Stop creating addicts!

by Didier Marlier on Friday May 3rd, 2013

Here is a recent post from our Canadian friends of The Leadership Group. Trevor and Dale Stevenson have been working for years at bringing neurosciences in the world of leadership and business. Here is what they have to say:

Take this quick test. What is the immediate answer that your brain provides?

“A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

Most likely your answer is 10 cents. The sum $1.10 neatly separates into $1 and 10 cents, and 10 cents seems the right price for a ball (small and light) relative to a bat (big and heavy). More than half of a group of students at Princeton and at the University of Michigan gave precisely that answer. It’s the easy answer. It’s also the wrong answer.

The correct answer is: The ball costs 0.05 $.

Why We Like a Quick Fix

It’s human nature to look for “the quick fix” – in fact, our brains are wired that way. They are wired for efficiency and they are wired for pain avoidance. According to cognitive scientists like Daniel Kahneman, author of the book Thinking, Fast and Slow and winner of the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, there are two modes of thinking: intuitive and reflective.

  1. In intuitive (a.k.a. “System One”) thinking, impressions, associations, feelings, intentions, and preparations for action flow effortlessly. We’re usually in this mode when we brush our teeth, banter with friends, or play tennis. The brain produces a constant representation of the world around us that allows us to do things like walk, avoid obstacles, and contemplate something else all at the same time. We’re not consciously focusing on how to do those things; we just do them. It’s easy.
  2. Reflective (a.k.a. “System Two”) thinking is slow, effortful, and deliberate. This mode is at work when we complete a tax form or learn to drive. Both modes are continuously active, but System Two is typically just monitoring things. It’s mobilized when the stakes are high, when we detect an obvious error, or when rule-based reasoning is required.

The brain is in System One mode all the time – it’s always finding shortcuts. Reflecting on the bat-and-ball experiment, Kahneman observed: “Clearly, these respondents offered their responses without first checking. People are not accustomed to thinking hard and are often content to trust a plausible judgment that comes quickly to mind.”

Efficiency and the ability to avoid pain are obviously useful skills that mostly serve to keep us healthy and safe. This is why, when we’re presented with challenges that are time consuming, repetitive, or potentially painful, the brain immediately looks for a simple, easy solution.

In leadership, however, the quick fix is rarely the best path. But, being wired for the quick fix as we are, leaders have to put effort into overcoming those primal, reactionary neural habits to replace them with less natural – but ultimately more powerful – skills.

Let us now consider a common leadership scenario, a conflict between team members:

Alice leads a team of 15. This week, one of her team members has come into her office every day to complain about another staff member. The complaint is that So-and-so spends too much time texting instead of working. Alice’s brain’s initial instinct is to AVOID the problem: she hopes it will sort itself out.

Toward the end of the week, however, the complaints escalate and now they are accompanied by tears and anger: So-and-so should not be paid to be texting; the plaintiff’s own work is suffering because she needs So-and-so’s input to complete the job. The situation is now affecting most of Alice’s team, who are on edge, splitting into camps and taking sides, and avoiding each other.

The situation is becoming painfully stressful and Alice’s brain’s natural instinct now is to eliminate the source of that pain. She debates two options:

  1. She can tell the plaintiff exactly what she should do to avoid or solve the problem. Alice knows she’ll follow orders, because Alice, “the boss”, has emboldened her with her blessing.
  2. Or, Alice might opt to take care of it herself. After all, she knows from past experience that if she threatens So-and-so that the work had better be done by the end of the day “or else”, the work will get done.

Although either of those quick fixes will be momentarily satisfying, neither one will resolve anything important. Both are neural shortcuts which allow Alice’s mind to rest easy: “I dealt with the problem. So-and-so got the job done.”  Yes, but at what cost? What are the long-term implications of relying on System One thinking – of throwing out quick solutions rather than sitting down together and sweating it out?

Alice’s team members are struggling with something that the recent conflict merely hinted at. Have they learned anything useful? How long will it be before another trite conflict overtakes the mood of her entire team and Alice is again called on to deliver another shot of temporary resolution?

Leaders as Pushers

The concept of leadership can be confusing for the brain. Leadership often implies a hierarchy and puts individuals in charge of directing others. “Director” is even a job title! And yet, we want our team members to think independently, to be productive, to come up with their own answers, to think for themselves and bring innovative ideas to the table.

The command-and-control brain is the brain that wants to avoid the difficulty working things through. It’s also the biological equivalent of a drug pusher! When you tell a staff member what to do, it creates dependency. Your staff become dependent on you to solve problems and resolve conflicts rather than developing those skills themselves. They get a quick, effortless resolution (maybe) to their problem without having to fully engage System Two thinking. Guess what they’ll do the next time a challenge arises?

The long-term impact of Alice’s leadership style is that it creates a team of addicts. Everyone is on edge; no one is motivated to think for themselves; everyone is waiting to be told what to do next.

How Coaching Eliminates Addiction

“No executive has ever suffered because his subordinates were strong and effective” – Peter Drucker

If managers risk creating followers who become addicted to – and dependent upon – their direction, the alternative to commanding-and-controlling is to become a coach (all the great leaders are). If command-and-control is like stopping for fast food on the way home, coaching is like planting a vegetable garden. The first is quick, convenient, and temporary; the other requires initial effort and patience, but pays off for the long term.

Coaches focus on improving performance. They detach themselves from the need to find answers and direct outcomes and instead focus on mentoring others to view situations in new ways, to overcome the need for quick fixes, to find new paths to achieving goals.

Coaching is effective because it creates the right conditions for peak brain performance – conditions that make the most of each individual’s multi-faceted intelligence, eliminate cognitive errors, improve concentration and focus, unleash creativity, and secure strong relationships with others in the workplace.

Learning the coaching style of leadership takes effort because it goes against our most primal instincts. It requires System Two thinking. Coaching leadership relies on the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) – also known as the “executive” brain – which is responsible for strategic thought, morality, attuned communication, fear moderation, emotional balance, intuition, and impulse control. We aren’t hard-wired for these things because the PFC is, in evolutionary terms, the youngest part of the human brain. The old “reptilian” part of the brain – the amygdala, whose only concern is pain avoidance – easily hijacks the PFC. It takes training and practice to learn to moderate emotions and primal instincts.

But, there is a huge payoff for the hard work. Leaders who become successful coaches are rewarded by independence. Independence from solving the problems of others. Freedom from refereeing other individuals’ conflicts. Release from the stress of responsibility for outcomes you cannot control.

Thanks to Trevor and Dale for allowing us to reproduce this very recent material of theirs. Have a great week all…

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4 Responses to “Stop creating addicts!”

  1. Hello Didier
    I like very much your post because you argued about brain limitations addicting to leadership. I think you probably know the NeuroLeadership field or subfield presented by David Rock and Al Ringleb. They say that “traditional leadership scholars have the choice to consider or not to consider information on the brain flowing from the neurosciences”. More information on Thenks and all the best

    • Dear Victor,
      Yes you are absolutely correct. The people who introduced me to David Rock’s thinking are precisely our frirnds from the Leadership Group… And you haven’t failed to spot the connection 😉 Thank you very much. Have a great day

  2. Hi Didier, great post and I happily shared it on Twitter and LinkedIn.

    Be well and take care.


    • Thank you Ivo, always nice and helpful when readers such as you, can pass this blog further. Have a good day


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