We’re on the threshold of a very exciting time to be in leadership. Having survived the shocks of the Great Recession, business leaders are recognizing the traditional approaches to increasing productivity, engagement, collaboration and innovation have run their course. Fresh thinking is needed to spark the next wave of prosperity. Interestingly, insights from the broad and burgeoning field of neuroscience are validating the approach and philosophy we’ve been pursuing for five years.
Sophisticated neural imaging is providing hard evidence of what’s occurring in our brains under a variety of controlled inputs. Our brains have plasticity, which is a relatively new understanding of what was once thought to be a staid organ once the developmental process was complete. Our brains are constantly changing based upon our experiences and the neural input we choose to, or unconsciously, consume. By developing intentional, neural development strategies, we can change the way we interpret and respond to the world around us. To quote Dr. Richard Davidson, Affective Neuroscientist from the University of Wisconsin, commenting on the brain’s experience-dependent neural plasticity, “Neural plasticity refers to the idea that the brain can change in response to experience and in response to training. The brain is literally built to change in response to experience.”
Dr. Davidson’s work goes on to identify that the practice of compassion activates the part of the brain that processes our perspective of people, events and the world around us. Cultivating compassion also activates the part of our brain, the insula, that is in two way communication with our organs and body, and gamma waves expand that are associated with the creation of new neural connections. New neural connections, initiated by novel experiences, are the foundational spark of creative thinking and innovative problem solving.
How does this relate to productivity in the workplace? Let’s look at what CEOs and senior HR executives have recently acknowledged and are currently seeking to cultivate in their organizations:
1.) CEOs have identified inspirational leadership, customer obsession, and leadership teaming as the most important traits they are seeking in their leaders.
2.) CEOs surveyed in 2012 see human capital (71%), customer relationships (66%), and innovation (52%) as key sources of sustained, economic value creation. They are also recognizing the need for more openness, transparency and collaboration.
3.) According to IBM’s 2012 research, CEOs are most focused on three organizational attributes; ethics & values (65%), collaborative environments (63%), and purpose & mission (58%). CEOs in growth-market industries are 79% more likely than their mature market peers to make significant changes to their organizational values over the next three to five years.
4.) According to a SHRM 2012 survey, the three biggest challenges HR executives anticipate over the next ten years are: Retaining and rewarding the best employees (59%), developing the next generation of corporate leaders (52%), and creating a corporate culture that attracts the best employees to their organization (36%).
5.) CEOs have acknowledged they will require an improvement in productivity of 20% from their current human assets in order to maintain competitive advantage moving forward.
If we reference the recent research from the Corporate Executive Board’s Executive Guidance – 2013, we can see today’s high performers and high potentials are already demonstrating many of the so-called, soft skills necessary to succeed in highly volatile, ambiguous times. Skills that are grounded in Emotional Intelligence competencies (in particular and from the report, self and social awareness) and a passion for the customer and business that are a result of full engagement (both cognitive and emotional). Skills that demonstrate nimble, neural plasticity. Skills that can be taught to others.
Since 2008, we’ve intentionally chosen to work extensively with at-risk populations in our society and have come away with some powerful experiential lessons. Segments of our society that present significant challenges in their engagement levels, awareness, sense of purpose, and ability to function as productive members of society. Veterans and their families struggling with PTSD. Teens incarcerated in juvenile detention. Women coming out of county jail. At-risk girls living in poverty and surrounded by crime. Diverse populations that cling to the fringes, almost entirely excluded from participating in, and contributing to, our collective prosperity. Populations that are dealing with challenges that are significantly greater and more deeply engrained than what we typically see with our business clients. We’re happy to report we’ve witnessed remarkable results!
Here’s an example of a recent program for young, at-risk girls in our community:
So, as a business leader, where do you begin? We suggest looking to the types of values your organization is leveraging for engagement. Are they purely extrinsic (compensation, power, prestige) or a balance including intrinsic values (authentic relationships, personal development, purposefulness…feeling a part of something important and larger than one’s self interests)?
Extrinsic values, while highly effective during the Industrial Age, when the workplace was culturally homogenous, no longer resonate in today’s multi-cultural, multi-generational workforce. Intrinsic values transcend the differences stemming from generational perspectives and cultural orientations.
These values resonate through the emotions of compassion, empathy and caring for one another. These were, and still are, the survival skills that enabled human beings to survive, evolve and flourish. Research from the neurosciences supports this insight. It is only through the intentional creation of a culture that propagates these emotions and strikes a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic goals and values, that the targeted 20% improvement in productivity can emerge.
© 2013, Terry Murray.
1.) “Leading Through Connections – Insights From the Global Chief Executive Officer Study.” IBM® Institute For Business Value, May, 2012.
4.) “Challenges Facing HR Over The Next 10 Years”, Society for HR Management, November, 2012. http://www.slideshare.net/shrm/shrm-futurehr2022final.
5.) “Breakthrough Performance in the New Work Environment – Identifying and Enabling the New High Performer”, Executive Guidance for 2013, CEB, December, 2012. http://www.executiveboard.com/exbd/executive-guidance/index.page.