Attention Training: The Fundamental Pillar of Success?

Attention Training: The Fundamental Pillar of Success?

“Understanding and managing attention is now the single most important determinant of business success.”  ~ Tom Davenport, former director of Accenture Institute of Strategic Change

My childhood home had a steep driveway, sloping up to the road. Dad wanted to leave to go on a cycling trip, but it was very icy that day and he couldn’t get traction to move backward up the drive. Thankfully, there was an easy solution: to roll forward into the garage so that he could get up some momentum before hitting the ice. The problem was, he had already attached his bike to the roof of the car so that he could drive to the start point. As soon as he rolled the car forward, it hit the wall above the garage and the bike was ripped from its mountings.

How could we both have failed to see something so obvious? I was standing right next to the car, and could clearly see that the top of the bike was much higher than the garage door, yet still missed it.

This is a great example of the problem called inattention blindness. If you’ve ever seen the popular “invisible gorilla” video, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Originally created as part of an experiment conducted at Harvard University, it is of two teams of basketball players. Viewers are invited to count the number of passes made by one of the teams, unaware that, in the middle of all the activity, a person in a gorilla suit will walk through the group. Despite how obvious the gorilla is to anyone who already knows about it, scientists have discovered that most people miss the gorilla the first time they watch it, and in other, similar experiments this number can be as high as 80 percent.

Interestingly, without the task of counting the passes, pretty much everyone watching the video will see the gorilla, and this gives us the clue to what happened with my Dad’s bike. Focusing on the task of counting passes causes most of us to miss what would otherwise be obvious, and similarly, it was the fact that our attention was overly focused on the problem of the ice that led us to fail to consider the broader consequences of our solution. When focusing on one task, it can be hard to notice much else.

These examples are highly representative of life. There are always multiple objects or streams of thought that we could concentrate on, and if we become locked onto any one of them it will dominate our attention, leading to us becoming unaware of other things around us.

The solution needed, which is core to all such problems, is the ability to manage attention more effectively. Today, this capability is commonly referred to as “mindfulness”. This is a mental state where the contents of the mind are very stable, enabling us to pay attention in a deliberate way, able to choose and maintain our focus, rather than having it pulled around by distractions.

In the examples above, the core problem is driven by the inappropriate focus of attention, which then blocks awareness to such an extent that even critical, and obvious, information outside the area of attention gets completely missed. This article discusses one of the most effective and accessible approaches to developing attention – meditation – describing how it enables us to change the way the brain perceives the world, thus creating a shift in awareness. It also covers some of the other, many benefits that we can gain from this practice.

Read the Article: How Meditation Works in Your Brain – The connection between attention, awareness, and emotion

My Advice

Despite its historical links to religion, there’s nothing mystical or weird about meditation. Whatever form it takes, meditation is brain training, pure and simple. Amongst other things, it enables us to develop the mental skill of being able to focus attention with intention, which is a skill which has many modern-world benefits.

While the article is largely about attention, I want to reinforce the importance of intention in the process. This is because so much of what we do, and experience, is driven by the subconscious mind according to deeply buried rules. Even our perception of ‘out there’ is a construction which gives us the impression that we are able to see a full rich picture of “reality”. However, because the processes by which this happens are so effortless and unconscious, anything we miss will be completely invisible. To change this, we must introduce the power of intention.

An example of how powerful intention can be is observable when people listen to music. Research has shown that if they do so with an intention to feel happier, they actually become happier, whilst if they only seek to relax their happiness levels don’t move. It is the intention to become happier that makes the difference, which is achieved by consciously directing attention towards the desired outcome.

Thus, intention gives us the ability to bring conscious choice to the act of placing attention. As we develop the capacity to interrupt the automatic, unconscious processes, though mindfulness, we can literally change the way we perceive things and reduce problems like inattention blindness. Meditation enables us to develop this mental capacity. It takes time and deliberate effort; however, like going to the gym, if you are willing to put in the work, the benefits can be assured.

When Conversations Get Crucial

When Conversations Get Crucial

What is a crucial conversation? One description, the one used in this article, is that it is “a discussion between two or more people where stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong”.

