Leadership | Are you making the most of your brain to achieve the outcomes you and your organisation want?

Are you making the most of your brain to achieve the outcomes you and your organisation want?

By Suzanne Pollack, Programme Director, The Henley Leadership Programme

In this Whitepaper...

"I’d like to signpost a strategy for individuals and organisations to be successful (whatever success means to the individual or organisation). I will start with some big picture thinking on evolution and flexibility and then move to the more specific terrain of how we can maximise our most precious human ‘hardware’, that is to say, how we can get the most out of our brains."

The notion of punctuated equilibrium

Punctuated equilibrium (Merriam-Webster, 2021), a term coined by scientists in the 1970s, purports that evolutionary development is marked by isolated episodes of rapid speciation development between long periods of time, where little or no change occurs.

My work, at both an organisational and individual level, suggests that we are in a period of time where rapid development in human thinking and successful application of that thinking is required in organisations. Evolution is not automatically taking us down this path – as a species, our brains are simply not adapting fast enough to help us succeed without proactivity on our part.

Law of Requisite Variety

Making a positive effort to learn how to use our brains even more effectively also relates to the law of requisite variety (Ashby, 1956). Ross Ashby developed the law as part of his work in cybernetics. Basically this suggests that the person with most behavioural flexibility will control the system or what is happening in a given situation. In reality this could mean the person in a meeting who uses their skills to help reframe challenges, gets everyone participating or even suggests the right time for a break, as opposed to focusing on their proposal.

Improving behavioural flexibility

How can we harness our brains more effectively to develop the flexible thinking we and are organisations need to thrive?

The triune brain model

Paul MacLean (1990) introduced the concept of a triune brain as early as the 1960s. MacLean’s model of the brain’s structure and function is still widely used today because of its ability to help us make practical sense of how our brains work

  1. The basal ganglia (the reptilian brain) – the oldest part, the fight, flight or freeze survival response

  2. The limbic system (the mammalian brain) – emotions and memory

  3. The neo-cortex (the cognitive brain) – cognitive thinking

And research suggests this is exactly how the brain works: through our ‘raw’ emotional centre, then to our more discerning social/emotional centre and finally, if all is deemed well/safe, we can think about what is happening in a more abstract/strategic way.

We now know that the brain is more ‘plastic’ and interconnected than was previously thought and the triune division is more complicated than is suggested by MacLean’s model, but this is a good starting point for the purposes of developing behavioural flexibility.

This is important to understand, what our brains perceive and respond to as pressure today, is often not related to how our brains evolved. In primeval times, having the blood move from the brain to leg and arm muscles in less than a blink of an eye, was extremely helpful when spotting a sabre-toothed tiger! It would have been unhelpful to have blood remain in the thinking part of the brain (your neo-cortex, which was considerably smaller then) because a thoughtfully constructed, behaviourally flexible conversation with the sabre-toothed tiger would have been less likely to result in survival!

Our brains do not (without intervention from us, which is the learning to support your brain imperative) know the difference between mortal danger and the potential annoyances of modern living. Therefore, there is a potential to continuously over-react to the world and put us in a downward spiral of negative emotional responses.

Pulling together the connection between our brains, our behaviour and our emotions is necessary to develop new ways of being, doing and thinking.

Read the full paper for more explanation of the brain, the role of emotions and what you can do to train your brain. 

Read the full whitepaper


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Henley Business School