The Inner Workings of the Executive Brain

28. April 2014

Date: 28-04-2014
Source: The Wall Street Journal

New Research Shows the Best Business Minds Make Decisions Very Differently Than We Thought

Take much of what you know about how the best executives make decisions. Now, forget it.

For instance, we all “know” that tight deadlines lead to inspiration. Except they often don’t. Instead, they typically are counterproductive—making people less creative precisely when they need to be. Or most of us assume that when we try to solve problems, we’re drawing on the logical parts of our brains. But, in fact, great strategists seem to draw on the emotional and intuitive parts of their brain much more.

These are some of the insights coming from the world of neuroimaging, where scientists use sophisticated machines to map what’s going on inside the brain when people do jobs or ponder problems. The work is still in its early stages, but even now it offers an extraordinary opportunity that wasn’t possible before.

Researchers can now see how people’s brains react to a situation—a process that, obviously, the subjects themselves can’t see, let alone explain. That promises to provide a much clearer view of how leaders make good choices, and how other people can learn to follow their example.

Here’s a closer look at some of the discoveries researchers have made.

Want Innovation? Be Wary of Deadlines

We often think a deadline can help us shake off inertia and focus on getting a job done. But the brain research suggests precisely the opposite is true. A deadline, instead, more often limits our thinking and can lead to much worse decision making.

Mental accountingRichard Boyatzis —along with colleague Anthony Jack and others—has found that a tight deadline increases people’s urgency and stress levels. These people show more activity in the brain’s “task positive” network, which we use for problem solving. But it’s not the part of the brain that comes up with original ideas.

“The research shows us that the more stressful a deadline is, the less open you are to other ways of approaching the problem,” says Dr. Boyatzis, a professor in the departments of organizational behavior, psychology and cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University. “The very moments when in organizations we want people to think outside the box, they can’t even see the box.”

For example, an IT manager being pushed to launch a new software product quickly might rush to get all the bugs fixed. With less pressure, he or she might have taken a step back, asked why all those problems were cropping up in the first place, and come up with a completely different approach to writing the code that worked more smoothly and didn’t produce the glitches.

Does that mean companies should get rid of deadlines? In most cases, that’s not realistic. So Srini Pillay, an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School and founder of the coaching firm NeuroBusiness Group, suggests that companies help employees reduce stress and access the creative parts of the brain even when they’re under pressure.

One such technique is learning to let the mind wander, with exercises like meditation. In that mental state, the creative part of the brain tends to be active. “When people hit a wall in their thinking, in general they start thinking harder,” says Dr. Pillay. “What the neuroscience research tells us is that it’s more important to think differently.”

Big Unknowns Lead to Bad Choices
The ticking clock of a deadline isn’t the only kind of pressure that makes for bad decisions. So does uncertainty, such as feeling that your job or your company’s future is under threat.

Decision making room for improvementDr. Pillay cites a study that discovered that feelings of uncertainty activated brain centers associated with anxiety and disgust, and that such concerns naturally lead to certain kinds of decisions. “In times of uncertainty,” he says, “you start acting out of that sense of doom and gloom.”

The problem, he says, is that the study also showed that 75% of people in uncertain situations erroneously predicted that bad things would happen. So the reactions and decisions that were made based on fear and anxiety could turn out to be exactly the wrong moves.

Let’s say a company is having a rough time navigating the weak economy. A manager who’s mired in doom-and-gloom thinking might be too pessimistic to hire new staff or invest in new equipment. But those might be exactly the moves the company needs to gain ground on competitors.

Given that uncertainty is a hallmark of many modern workplaces, the solution lies not in trying to avoid it, but in learning to accept it. “It’s important to be aware that your response is likely to be an exaggeration,” Dr. Pillay says. Read the rest of this entry »