It is this combination of high stakes, differing opinions and strong emotions which makes handling crucial conversations so difficult, because these are all factors likely to cause us to feel threatened, and which can therefore engage our ego:

  • Another very visible trait of the ego is the desire to be right. The more opinions differ, the greater the challenge of ‘winning’ the argument will seem – another ego loss. As a result, just when the best strategy would be to listen more, we are much more likely to listen less, expending our effort instead on an internal dialogue where we try to figure out how to defeat the arguments of (what feel like) the “opposition”.
  • As emotions get cranked up, key brain functions – those linked to our ability to think rationally, behave amenably and connect with others emotionally – start to shut down. Whenever this occurs, egoic behaviours become stronger and our desire to ‘win’ gets ramped up even further.
  • The ego gains a great deal of significance from the things that we have. Therefore, when threatened with the perceived loss of things of importance to us, the ego will be quick to flare up.

This article offers four strategies to help you to improve your ability to handle crucial conversations through a combination of understanding and managing yourself better and learning to deal with others in a more productive manner.

Read the Article: Mastering Crucial Conversations

My Advice

It is a neurological reality, that when the threat centre of our brain is activated it suppresses the ‘executive centre’, which is based in our pre-frontal cortex. This part is responsible for all of the higher capabilities that enable us to function in the modern world, such as our ability to focus attention, to recognise and manage our own emotions, to feel empathy for others, to be creative and to analyse problems and make rational decisions. Since all of these factors described in the bullets above promote fight/flight reactivity, literally narrowing our peripheral vision and triggering the dumb, automatic, part of our brain to take over, it is inevitable that our capacity for powerful dialogue becomes limited just when we need it the most.

To address this problem, one of the easiest things we can do to is to focus on our very natural tendency to plan what to say next while others are still talking. This kind of internal focus will tend to put us in opposition to others, producing a negative impact on them because it threatens their own desire to be right. Even the word “oppose” implicitly introduces the sense that the other person wants to challenge us or to win over us. A simple technique, therefore, which can help in reducing feelings of opposition is to change the focus of your listening:

Instead of listening with the intention of producing a killer reply, focus on listening to understand.

By changing our own intention in this way, we can reduce the feeling of conflict that is at the heart of many breakdowns. The more we focus on understanding how other people’s ideas might add to the collective awareness of the situation, the more they are likely to feel valued and respected. This in turn helps to create feelings of safety for them, turning what was a vicious cycle into a virtuous and supportive one.

Why Balancing the Brain is Vital to Great Leadership

Why Balancing the Brain is Vital to Great Leadership

The majority of leaders, in my experience, are already familiar with the notion of ‘Level 5’ leadership, a term coined around 20 years ago by Jim Collins and made famous in his best-selling book, Good to Great. He used it to describe the very best leaders: those possessing the capabilities to enable the transformation of a company from good to great.

Collins’ work was remarkable because it challenged the accepted wisdom of the day – that CEOs should be charismatic, larger-than-life figures. He initiated a major shift in leadership thinking by showing that, far from being high-profile individuals with big personalities and a love of success for their own glory, the most effective leaders avoided the limelight wherever possible. In his words, “They weren’t aggressive, self-promoting or self-congratulatory, but diligent and hardworking, self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy.” He discovered that these outstanding leaders were absolutely committed to the success of both the team and the organisation, whilst at the same time being the first to pass credit to others when things went well and to accept the blame when things went badly.

In summarising their qualities, Collins said that such leaders were remarkable because of their ability to:

“Build enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will.”

Unfortunately, Collins stopped short of providing guidance on how such leaders could be developed; indeed, he even suggested that to propose a method to do so would be “speculation”! The means of developing emotional intelligence to this level are not well understood, so perhaps it is unsurprising that both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that very few leaders have achieved the goal of mastering leadership at Level 5. How few? According to one study, by David Rock, director of the Neuroleadership Institute, where he evaluated the related qualities of goal focus (similar to professional will) and social skills (within which humility is a uniquely powerful resource), scarily few! He discovered that less than 1% of leaders were rated high on both goal focus and social skills.

As this article explains, some of the difficulty involved in developing a balanced capability in both analytical and social leadership skills may be due to fundamental characteristics of how our brains work. When we focus on either of these two types of task, we engage specialised areas of the brain. However, countless neuroimaging studies have shown that, with few exceptions, there is an antagonistic relationship between the two areas, such that the more one of these networks gets activated, the more the other quietens down. This means that once we are engaged in one type of thinking it is much harder to engage the other, or even to recognise that the other type would be beneficial. I call this a neural seesaw.

This article describes the interaction between the two networks in greater detail. It also explains the importance and value of recognising that we all have a “natural”, or preferred, approach in terms of which network we tend to default to, and addresses what you can do to begin to learn how to create an optimal balance between them.

