Of all the numerous organs that make up the human body, there’s no question that the brain is the most fascinating and least understood. Indeed, thanks to the burgeoning field of neuroscience, we’re not only discovering new insights into how this vital organ functions, but we’re also beginning to appreciate the depth of its complexity and mysterious nature.
Of course, as amazing as the human brain is, the fact is that it’s also quite lazy. A good example of this is the ease by which we create habits, and the corollary of how hard it is for us to break some of these habits. Granted, the formation of habits is our brain’s way of reserving our limited reserves of energy and focus for use in critical thinking and decision-making pathways. In this way, we don’t spend our days consciously thinking about the routine tasks we perform on a given day.
Unfortunately, this tendency of our brain to try and find repetitive patterns in our daily lives is also what leads us to create assumptions – assumptions about others, about how others view us, and about what we need to do to improve a situation or achieve a certain outcome.
Consider, for example, a review of numerous studies looking at the societal attitudes among the various generations which found that – contrary to popular belief or assumptions – the Millennial generation is no less racist than their preceding cohort, the Gen X generation. What’s particularly troubling about this finding is not the fact that the Millennial generation are far from being “the most tolerant generation in history”.
Rather, as this article points out, the danger these findings reveal is how the assumptions we make about ourselves and our communities can distort our understandings of the real challenges our society needs to address in order to ensure our collective success and freedoms.
These findings demonstrate a decision-making process we all employ called motivated reasoning, which brain-imaging studies have shown uses a different physical pathway in our brain than the one we use to analyze data.
Studies have shown that when we have a personal stake in a given outcome – as in the case above where we’re assessing how we view ourselves – our brain automatically includes our desires and aspirations in how we make that assessment.
Unfortunately, as with many mechanisms in the brain, the inclusion of these self-directed motivations in our decision-making process happens sub-consciously. So even though we may believe that our assumptions are unbiased and accurate, the truth is that these decisions and choices we make serve more to validate how we choose to see and understand our world because that helps to reduce uncertainty in our brain’s decision-making process.
In terms of today’s leadership, this impacts how we go about addressing the ever-increasing amount of information and data we’re exposed to on a given day. Faced with increasing demands to simply keep up with everything that’s going on around us, our brain’s natural tendency is to focus on information that supports our perception of reality than data that gets us to question our understanding of things.
And yet, for us to effectively lead others, we can’t abdicate our responsibility to question our assumptions [Share on Twitter]; to challenge those perceptions which serve only to fuel our innate desire to feel good about who we are as a leader at the expense of appreciating the realities our employees face every day.
And this is something that’s becoming a greater concern for today’s organizations the more we stay focused on short term achievements at the expense of doing what’s necessary to ensure our ability to thrive in the future.
In that singular quest to get things done, we risk losing out on making things happen [Share on Twitter]; of discovering those opportunities to help our employees and our organization to learn, grow, and evolve. By allowing our brain to limit our focus on what we need to do to get through today, we lose out on discovering what we could achieve for tomorrow.
Again, it’s our brain’s tendency to find that path of least resistance; of assuaging any uncertainty we may have to grapple with by accepting only those narratives or assumptions that serve to reinforce how we choose to view our leadership and ourselves.
But if we are to guide our organization down a path where we don’t simply survive, but thrive in today’s increasingly competitive, global environment, we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard than simply aiming or settling for ‘good enough’.
Indeed, to succeed at leadership, we can’t give ourselves permission to accept mediocrity as being just the way things are [Share on Twitter] or will be going forward.
We have to own up to the truth that no one is inspired or passionate about committing themselves to being ‘good enough’ [Share on Twitter]. No one wakes up with fire in their belly out of a desire to aim for the middle ground.
It’s why so many organizations continue to struggle with low levels of employee engagement – no one is interested in investing their full selves into strategies or processes where the goal is simply to get things done.
But what people are inspired by is being a part of something that’s bigger than themselves; that challenges them to believe they can be better than they are today. People are inspired when they know that the work they do matters; that it’s meaningful and makes a difference.
We see proof of that in every movement that dared to challenge our social status quo; to get us to debate and question our assumptions about the way things are and why they should be that way.
We see in those moments difficult conversations that made us look in the proverbial mirror and ask ourselves if those things we believe about others are actually true, or whether it is merely a by-product of our innate fears that bubble up to the surface when we’re faced with change or the unknown.
But this is what lies at the heart of leadership today – it’s no longer just about maximizing efficiencies, ensuring compliance, and addressing productivity. Thanks to the technological advancements of the past few decades, managing processes is no longer enough for us to ensure our ability to collectively succeed and grow.
We also need to create a vision of a shared purpose that challenges our employees to rise above being ‘good enough’ because they see their potential to achieve greatness under our leadership.
There’s no question that we’re living in a world where certain groups and individuals are using fear to push self-serving agendas and sow division within various communities. But the history of our shared humanity has proven time and again that fear-driven measures only lead us at best to achieve a standard of ‘good enough’, and at worst, to suffering a decline from what we used to be because we failed to tap into our collective potential to be more than we are today.
In both our past and present, we find reminders of how we are defined by what we’re willing to accept and by what we challenge ourselves to aspire to [Share on Twitter].
That’s why successful leaders focus on painting a picture of a future that we not only want to live in, but that we want to be active participants in helping to make a reality in our lifetime. True leaders are able to transform those around them from being end-users to contributors; from being passive observers to active participants because they see and understand not only the value they’ll be creating for others, but also for themselves.
Of course, the only way we can create such an atmosphere in our workplaces and communities is if we first be open and honest with ourselves about where we are today. About the real challenges we face and the genuine opportunities that exist for us to not only overcome these obstacles, but to strengthen our resolve and abilities to keep pressing ahead despite them.
Such conversations are naturally difficult, as they should be because they challenge us to question both ourselves, and how we see and understand the world around us.
But this is what successful leaders excel at – they inspire us to embrace this difficulty because we can see what we stand to gain from such conversations and opportunities.
Sure, our brain might prefer the easy route, employing processes like motivated reasoning to reduce the uncertainties and challenges that seem to increase with each passing day.
However, leadership has never been about taking the easy path, of simply relying on our assumptions to guide our decisions, and choosing to accept ‘good enough’ so we can get through our day.
Rather, the hallmark of real leadership is being willing to challenge our assumptions in order to better understand the obstacles our employees face and how we can help to overcome them. In so doing, we can fuel that collective drive to not settle for anything less than being better than we are today.
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