Who among us has time to plumb the depths of why we made that decision to promote Jane over Joe? Or why Carly reacted so strongly to some “objective” feedback? Or why a direct report didn’t heed our advice or blatantly undermined a colleague?
Instead – to combine quotes from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Churchill – we beat on, boats against the current, destined to let history repeat itself.
However, we now understand enough about the neuroscience of everyday behaviors to know that our brains are to blame. For instance, we can’t “undo” old habits. They are too ingrained, the neural pathways hardened by repetition. But the good news is that we can create new ones – and our brains will do the rest. By simply focusing on, and then practicing, the new behaviors, they will play more loudly in our brains and, with use, drown out the old until they are rendered obsolete.
Say you have a habit of turning off the alarm to sneak in a few extra minutes of coveted sleep, but you’re sick of always being rushed in the morning. You’ve tried to stop, but it’s reflexive; your fingers find that snooze button on their own volition. Instead, set a new plan (intention): When the alarm goes off, then you’re going to sit up in bed and take three long, slow breaths (sending wakeful oxygen to your brain). Three to four times is all it takes to birth a new neural pathway. Like an unwatered plant, the old habit fades away.
According to Peter Gollwitzer’s work on implementation intentions, a simple if/then plan can increase by 300 percent the likelihood of the new behavior’s taking hold. To work with our brain’s natural rhythms rather than against them, we just need to know what they are.
Take feedback, for instance. According to a Google study, first on the list of what makes a leader highly effective is his or her ability to “provide specific, constructive feedback.” Yet, an article in Harvard Business Review reports that we really only apply the feedback we receive 30 percent of the time.
Why? Again, our brains are to blame.
Most of us have learned to deliver feedback using some variation of radical candor, the situation-behavior-impact model and the s**t sandwich. Here’s some of the cacophony these approaches create in our brains (and our bodies in the form of elevated heartbeats, narrowed focus and diminished memory): “Wait, I did that? That’s not how I remember it. Why is she saying this? How do I defend myself? Who else heard saw/ heard/knows about this? Is this going to affect my promotion? My raise?”
According to David Rock, founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, we respond positively to constructive feedback (i.e., “Here’s what you did wrong”) only one out of 13 times. The reason is that our brain has five times as much real estate devoted to dealing with threats (e.g., negative feedback) as it does to dealing with rewards. And anything that lays blame likely triggers our brain’s highly reactive threat response, launching a cognitive resource-intensive defense mission. As a result, our coping mechanisms – and responses – focus more on proving than improving ourselves.
Now, imagine feedback that is more brain-friendly. If our defenses help us survive by protecting us from threats, our strengths help us thrive. So, let’s shift the emphasis of the feedback by drilling down on what went right, what the person did well, and what he or she should do more of.
For example, let’s say Carly puts together an impressive pitch for the senior team but fails to receive the resources her department was counting on. It’s a pretty safe bet that she already feels lousy and is exerting precious brain resources on self-castigation and an endless replay loop. So, instead of doubling down on what went wrong, thereby reinforcing those already existing brain maps, your feedback should focus on what she could have emphasized or done more of to yield the desired result. Mind you, this feedback is not the same as dabbing a little flattery salve on her wounds before adding salt to them. It’s being very specific about what she was already doing right and/or what she needed to do more of.
According to Marty Seligman, one of the fathers of positive psychology, imagining the future is a central, organizing function of our brain. We thrive on considering our prospects. Research shows that feedback that builds on what we did right causes us to put more energy into that behavior, increasing our self-efficacy. Just helping Carly envision a better approach reinforces that positive behavior.
Because our brains truly are to blame, the more we understand their basic and seemingly quirky ways, the more mindful – and effective – we become.