Prof Lisa Feldman Barrett wrote recently about ‘body budgeting’. As a neuroscientist she knows how the brain regulates the body – how it subtly alters the body chemistry in response to external stimuli. I love the way she describes it as the brain’s ‘ongoing budgeting process’ and how a ‘withdrawal’ from the brain/body budget in the form of stress disturbs the inner brain co-ordination with a resulting change in mood.
In my conversations with leaders and managers in these covid times the talk is about the wonders of being able to connect via zoom or Teams (a deposit to the brain’s account) but also the immense frustration at poor meeting practices being replicated with meeting after meeting without a break (a major withdrawal from the brain’s account). What should leaders do about it? To continue the banking metaphor, how can leaders act as the bank manager and ensure that their clients’ brain/body bank balances do not go into unsustainable overdraft?
Rebalancing the body/brain
Let’s deal with zoom and Teams first. We know that to have sight of others, to be able to converse with others, to see them in their own environment with cats walking across the keyboard, with puppies insisting that they too should share screen time, with children squabbling next door brings connectivity. It fires up the synapses and adds to the bank balance. However, unremitting meetings counterbalance that – and more.
One of the leaders that I coach told me their company now has focus time and down time scheduled into their days. It’s become part of the culture and was in response to the never-ending meeting cycle. They are required to schedule an hour focus time each day where there will be no interruptions and there must be at least 15 minutes down time between each meeting. They must also take a lunch break. It has reduced stress levels and increased productivity.
Hardly surprising as we know from neuroscience that the brain needs to ‘switch off’ to allow it to filter and store information. It’s also common sense as, if we were still in the workplace, we would have to walk between offices to have our meetings, stop for a coffee and a chat, wait whilst we gathered our papers together. We factored in natural breaks between meetings (a brain/body bank deposit).
We also know that stress of a distraction or interruption when you’re focusing on important tasks or dealing with crisis (what leader isn’t nowadays?) causes cognitive fatigue and depletes that brain/body bank balance. So here’s the thing. What else could we introduce that would act as a huge investment, that would generate a high interest rate? The key is the connectivity you gain between two people where one listens – and the other promises not to interrupt.
If interruption causes cognitive fatigue then not interrupting must replenish your cognition. The joy of the brain/body chemistry as we make those essential links between each other, the acknowledgement that this person’s thinking is superb, the realisation that my thinking is being given time and space to become generative and explorative, is all realised when you introduce a Thinking Environment and Time to Think.
Nancy Kline’s latest book, The Promise that Changes Everything describes this with elegance and grace. The findings from over 30 years of research and observation supports the benefits of giving people time to think. As leaders it is perhaps the greatest modelling in leadership excellence that we can give – to say to people ‘What do you think?’ and then to tell them you will not interrupt: to be truly interested in where their thinking is going, and how much further it can go. Model that behaviour for two minutes, for five minutes or longer and watch the brain/body bank balance grow.
Laura Murphy blogs about things that interest her. They might not interest you but read them anyway. It might even change your mind.