Read the Article: The Best Managers Balance Analytical and Emotional Intelligence

My Advice

Leadership, like most things in life, requires balance. As such, the seesawing nature of mental function described in this article has huge implications for leadership development and performance. We are much less likely to succeed without focusing on our people, and they won’t succeed unless we’re focused on results – neither characteristic on its own will consistently produce great leadership. Furthermore, it is insufficient simply to understand or remember that we need both task and social capabilities, because so many of the decisions about where and how we focus are made unconsciously.

In the modern, high stress working environment (and life more generally), people are often juggling many priorities at once. When this happens, switching from one side of the brain to the other becomes too difficult, resulting in those tasks that are less automatic getting neglected. The solution requires us to overcome the inevitable neurological conflict that makes it difficult to switch between task and social roles. The foundation of that capability is:

To learn to be able to intentionally choose which parts of the brain to use.

… not easy, I know, that’s why it’s the subject of one of my in-depth workshops!

Disliking Others – Is it Really About Them?

Disliking Others – Is it Really About Them?

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.

Today I’m wise, so I’m changing myself.”  ~ Rumi

The conditioning we receive throughout life is so pervasive and powerful that it’s literally impossible to be aware of the psychological influence that it has on our feelings, including – perhaps especially – on our feelings relating to others. We are fundamentally social beings, so even the presence of other people can dramatically affect our experience of situations and things that we come across. For example, in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini quotes one study where “men who saw a new-car ad that included a seductive young woman model rated the car as faster, more appealing, more expensive-looking and better designed than did men who saw the same ad without the model. Yet, when asked later, the men refused to believe that the presence of the young woman had influenced their judgments”.

What is happening is that we naturally interpret everything through the lens of our own experience and belief systems. If you’ve read my book, The Little Black Book of Decision Making, you’ll know that I love the following Sufi proverb, because it captures this idea so powerfully and in so few words: “When a pickpocket meets a saint, all he sees are pockets”. Another way of saying this is that we see the world, not as it is, but as we are.

The psychological truth is that our emotional reaction to any experience cannot be attributed to any sort of objective “reality”, any more than a roller coaster can be said to be objectively exhilarating or terrifying. Rather, our emotional reactions are the result of our subjective interpretation of whatever is happening. Inevitably, this means that the way we see others – how we label or judge them, has more to do with ourselves than with them, as this wonderful story that I’ve paraphrased from Stephen R. Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, illustrates:

Stephen was travelling on the underground when a man got on with his children. The peace and calm that had previously existed was immediately shattered as the children’s terrible behaviour disrupted the other passengers. Irritation levels in the carriage understandably started to rise, but the father had closed his eyes and seemed oblivious. Astonished by this obvious lack of sensitivity to others, Stephen spoke politely to the man, suggesting that perhaps he could control his children a little more. The father then seemed to become aware of the situation for the first time, acknowledging he should do something, and saying, “We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either”.

This article offers some useful starting points to think about the root cause of negative biases that you might experience towards others.

Read the Article: Are You Biased Against That Coworker You Don’t Like?

My Advice

There is one capability that both comes before and sits below all the techniques mentioned in the article, and which is, therefore, an essential enabler to developing emotional balance: to become much more highly attuned to our own emotional state in the moment. To do this, we must learn to use our minds differently.

By keeping some of our attention on the inner world of our emotions, we create the opportunity to change how we feel. This focus enables us to become aware of negative reactions. Having done so, we can then track back to the underlying thoughts, developing the capability to look at the thinking associated with the emotion. This capability is sometimes called metacognition, which means thinking about what we are thinking about. By becoming more conscious of your thoughts, the self-awareness generated will enable greater conscious regulation of how you feel, improving your ability to build constructive and empowering relationships.

Maximising Influence: The Secret is in the Preparation

Maximising Influence: The Secret is in the Preparation

What is leadership? This simple question has spawned dozens of theories, literally thousands of definitions and hundreds of thousands of books. However, while researchers disagree in many areas, there is one viewpoint on leadership where there is almost unanimous agreement, which is that, at its heart, leadership is about influence. Great leaders are always great persuaders.

So, how might we become more effective at influencing/persuading others?

One of the most influential thinkers on the mechanisms of persuasion is Robert Cialdini, whose classic book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, became a national bestseller and listed on New York Times bestseller list and Fortune Magazine’s 100 best business books of all the time. In it, Cialdini identifies what he called the six universal principles of persuasion: reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity. However, this is a book that is probably more useful to marketeers than leaders.

Now, 30 years on from Influence, Cialdini has added to his previous body of work by identifying another aspect of persuasion, this time, of direct relevance and immediate value to leaders. In fact, he believes this to be the most critical of all, because it also empowers the other six: how we prepare recipients to receive a message. He calls it pre-suasion. This article explains the key elements involved.

