by Michael E. Frisina, PhD, co-author of “Leading With Your Upper Brain: How to Create the Behaviors That Unlock Performance Excellence“
Most of us view our thoughts as our private refuge in a chaotic world. We get to think what we think, and no one is the wiser. For example, we say the right words while coaching a staff member, yet inside we’re thinking, Wow, this person is clueless; how did he ever get hired? Or maybe while spearheading a new patient care initiative, we’re thinking, I’m pretty sure this approach is going to bomb. Or we’re seemingly listening to constructive feedback (with a pleasant demeanor and nods where appropriate), yet inside, resentful thoughts are brewing.
So what? you may be wondering. It’s what we do and say that matters, not what we think, right?
Wrong. Our thoughts create our recurring behavior patterns — putting them on autopilot — which, in turn, generate the circumstances that determine our success as a leader and a human being.
People don’t always realize that our thoughts are real, physical things that occupy physical space in the brain. Not only do they drive our behavior, they alter the structure of our brain, making it more likely that we’ll do more of the same tomorrow.
Let’s return to our first hypothetical example of a leader coaching a staff member. If our thoughts indicate a preexisting mindset of contempt for an employee and a negative bias against coaching itself, we’re unlikely to put much effort into helping that employee improve. Predictably, the employee (who will surely sense our feelings toward him) will flounder.
Thus, our unempathetic thoughts about the employee and the coaching process are reinforced. This drives more half-hearted “coaching” in the future and erodes the trust that should characterize leader/employee relationships. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
Great leaders know how to access the part of the brain that controls critical reasoning, judgment, and creativity. They are able to regulate the toxic thoughts and disruptive emotions that block these “upper brain” functions. Leaders who can’t do so inadvertently behave in ways that provoke employees’ lower brains — the part that governs fear and survival behaviors.
When our thoughts aren’t in alignment with our behavior, they’ll sabotage our efforts to create a positive, high-performing culture. Remember, your behavior is never private and confidential — it reveals what you believe to be true in your heart. Rather than fully engaging, the people you lead will respond in ways designed to protect themselves.
Look at the state of your department, your organization, and your relationships at work and at home: All of them have been shaped to a surprising degree by your thoughts. To shift them for the better, you’ve got to start with what’s going on inside your head. Learning about how we use our brains to think gives us greater control over the mindsets we create and the downstream cause-and-effect relationships to thoughts, feelings, and behavior as they relate to performance and well-being. The bottom line? Nothing in our lives changes until our thinking changes.
But how do you become what I call “a guardian of your thinking process”? In a word: mindfulness.
“It’s unfortunate that the word mindfulness has negative connotations for some, because it’s an amazing tool. Mindfulness is nothing more than learning to think about and focus full attention on what you are thinking. This calms your mind, reduces stress, minimizes distractions, and allows you to be mentally and physically present with people.
With mindfulness, all sorts of things change. You sleep better. You think more clearly. You feel better. Your empathy gets a boost, which strengthens relationships. And once you bring your thoughts under control, you can learn to lead from your upper brain — which gives you the resilience, problem-solving savvy, and people skills to improve every aspect of performance.
It takes only five to fifteen minutes to change the physical structure of your brain and get out of “autopilot” mode. A few tips to start practicing mindfulness:
- Take a ten-minute pause periodically throughout your day to slow your thinking.
- Do breathing exercises to help keep you calm and regulate your heartbeat.
- Take time to think about your thinking, using prayer, meditation, or both to capture key thoughts occupying your mind.
When we learn to focus our full attention on what we are thinking, it improves not only our effectiveness as leaders but our well-being in every aspect of life. The mind is a powerful machine. Why not leverage it to work for you, your team, your organization, your patients… rather than working against them?
Michael E. Frisina, PhD, has authored more than 50 papers and published articles on leadership and organizational effectiveness. He is a contributing author to the Borden Institute’s highly acclaimed textbook series on military medicine. He is a visiting scholar at the Hastings Center in New York, a visiting fellow in medical humanities at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, and a John C. Maxwell Top 100 Transformational Leader.