We all know about the benefits of brain training, but can you use the same principles to boost your team?
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The likelihood is that, whatever business you are in, your key people are knowledge workers. So how well they do their jobs is a function of cognitive performance.
We’ve traditionally relied on trying to boost motivation in order to get the best out of our people – monetary rewards are motivating for simple, manual jobs but not for cognitively complex ones.
Stirring leadership addresses or guest speakers might give a brief uplift but these are transitory sugar-pills and the effect soon wears off. So what does work? If we look to the example of sport, it seems that elite athletes have been leading the way for decades. Here are three examples how.
One – Build a growth mindset
The remarkable successes achieved in British sport over the last twenty years – consider the Olympics, tennis or cycling - did not happen overnight. Nor did it happen because athletes were more motivated or positive.
It was grown from a very low base and performance across a range of sports was improved step by step. If we believe that our abilities or intelligence are fixed, this can be self-fulfilling. But science shows that we have extraordinary capability to grow our capabilities in any sphere, from sport to business.
With a growth mindset, we look at setbacks and challenges differently – they can be experiences we can lean into and learn from rather than just more examples of the way in which the world is against us.
Two- Learn to bounce back from setbacks
Successful businesses rarely just hit the jackpot; success is usually hard-won and after enduring any number of reverses along the way. Teams need resilience in order to bounce back and persist. The good news is that this can be built.
A place to start is the language team members use around the place, particularly when it comes to explaining why setbacks happened. We are wired to hang on to negative experiences – psychologists call this the negativity bias – which means negative beliefs can take hold.
This was to protect our ancestors from putting themselves at risk in the savannah a hundred thousand years ago but, if unchallenged, can prevent us in the twenty-first century from persisting.
So when you hear statements along the lines of: “We tried that and it didn’t work”, “that product is rubbish”, or “our competitors are cheaper and we can’t compete”, ask for the evidence to support these beliefs.
The chances are that these beliefs are based on one or two isolated incidents. Challenge negative self-talk in the team and encourage persistence.
Three – create an environment for great cognitive performance
Since the likelihood is that your people are knowledge workers, how well they do their jobs is, a function of cognitive performance, something that is well understood by neuroscientists and psychologists but rarely leveraged by businesses.
The way in which we often work in the twenty-first century – long-hours, spinning lots of plates – is a disaster for cognitive performance.
Athletes and their trainers have long understood that over-training causes fatigue and a decline in performance. The same is true of cognitively complex work: the longer we work continually, the worse our performance gets as anyone working late into the evening will recognise.
Track athletes have been doing interval training for around seventy years. The same principle applies to knowledge work: By focusing on one activity for forty-five minutes and taking a break for fifteen, we can be so much more productive than working flat out for hours on end. The brain is like a muscle – it needs rest and recovery.
The deep thinking needed for productive knowledge work happens in the brain’s prefrontal cortex.
When we’re tired or distracted, this part of the brain stops working properly meaning that we lose focus, find it difficult to plan and are more likely to allow ourselves to spend time ineffectively on email or social media, feeling and appearing “busy” but to little effect.
It’s easy to think of multitasking as a virtue, just like working long hours. I’m on top of everything, spinning lots of plates at once and responsive to new emails and messages as soon as they arrive. It turns out, again backed up by the science, that multitasking is disastrous for cognitive performance.
When we multitask, we spend 30% longer than when we focus on one task at a time (contributing to the long hours culture) and we make twice as many mistakes. The consequences of those mistakes and the need to go back and fix them means we end up working even longer!
Truly productive knowledge workers do not spend all day in their email. They check messages two or three times daily and work offline the rest of the time focusing exclusively on a small number of high-impact tasks, one at a time.
Training your team’s collective brain for business isn’t easy. For one thing, it means letting go many of the assumptions we hold about what “good” looks like, particularly when it comes to working long hours and multitasking, almost universally regarded as positive. So trust the science, learn from elite athletes and build that mindset.