How can I strengthen my ability to think clearly, decide boldly and act targeted?
Co-Author Christina Wanke
The current economic situation presents us with challenges which cannot readily be answered even by the experts. What else is going to happen? How long is the crisis going to last? Speculations in the media are continuously getting more negative and increase uncertainty and apprehension.
As a leader, we are required to think clearly and act prudently no matter how difficult the circumstances might be. Our personnel expect that we appear superior and emanate confidence. Yet, how can we do that despite not being very sanguine ourselves?
Demanding situations as these in particular require that we maintain inner stability. We can succeed if we have access to personal strategies which allow us to deal with uncertainty, filter the large amount of information in an effective way, and consciously distinguish between ‘emotional’ and ‘rational’. With that, we do not mean the restriction to “facts only” or the “matter-of-fact” approach because our brain is not capable of switching off emotions. Whenever positive or negative news or impulses reach us, emotional reactions are triggered very quickly and they can often be very strong. The question is purely how we deal with them.
This could be a potential strategy:
1. It takes courage to accept those emotional reactions and to allow them to reach the surface so that we can consciously deal with them. This is not even a public situation but happens on the surface of our “private pond”.
2. As soon as we have seen and felt those emotions, we can give them a name. Is it fear? Insecurity? Agitation? Doing that, we already get a certain clarity and distance.
3. Whatever causes the fear and tension, is it a fact? We can differentiate further: Did it really happen within my personal environment? Or is it speculation about something that might happen in future? Or is it anxiety about something I have read or heard about but which happened in a ‘place’ not directly connected to me and my life?
4. Only when we are clear about that can we make decisions based on our true and experienced reality. Despite all uncertainty around us, this will provide an island of stability and a safe footing to think clearly and take the necessary decisions.
A template for this thought process that we believe to be very helpful can be the following:
• Let’s imagine 3 concentric circles.
• The resulting outer ring will be dedicated to everything that happens (according to the media!) on this planet but has no direct influence on our own world. We will consciously distance ourselves from that to gain the required stability. We do not want to or should not suffer vicariously.
• We use the middle ring to place everything that influences our individual life and reality as we experience it; e.g. the company we work for.
• Out of those we will only select the ones we can directly influence and place them in the central circle. These are the ones for which we can and want to take responsibility.
• The stabilising factor in this area -our ‘scope of action’- is: focus. The things we focus on will automatically gain more space and repress disturbing distractions.
If we focus on the things we cannot change even though they have an impact on us, we risk feeling more and more paralysed the longer we think about them.
On the other hand, focussing on the central part and the things we can change will make spending our effort and energy worthwhile because we can use it to be creative and actively influence our own lives and our area of responsibility.
Just try it out and experience the effect this will undoubtedly have.
Interview with Professor Dr. Dr. Gerhard Roth
Professor Dr. Dr.Gerhard Roth is Neurobiologist and Director of the Institute for Brain Research at Bremen University, Germany. He is also President (Rektor) of the Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg Delmenhorst, and President of the German National Academic Foundation. He published more than 200 scientific articles in the areas neurobiology and neurophilosophy. He became well known for his 3 books »Das Gehirn und seine Wirklichkeit«, »Fühlen, Denken, Handeln« und »Aus Sicht des Gehirns« published by Suhrkamp.
The media are full of negative news. It is understandable that company managers and team leaders get dizzy from time to time. In times like this, stress levels increase particularly when leading people and taking important decisions is involved.
Could you please briefly explain in layman’s terms what happens in our brain in situations of increasing stress and insecurity?
A little stress is normally inspiring to most people as it frees up cognitive and emotional resources. In times of strong and long ongoing stress substances like adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol are released excessively. They will paralyse and partly even destroy those parts of the brain that are responsible for creativity, imagination and recollection.
Conversely, they activate especially those parts that make us ‘jump the gun’ or even panic. At the same time the immune system is suppressed making us ill in the long term.
We frequently meet leaders in organisations who claim they work better under stress. Is that possible? And if so, what are the limitations?
The reaction of brain and body to stress runs in an inverted U-shaped curve. No stress at all will cause mind, body and brain to become languid. Inspiration and some excitement inspire most of us. Strong and ongoing stress, on the other hand, will make more and more issues to appear irresolvable which often leads to physical and psychological disorders. The levels for these processes are depending on the individual and can vary significantly. Some people already struggle to deal with low stress levels while others flourish under pressure and even grow with new challenges. If this reaches a level, however, where an individual is looking for stress (‘sensation seekers’) then it can become pathological.
