard to shift, even when doing so can be the difference between life and death. Studies show that only one in nine patients who have undergone coronary bypass surgery will actually adopt healthier day-to-day habits. They too settle back into the well-worn path of life even though they know it’s probably not in their best interests.

This is a story about change and the power of mental force. We all have the ability to harness it; the trick is knowing how. This month, we examine it from the individual perspective. We look at the neural connections that drive behavior and discuss a powerful 4-step approach to achieve change. Next month, I’ll address it from an organizational perspective. Companies across the globe are faced with the reality that behavior throughout their organizations must change in order to achieve ongoing success. We’ll discuss how leaders can lay the foundation of behavioral change for their people.

How do individuals handle change? I recently was privy to a fascinating conversation between a research fellow and his mentor. The two men sat face to face, one was in his late 20s and a post-doctoral researcher from MIT. Across from him was his mentor, a clean-cut, articulate professor who was trying hard to explain why the post-doc needed to change his approach with his colleagues. The researcher had been stroked for his brilliance – he knew more about the research topic than his colleagues. However, his ability to partner with the team wasn’t going well. He was failing because he wanted everything to go his way. The mentor was open, sitting forward and eager to prove his point, which he repeated more than once: “If you don’t change your chances for tenure will greatly diminish because your reputation will precede you. You will be seen as a hard person to work with.” The post-doc was obviously skeptical – legs and arms crossed, furrowed brow, and argued logically. He was clearly uncomfortable as the mentor charted his soft skills on an x/y axis.

Here’s the problem: change is painful. This is because of the interplay between working memory and focused attention. Working memory is considered a holding area where new information can be compared to known information already stored in the brain. To perform a rational comparison of new to old, the brain engages the prefrontal cortex — the brain’s center for rational thinking — which is energy-intensive and can only hold a limited amount of information at a time. It fatigues easily. The brain is also wired to recognize environmental errors – perceived differences between an expected outcome and the actual outcome. When the brain perceives a contradiction, intense neural firing takes place in an area of the brain connected to the fear center. This, in turn, engages the fear circuitry of the brain and can start an anger or fear response that is highly counterproductive to any change process.

Let’s go back to the MIT researcher. He received information that directly contradicted evaluations of his prior success. Until now, he’d been lauded for his academic achievements. Now he was being evaluated on his emotional intelligence, and he was failing. The contradiction was causing him mental stress because he couldn’t parse the two. The new information had no relationship to the way he’d been trained. His non-verbal communication showed that he was starting to shut down by looking over his mentor’s shoulder and rarely establishing eye contact.

To further complicate things, humans love to do what’s easiest and the brain plays a vital role in this. Well-habituated tasks (tasks performed again and again) are stored in the basal ganglia located deep in the brain’s core. The basal ganglia employs less energy than the prefrontal cortex and can function exceptionally well without applying conscious thought in a routine activity. (In other words, we don’t need a lot of awareness to perform a habituated task.) The post-doc was doing what he’d always done: relying on his smarts to get work done. If someone on his team didn’t agree with him, he’d just brush him aside. He did this without even thinking about it.

Forcing change is worthless. The individual must buy into the need to change and be responsible for making it happen. With clients, I liken it to the process of building a bridge one step at a time while standing on the precipice. It’s scary and exhausting, and focus on the goal is key. If we can train our thoughts to override the old habits, we can achieve long-lasting change.

In his book, The Mind & The Brain, Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D., discusses studies he conducted on OCD patients to help them overcome their biologically engrained habits. He used an effective 4-step process with the study subjects that I have adapted and used successfully with clients over the past few years. I partner it with the Emergenetics profile. The Emergenetics profile is most often a foundation to the coaching process because it’s unique to each person and opens the door to change in a non-threatening manner.

The 4-Step Focused Process of Change
First, let’s spin out a scenario with the post-doc. Let’s say he has agreed to change his approach with his teammates because he wants to be successful in his new position and eventually become tenured. But he admits that when the team doesn’t agree with him, he gets nervous and wants to force a conclusion. He tends to problem solve alone and by the time he enters a team meeting, he’s worked out the entire project in a logical manner and knows exactly what each step will yield. However, before he can learn to lead, he must teach himself new ways of working with people. Here are the four steps he’ll follow through the change process.

Step 1: Relabel the thought. Call it what it is, and depersonalize it. The post-doc doesn’t have to act on his thoughts. When the urge to control comes up, he can tell himself, “That’s my need to control, and it’s only a thought.” Or, “We won’t derail the project just because I’m listening to an idea. It’s only my fear of collaboration talking.”

Step 2: Reattribute the thought. Take control of it. The post-doc could say, “This thought is my brain playing an old, well-known tape that is no longer useful to me.” Or, “The stress I’m feeling in my back is really just a reaction to my need to control. It’s a reaction, it’s not me.” With this realization, the post-doc will start to recognize the entire emotional process he goes through when he resists others’ ideas. I’ve found this step to be revealing because it raises self-awareness.

Step 3: Refocus the thought. Interrupt the pattern. This is the workhorse step to changing the habit. The brain has a way of reminding us when we’re not attending to the script. When the urge to act becomes strong, acknowledge it and then focus on a pre-planned idea. That way there are no surprises. Let’s say the post-doc is becoming anxious because a meeting is going too long and too many ideas are swirling around the table. He becomes super focused on time and no longer listens. This is a danger zone. While he’s aware of his reaction, he can shift to his pre-planned recovery cues: take a deep breath or take a quick break. The process takes weeks, maybe months, but with focus the fear will dissipate because each time a person goes through this kind of reaction he becomes more aware of the pitfalls and learns how to manage around them.

Step 4: Revalue the thought. Achieve objectivity. Eventually, the intensity of the thoughts will change and the post-doc will become an impartial spectator with his thoughts. He’ll be able to see his reactions for what they are – and choose what to engage in.

This is focused neuroplasticity in action. Like this researcher, we’re hired to think, but our success is driven by our ability to work with each other. Even the smartest among us don’t escape this truth. Those who will excel at their careers are the ones who are open to change and who have the fortitude to drive through it in a focused manner. I believe that once we appreciate the way the brain is wired, we can empower ourselves to adopt behaviors that are more brain friendly, such as the one above. This will help us better achieve our goals in life – whether they’re on our New Year’s resolution list or not.