Your Primary Leadership Resource
By Susan Szpakowski
Attention is one of our most valuable resources, and yet strangely we seldom pay attention to how we pay attention—unless we happen to be a meditator or a neuroscientist. These two perspectives, coming from East and West, are now beginning to “meet in the middle,” as Western meditators mature in their understanding and scientists expand their knowledge of how the brain works. This new knowledge has important application in the fields of management and leadership.
For example, scientists can now explain why the brain gets overloaded at work, and how we can manage or avoid this overload by using our attention resources differently. The part of the brain that performs complex problem-solving, the prefrontal cortex, uses large amounts of energy and literally gets tired from prolonged use. In the newly published Your Brain at Work (Harper Business, 2009), David Rock talks about some of the simple things we can do to manage our work rhythms so that we don’t overload this region of our brain. Some of these we probably already do intuitively, such as prioritizing at the beginning of the day when we are still fresh, using diagrams and stories to hold complex information, getting aerobic exercise which oxygenates the brain, externalizing information on flipcharts and notepads so that we don’t have to hold it all in memory, and allowing the thinking brain to return to a resting state at various points during the day.
Rock notes that the brain has other limitations, such as the capacity to perform multiple conscious tasks at once. The prefrontal cortex can only do one thing at a time. The term continuous partial attention refers to the common illusion of multitasking, which actually involves rapidly switching attention between tasks—an inefficient use of brain energy that leads to “intense mental exhaustion.” The only way to successfully multitask without draining energy and splitting focus is to combine automatic functions, which are taken on by other parts of the brain, with those requiring the engagement of the prefrontal cortex.
Accessing more of the brain’s functions is also a key to generating insight. According to Rock, research has shown that “sometimes the prefrontal cortex, your conscious processing capacity, is itself the problem. Get it out of the way, and the solution appears.” People who are particularly adept at generating insight have learned how to switch to alternative modes of thinking. They “don’t focus harder on a problem, and they are not necessarily geniuses…. They have more awareness of their internal experience. They can observe their own thinking, and thus can change how they think. They have better cognitive control and thus can access a quieter mind on demand.”
These glimpses into the workings and limitations of our brain lead to the conclusion that the mind’s capacity to be self-aware is key to becoming more effective in the workplace, particularly in complex environments. This capacity is called mindfulness. “To neuroscientists, mindfulness has little to do with spirituality, religion, or any particular type of meditation. It’s a trait that everyone has to some degree, which can be developed in many ways. Mindfulness also turns out to be important for workplace effectiveness. When you listen to a hunch that you need to stop emailing and think about how to plan your day better, you’re being mindful. When you notice that you need to focus so you don’t get lost driving to a meeting, you’re being mindful. In each case you are noticing inner signals. The ability to notice these kinds of signals is a central platform for being more effective at work. Knowledge of your brain is one thing, but you also need to be aware of what your brain is doing at any moment for any knowledge to be useful.”
Recent neuroscience research has further confirmed what meditators have known for millennia: that there are two fundamentally different ways of interacting with the environment. One is centered in a self-referential process (“ego” or “me” or “personality”), which neuroscience calls the “narrative circuit”—it is the brain circuitry and information storehouse that holds together a personal narrative based on past experience, which then acts as a filter and interpreter for what is happening in the present. The other is called “direct experience” by both scientists and meditators. In this case, several different brain regions become more active and you are able to experience sensory information in real time. You are not just overlaying the experiences of the past onto the situation of the present.
Mindfulness not only allows you to notice the difference between these two modes, but also gives you the choice of which circuitry to be using. Further, the more you switch over to direct experience, the “thicker” and stronger this circuitry becomes.
Mindfulness is a leadership practice that you can do over and over, every day. The more you do it, the more likely you will reconnect with mindfulness in the midst of chaos, pressure, and conflict—in other words, at the times when you most need to be present and when you are most likely to have defaulted into a habitual pattern of response. Moreover, you will be cultivating the capacity to be fully present to the richness and depth of your life and work.
ALIA programs often incorporate mindfulness practices—not as an optional component but within the formal schedule, as part of our preparation for new learning and whole-person leadership. Sometimes this takes the form of sitting or walking meditation, sometimes mind-body exercises, and sometimes practices originating in the contemplative or martial arts.
Susan Szpakowski is the Executive Director of the ALIA Institute