David Mantica discusses the brain science behind some of the challenges knowledge workers face and helps you shift your mindset to enable you to thrive in a complex and chaotic environment.
As knowledge workers, we rely on our brains and relationships to get things done. That’s where some of the challenges lie. The hard skills of business analysis, project management, and product ownership are relatively easy to learn. But the soft skills . . . that’s the real challenge.
It’s amazing how little education knowledge workers get about how our brain impacts our ability to be successful. Our brains operate for two things; survival and efficiency. That efficiency word is very scary when it comes to complex cognition.
The survival aspect can be even more difficult because it ties back into the physical survival mechanisms of our body, because we really haven’t evolved yet to understand that we are an apex predator. A lot of the initial reactions that our brain drives in our system is protecting us from a physical perspective when fear occurs. So the manifestation of fear around losing your job becomes a physical manifestation similar to being chased by a saber tooth tiger. You lose a lot of the power of cognition in that.
The first step is not so much getting into the details of communication skills and emotional intelligence. It’s getting a better understanding of the fundamental workings of our brain and how you have to combat that to be healthy and to be able to thrive in constant change.
One thing we do a very poor job of is feeding our brain to operate with high level of cognition over an extended period of time. Since our brain wants to be efficient, it will process and gather information and look at the information using its stereotypical heuristic patterns it’s used to. This is why you see yourself having a tendency to try to solve the same problem using the same tools and getting frustrated. You’re not realizing that you have to force yourself to think deeply about a problem to get your brain processing at the cerebral cortex level and to get into something called deep literacy.
And then on top of all that, it’s our society’s goal to pound this with sound bytes of information so that we’re always operating on that system. That’s important for us because the first technique you need to be thinking about is when analyzing a complex future state situation, taking a step back and doing some deep thinking and try to push away the emotional stimulus that’s around you to get your cognition going; it’s critically important because it doesn’t naturally occur.
We’re bombarded with data all the time and our brains want to operate efficiently, so we ignore a lot of the data that we see in our daily lives. That can lead to snap judgments and unconscious biases, leading us to thinking down the wrong path.
One such cognitive distortion is confirmation bias. It’s a tendency that we look for things that agree with what we’re thinking about and block the things that don’t agree with what we’re thinking about. It’s a preservation technique, it’s an efficiency technique, and it drives a lot of failure in the workplace. This can also lead to tensions in working relationships.
Another common cognitive distortion is loss regret. The concept of the loss regret is that I would rather do nothing and not have to lose then do something and have the potential to lose, even though when I do something there’s a chance I could win.
That fear of change is so scary for the brain because it wants efficiency and it wants survival. It’s going to force us to try to stay in the status quo. That’s why we all have that tendency to stay in our bubble and we don’t take certain risks.
These cognitive distortions and others affect how you interact with stakeholders and could be at the root of some of the challenges you face.
The Stress Response
When faced with a stressful situation, our bodies release chemicals that often lead us to a freeze, fight or flight response. Our evolutionary biology predisposes us for pessimism, and that pessimism drives all of those cognitive distortions. But that pessimism also drives a lot of the emotional distortions and the emotional distortions we fear. Fear centers around two things; one is the limbic system of our brain processing that information, using the concept of the physical survival mechanism.
Our bodies release adrenaline and cortisol; both are great for muscles and running fast and getting your heart pumping so you can really handle something. But it’s horrible for cognition. It makes cognition more difficult. That pessimism also leads to negative self talk, which fuels a lot of the emotional distortions that become physical.
These situations can trigger a vicious cycle where get the stress response, you can’t think or behave properly, and then you do poor work. As a result, your boss yells at you and creates this cycle over again, creating a downward spiral.
Understanding the human work machine and the how our brain operates will help us to better deal with the emotional and cognitive distortions.
Addressing the Distortions
The first thing you can do to address the impacts on these cognitive and emotional distortions is to do an analysis of your mindset by taking a step back and asking yourself “What are those things that you believe? What do you believe about work? What do you believe about people?”
From that, you can see how those beliefs would manifest itself in the behaviors and actions which then would start building up the stress response. Better understanding the mindsets that drive behaviors and actions is key to effectively dealing with the distortions we all experience.
In addition, we need to look at yourself to be more aware of what you’re feeling and where those emotions are coming from. This also helps you get a handle on your self talk.
Meditation is also a powerful tool to be able to teach your brain to slow down and not be as reactive. Pause, take a deep breath, relax yourself, clear your mind for a moment and picture what you’re trying to do and the intended outcomes. Simply pausing for a second and mentally shifting your mindset or stance to curiosity changes your behavior.
Listen to the full episode to get David’s tips on how to make the mindset shift to better adapt to challenges.
First, learn more about deep literacy. After that, set aside time in your schedule to think.
Perhaps you’re going to think about the complex relationship that you’re trying to deal with, or think about a specific problem at work they haven’t quite been able to solve.
Take half an hour and dig into it deeply so you can start pushing your brain to start getting into that deeper thinking process more readily. You may find that you’re more tired because this type of thinking is draining, so you have to start researching and learning about how you get the right nutrition for your brain.
Links Mentioned in This Episode
David Mantica believes leaders should be servants to their organizations and people. He is the Vice President and General Manager at SoftEd, a consultancy that offers advisory and education services to help organizations discover new ways of working for better business outcomes. David is a frequent speaker on Project Management, Business Analysis, and leadership.
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