The way we deal with and respond to stress, whether in a largely positive or negative manner, is defined very early in our development and partly even before birth. It is a key feature of individual personality.
Leaders in organisations have to take decisions on a daily basis. In your book you introduce pros and cons of gut decisions vs. rational or intuitive decisions. What conclusions can be drawn from that to help taking the right decision particularly in times of crisis?
Quick decisions (mostly taken under time pressure and stress) are almost always wrong. Rational decisions are –seemingly paradoxically- only useful in simple situations. With growing complexity of a situation –as is typical in a crisis- people should move from purely rational to intuitive decision taking. Issues should be reduced to the essential parts and rationally discussed for about 1-2 hours. Then the discussion has to be stopped, any thoughts about the issues suppressed (distraction is important) and after a day or two (not too late!) a joint decision should be taken without further detailed discussion. The creative-intuitive problem solving system which is part of our memory will continue to deal with those ‘touched upon’ issues even when we are not thinking about them directly. The great advantage of that system is its capability to process issues simultaneously and in parallel rather than sequentially. They will then reappear as ideas, notions and tendency for a decision and should be listened to as they are fuelled by the vast amount of cognitive-emotional experience we have available in our memory.
Considering your work, what would you recommend leaders how they can maintain or regain clear thinking processes even in an emotionally difficult environment and highly complex situations?
The most important point is not to give in to time-pressure as that promotes panic reactions. However, only keeping a clear head is not sufficient either. One should discuss issues and then let them settle for a day. Hence, no crisis-meetings where decisions are forced immediately no matter what. Nothing is more restrictive to mind and intuition than stress and fear. This is also well known to our opponents and they tend to take advantage of it!
Please note: as this book is only available in German language, we have not translated the following outline into English. Thank you for your understanding.
Subject matter: Personality development
Author: Professor Dr. Gerhard Roth
Publisher: Klett-Cotta, 5. Auflage 2009
Wie entscheiden wir und wie sollten wir entscheiden? Die besten Entscheidungen gelten als diejenigen, die möglichst stark vom Verstand und möglichst wenig von Gefühlen bestimmt sind. Insbesondere sollten wichtige Entscheidungen nicht spontan oder gar unbewusst passieren. Hirnforschung und Psychologie zeigen aber: ein beträchtlicher Teil unserer Entscheidungen fällt unbewusst, wir erleben nur bewusst, was unser Gehirn bereits entschieden hat. Bei wichtigen Entscheidungen spielt das rationale Abwägen von Alternativen eine große Rolle, aber Vernunft und Verstand sind hierbei nur Ratgeber, wenngleich oft sehr wichtige; sie entscheiden nichts.
Wie können wir das Verhalten der Mitmenschen ändern? Hier herrscht die Meinung vor, dass Verhalten sich am besten durch möglichst einsichtige Argumente ändern lässt. Die Realität sieht aber anders aus: unsere Mitarbeiter akzeptieren entweder unsere Argumente nicht oder sie akzeptieren sie zwar verbal, ändern ihr Verhalten aber trotzdem nicht. Neurowissenschaftliche und psychologische Untersuchungen zeigen, dass der Zusammenhang zwischen Einsicht und Verhaltensänderung äußerst verwickelt ist, und dass die Bereitschaft zur Verhaltensänderung im Wesentlichen von unbewussten Risikoabschätzungen und Belohnungserwartungen bestimmt wird. Belohnungserwartungen und Belohnungen zeigen wiederum eine höchst verwickelte und höchst individuelle Dynamik. Jeder Ansatz zur Verhaltensänderung muss dies respektieren, sonst ist er zum Scheitern verurteilt.
Target audience: Leaders in senior and middle management with personnel responsibility
Execution: in groups of not more than 12 participants with two moderators
„A crisis as in the 1930s“ ... at least that is what is often written in the newspapers. No leader has experienced anything like this before. Are you asking yourself from time to time how best to deal with this situation? How can you maintain your ability to act decisively and stay cool-headed?
We offer you a workshop that can help you to stand the test in these turbulent times.
The motto of the workshop is:
Thinking clearly – deciding boldly – acting targeted
We will help you accessing your internal resources so you can effectively utilise them to develop stability and clarity in your thinking and acting. That will allow you to initiate the change or implement given top down strategies required in times of exceptional challenges.
The workshop is developed for leaders in senior and middle management positions with personnel responsibility. It will last 1½ days and will have no more than 12 participants. We are going to moderate in a team of 2 which will ensure intensive working.
If you are interested, please do not hesitate to contact us for more details.
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