Communication, Leadership and the Brain: 5 Questions for Liz Guthridge

That tiny little central cortex is a terrible thing to waste. Yet, we’re doing it every day, say neuroscientists delving deep into our craniums. “If we were running a marathon wearing too tight shoes and clothes, we’d pay attention to the blisters and the poor circulation and make fixes. But with our brain, we just accept sub-par performance and think that’s the way things are, rather than trying to improve our situation,” says Liz Guthridge, coach, consultant and trainer. She is leading a Communitelligence webinar on this topic May 21, 2014: Stop Your Stinking Thinking: 7 Ways To Use Neuroscience To Sharpen Your Mind and Be a More Powerful Communicator and Leader. Here Liz gives us an insight into the reasons why she started applying neuroscience to her practice, and some of the reasons leaders and communicators should be paying mind to neuroscience to be more effective in their work and careers. More about Liz

Head And Brain Gears 1. You always seem to be learning something new. Of late it’s been in the realm of neuroscience and leadership communication. What’s up with that?

Actually, I feel like I’m coming full circle, although in a much deeper way. My work-study job as a college freshman was serving as a research assistant to a social psychology professor who was studying happiness, among other topics. I enjoyed the work, but didn’t see myself as an academic. So I followed my passions of investigative reporting and writing, which then evolved into organizational communication, development and leadership. I’ve always been a news and information junkie, ever since I founded my junior high school newspaper. Even in the corporate world, I was glued to what was happening around me. So in recent years, when I started hearing more and more about the positive psychology movement as well as social neuroscience and neuroscience research, I started paying attention to the scientific developments. The technology that’s now available, especially the fMRI (frontal magnetic resonance imaging), is helping us learn so much more than anyone could do just with traditional experiments and research. And I started to realize that Dan Pink’s astute observation that there’s a major disconnect between what science knows and what business does is probably the understatement of the century. Business people often stick with the status quo even when they know it’s not really working for them and the science says do something else. I believe that if we pay attention to and honor the science, we’ll be able to make great strides in our professional and personal lives, as well as advance our organizations.

2. What first attracted you to delve into this subject?

Initially, I was attracted to learning about coaching so I could apply it in my work. Learning more about neuroscience was more “brain candy” for me—or a “lagniappe” as my late grandmother would say. (She started college when she was in her 60s, and much preferred taking French as an elective rather than gym as a core course. She was one of my inspirations for continuous learning.) I was finding that many of my clients were asking me to counsel them in a trusted advisor role. Being a female Baby Boomer, I felt I should get specialized training and increase my confidence to provide this type of expertise.  When I heard about David Rock, the co-founder of the Neuroleadership Institute, and saw him speak in person, I knew I had to study coaching with him and his firm. The value to me was that I would learn a rigorous coaching methodology grounded in neuroscience. Three years later, I’m not only coaching in addition to consulting, but also acting as a teaching assistant for the NeuroLeadership Institute’s Executive Masters in Neuroleadership program. It’s an excellent way to learn about the basics of neuroscience as well as the latest research and then figure out how to apply the science to organizations and leaders at all levels. By the way the term “neuroleadership,” which David Rock coined, refers to the application of findings from neuroscience to the field of leadership.

3. What’s the #1 most compelling reason for leaders and communicators to pay any mind to neuroscience?

We’d be so much more productive and healthier if we adopted brain-friendly practices for knowledge workers. It’s amazing that we get as much done as we do because the way we work is so punishing for the brain. If we were running a marathon wearing too tight shoes and clothes, we’d pay attention to the blisters and the poor circulation and make fixes. But with our brain, we just accept sub-par performance and think that’s the way things are, rather than trying to improve our situation. 

4. You have the phrase “stinking thinking” in your webinar title. What’s an example of this that at least some of us are guilty of today?

Three things come to mind immediately. First, many of us are guilty of multi-tasking, rather than focusing on just one thing at a time. The brain’s executive function—the nickname for our prefrontal cortex—is tiny and only has capacity to work on one complex thing at a time. We’re fooling ourselves if we think we can multi-task effectively. Second, we often think we should muscle through a project with brute force and stick with it until we’re done, without taking any breaks. However, the brain is like other muscles in our body; it tires. In fact, our prefrontal cortex tires faster than most of our muscles. We not only lose steam and energy, but also effectiveness. We start making mistakes and thinking less clearly. Third, we tend to take shortcuts and want to think that others think just like us, and therefore will act like we would. However, each person’s brain is unique. While we share similarities in the brain’s structure, how we use our brain differs greatly. Plus our personal experiences shape our thinking and our memories. For example, some people are more “approach motivated” while others are more “avoidance motivated.” On a very basic level, the approach motivated see the glass half full, while the avoidance motivated see it as half empty and want to avoid more loss. If you try to appeal to the avoidance motivated with an approach-framed message, you not only can annoy them, but you can increase their stress levels, and vice versa. Another brain difference that causes angst is “the why” versus “the how.” Our brain has two different systems for processing the “why”—the motivational—and the “how”—the executional. The systems work at different times, although they can switch over very quickly. Each of us shows a preference for using one system over the other. It is possible to strengthen the one we’re weaker in, but we generally default to our preferred system when we’re tired or stressed. Once you’re aware of these differences, it’s easy to see how individuals can talk past one another as well as annoy each other. Being aware of how your brain works can go a long way to mitigating potential problems.

5. Anything else you’d like to add about your upcoming Communitelligence session?

I’m excited to do this webinar for Communitelligence. In many ways, our brain is the last frontier left to explore. The more we learn about how the brain works and the more we experiment with how our own brain reacts to different ways of doing things, the more we can improve our thinking and our performance.  Thanks to my knowledge as well as my experimentation, I personally feel so much better since I started learning about neuroscience a few years ago. Plus I believe the quality of my work has improved.  My clients, especially my coaching clients, are thrilled with their results. So I’m eager to share my learnings and experiences with others, and discuss ways that we can improve our work environment.

Purchase the webinar and replay: Stop Your Stinking Thinking: 7 Ways To Use Neuroscience To Sharpen Your Mind and Be a More Powerful Communicator and Leader

June 4, 2015

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