Having a conscious role in how we think can steer us away from destructive responses, transform our ability to make decisions and enhance relationships, says Noel Brady
Who’s in control: you or your subconscious? No apologies for introducing this somewhat profound opening question. It’s a deeply important question that executives – and everyone else, for that matter – should ask themselves.
In any 24-hour day, we are really only conscious of a small percentage of things that we make happen, or that happen to us. While we are distracted by our thoughts, worries and daydreams, our mysterious subconscious is controlling most of what we do and how we react to events – a kind of silent autopilot, if you like. Our subconscious mind contains our individual subjective map of reality, and as external events enter our subconscious through our senses we process our response largely on auto-pilot, without ever engaging our high-level conscious mind – the one that uses logic and critical thinking to make rational decisions (we hope).
The conditioned subconscious
This subconscious map of reality is directly influenced by our life story, from childhood influences such as culture, parental and school style and critical life experiences to social status, political loyalties, key role models and choice of life partners. Our subconscious is largely conditioned to think and react to events based on our life experiences and influences. We continuously develop habits of thinking, feeling and behaving throughout our lives.
Emotional intelligence as a concept has been around since Daniel Goleman coined the phrase for his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence. One of his key insights is that our outcomes in life, both positive and negative, are largely determined by our subconscious. Goleman identified that emotional responses are held at a subconscious level and that they are intricately linked with subconscious habits of thinking and behaving. Personally, I think the phrase can be misleading: how can emotions be intelligent? I prefer the concept of subconscious potential. Our brain has the potential to be highly effective or ineffective in any given situation or role depending, to some extent, on our inherited genes but, to a larger extent, on our life experiences. As an executive coach I used to focus on helping individuals and teams perform to their leadership potential by working on behaviours, but now I focus on helping clients maximise their leadership potential by changing their habits of thinking and the ways in which they use their minds.
Rewire your brain!
We know from recent advances in neuroscience that the brain has an amazing capability to rewire itself, both positively and negatively, depending on what happens to us in life. For example, when a person loses their eyesight, the part of the brain responsible for processing images gets reused for processing sound and results in highly sensitive hearing. We also know that temporarily induced mental states become more permanent mental traits as the mind influences the brain’s structure.
Changing long-held limiting habits of thinking around life, work, leadership and relationships can be hard, but is achievable. It’s not dissimilar to curing an addiction to harmful behaviour or drugs. In both cases, the support of others is often invaluable because change is so hard.
We now know enough about how the brain works to consciously influence this natural process. The six points below are condensed from my long experience of working with executives who successfully achieved lasting change.
1. Make a real decision to change. Take 100% personal ownership of the outcome. This is probably the most important step and the one that causes the most problems. If you want to become an inspirational leader, for example, it’simportant to really know why you want to be so. What are the positive benefits for you, your team and your business? Are they really worth the time, energy and personal commitment to continuously push yourself outside your comfort zone? Contemplate what might be subconsciously motivating you.
2 Create a personal vision in the area you want to change. A strong vision helps to overcome challenges and momentto-moment difficulties. It helps us to deliberately focus on how we want to be, rather than how we are now. In the area of a key stakeholder relationship, for example, your vision may be to maximise the strength and quality of the relationship over the long term. If so, then being right all the time and getting the decision you want right now may harm that relationship. Instead of ‘winning’, you might consciously choose to align with your vision and defer to the stakeholder in order to strengthen the relationship.
3 Practice awareness. Begin to ask yourself: ‘What do I think about the process of my thinking right now?’ Engage your conscious mind in the process of thinking. Or, ask yourself: ‘What is happening right now?’ Unawareness makes you a prisoner of your conditioning, but past experiences are not necessarily a good guide for present-moment challenges. The practice of mindfulness is often introduced to help executives deal with the stresses and relentless pressures of work. For some, mindfulness is about finding peaceful time to clear one’s mind of thoughts and meditate. For me, the practice is less structured. I endeavour to create an ongoing habit of being mindful. This is very powerful because it provides the opportunity to consciously change my old, unhelpful habits of thinking that get in the way of maximising my potential as a leader, coach, partner and father. It’s very simple: mindful leaders make better decisions.
4 Become less self-centric in your thinking. Highperforming teams are essential to business success, but when working as an executive team coach I invariably find that dysfunctional team behaviour and poor performance are caused by self-centric thinking. Leaders should develop a habit of challenging self-centric thinking in both themselves and others; be mindful that it is associated with poor outcomes, unhealthy conflict and negative emotions.
5 Reflect on your outcomes. This is a crucially important element of change. Spending some quality time reflecting on important events is part of the process of rewiring our brain to create fresh connections and thinking habits. Humans have evolved to learn from experience, and this is accelerated and deepened by reflection. Ask yourself: ‘What happened during an important event? What worked or didn’t work well? What insights or learnings did you get? What would you do differently next time?’ Make this a habit and your learning and development will
6 Persevere. Changing unhelpful habits of thinking takes time and repetition. We know from neuroscience that thoughts happen when brain cells, or neurons, transmit electrical signals between each other via connections called synapses. The more often the neurons fire, causing a transfer of information to another neuron, the stronger the pathway becomes – hence, the creation of new habits of thinking. The obverse is also true; as thoughts become less frequent, the neural pathway shrinks.
Use these six points to steer your brain’s development to gain more conscious control of your mind and improve your leadership – and your life.