Read the Article: How to Be a Persuasive Leader (hint: it’s about the ‘moment before’)

My Advice

I’ve worked with many leaders to help them to craft important presentations that will create the impact they desire. Without exception, these high-achieving and committed professionals already have a powerful message and carefully developed plan for delivering their content, before they bring anything to me for discussion. The area that always receives much less attention, is how to maximise the impact of what they say; however, research clearly shows that this area may be more critical than the words themselves. We all know that a poor presenter can kill even the best message.

This principle is also true in any other communication or interaction where you have a goal of influencing another person. I love the example in this article of the degree to which an image, when presented alongside identical information, greatly improved the performance of call centre volunteers. Emotion matters. Attention matters. And both can be greatly enhanced by giving some of your own attention to the softer aspects of your communication, particularly those that impact the state of mind of the people you are speaking to. The principles in this article provide a great starting point.

The Viral Impact of Emotions

The Viral Impact of Emotions

Emotions can be infectious……

24th November 2017 was Black Friday, and hundreds of thousands of people were in London’s Oxford Street for the sales. It was not long after the multiple terror attacks across London but life had moved on and all was calm. That calm, it turned out, was quite superficial…

At 4.37pm, thousands of shoppers started to stampede, certain they were under attack. The Met Police mobilised its anti-terrorism emergency response, crowds were evacuated, and social media became filled with reports of gunshots, people claiming to have seen someone carrying a gun, and videos of people screaming as they ran. People posted photos of loved ones they couldn’t contact, worrying that they had been harmed. People’s worst fears, it seemed, had been confirmed.

The perplexing thing is, no real threat existed… No terrorists, no shots, no bomb, no danger. Nothing!

Within 1.5 hours, it was all over. Sixteen people were injured, yet it had all been a false alarm. The inquest into the incident discovered that the trigger for the mass panic was a minor scuffle on one of the underground station platforms. All it took was for the people nearby to assume the worst, then the fear and misinformation to became real and took over. Both passed quickly through the masses, as each person instinctively picked up on the emotion of those around them, so that what started as confusion on the platform had become terror by the time it was unleashed on the crowded streets.

This incident shows how quickly and unconsciously emotions can spread. We are hardwired to pick up on the emotions of others in between 8 and 40 thousandths of a second, so our brains automatically detect things like micro-changes in others’ facial expressions, tone of voice or physiology, and then, to save energy, draw inferences, take shortcuts or make snap judgments based on these tiny snippets of information. It is a capability that psychologists and philosophers call thin slicing.

The natural purpose of this capability is thought to be to enable smooth interactions and to facilitate mutual involvement and understanding. The problem is, very few of us realise how susceptible we are to it, or know how to inoculate ourselves.

As a leader, because your position of influence or power will tend to make you more infectious, you can afford to display emotions that could negatively impact others. Nor can you allow your own emotions to be dictated in this way.

I’ve long defined the ability to make appropriate choices as one of the hallmarks of emotionally intelligent leaders. This starts with the ability to manage emotions. Imagine a military leader who panicked under the slightest sign of threat, as the shoppers did that day – there would be no chance they could function effectively. Great leadership means being able to respond in appropriate and adaptive ways to whatever conditions or circumstances we face, and especially, to be able to do so under pressure.

This article demonstrates how important it is that leaders are aware of, and manage, the effects of emotional contagion in the workplace, which can otherwise be hugely detrimental to the productivity of their teams.

Read the Article: Emotional Contagion Can Take Down Your Whole Team

My Advice

It is unavoidable that emotion can have a powerful effect on any interaction, as though a second discussion was also taking place in parallel with the main conversation. Our brains are literally wired to sense other people’s feelings and react to them, making us all capable of catching and spreading emotions, both positive and negative, to the people around us – and this is especially so for leaders. Because of the knock-on impact to the performance of the people around you, I believe that managing emotions is at least as important as the technical skills you bring to work.

The route to improvement starts, as so often, with awareness. We must learn to increase our present-moment awareness so that we can become more intentional about our mood, as well as our actions. This enables us to interrupt our autopilot and notice more of the emotions that we exude towards others as well as those that we may be picking up from them. I recommend that, at the first sign of a negative emotion (your own or someone else’s), you momentarily pause and focus your attention at the emotional level. By consciously shifting awareness in this way, you should find that you can increase your control of the situation to stop negative emotions from gaining a hold.