Poor business decisions lead to poor business performance. We rely on our senior leaders to make these decisions. It’s the most vital part of their job. But how often do they have the time to really think these decisions through? So often they are so caught up in the minutiae of the day-to-day, that the most important decisions end up being made quickly and with not much thought, or avoided altogether.
Putting aside time to just think often seems like a luxury, or even a waste of valuable time, so it doesn’t happen. But leaders having the space and time to think is vitally important. At Farscape we’ve seen how it can benefit people’s overall health, the quality of thinking that they are able to do, and therefore the performance of the business. After all, “the quality of everything we do depends on the quality of thinking we do first.” (Nancy Kline)
Why is time and space to think so important?
The reason why it is so important to give leaders the time and space to think is the issue of working in ‘threat brain’ and the impact that this can have on people’s health and their ability to make effective decisions. Neuroscience tells us that there are three basic motivators for human behaviour – threat, safety and drive (Wickremasinghe, 2014). The threat motivator, or ‘threat brain’, has an evolutionary function, which is to identify threats quickly and urge us to take action – it’s the fight, flight or freeze response. Whilst it is vital to human survival, to run away from immediate risk, it can also be triggered by imaginary threats, or even confusion. When we experience threat our body is flooded with noradrenaline and cortisol – chemicals that boost energy and help us take action. These chemicals tire the brain and body quickly and have negative health impacts, increase defensive and narrow thinking, affect the ability to process new information and decrease memory capacity. It essentially shuts down any other response than those of fight, flight or freeze.
Modern corporate life is unfortunately extremely conducive to triggering ‘threat brain’ responses. The workplace is becoming increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and busy, creating corporate environments that are highly pressured and competitive. And this can trigger ‘threat brain’. Despite this we ask leaders to make decisions whilst their decision-making capacity is at its worst!
The ‘safe brain’ is the soothing or contentment system – evolving from the need to nurture and protect. Being able to rest and soothe the self stimulates reparative changes in the body. It releases endorphines and oxytocin, reducing blood pressure, stimulating the immune system, having anti-anxiety effects and stimulating positive social interactions. Research shows that this sort of mind is also able to think more clearly and develop new insights more readily.
And the ‘drive brain’ is where our desire to compete, achieve and accumulate things comes from. The chemicals it releases can become addictive – spurring people on to achieve more. Often in business these drive behaviours are seen as desirable – competition and ambition is encouraged. But it often comes from a place of ‘threat brain’. Whilst these drive behaviours may serve us in the short term and deliver the results that we need, in the longer term without engaging ‘safe brain’, they can create an unhealthy loop that quickly leads to burnout and stress related illness.
Giving leaders time to stop, to take a moment to reflect and push the pause button allows them to notice where their thinking is coming from. If they can take a moment to recognise how they are feeling they might be able to identify that their thinking is coming from a place of threat brain, and is perhaps not the best quality thinking they could be doing. Taking some time out might allow them to move to a place of ‘safe brain’ where they are able to be more creative, innovative and willing to take risks.
So how can we encourage senior leaders to press the pause button?
One way to encourage good quality thinking is to adopt the Time to Think approach as developed by Nancy Kline. This is about creating an environment that encourages quality thinking. As Nancy Kline says, ‘we think at our best when we are not rushed’. There are ten components that make up a good thinking environment and two of those are ‘Ease – offering the freedom from internal urgency’ and ‘Equality – giving equal turns to think and speak’. This creates an environment where people don’t feel rushed and know that their time to speak is going to come so they don’t feel that they urgently need to get their ideas across. It creates a calm and reflective atmosphere where leaders can stop doing and just think. The advantages of this are clear.
Research has shown that such environments generate greater participation and inclusion, the surfacing of better ideas, solutions and decisions, speedier resolution of issues and greater structure and rigour including better preparation. Importantly, they focus on the collective rather than individual agendas resulting in a move away from the pernicious silos that can stunt organisations. (Wyman, M. 2015)
Another way for leaders to press the pause button is to undertake coaching. Coaching provides protected and agreed time for leaders to stop doing and start thinking. One of the many reasons that leaders to don’t take the time out that they need in order to think is because they feel it is not a good use of time. Providing coaching for leaders is about creating that contract, about saying it’s okay for you to spend time at work just thinking. It gives them permission to do so.
Sometimes a leader needs support and challenge over a period of time, allowing them to explore issues and challenges deeply. The unique and intimate relationship that they have with their coach allows them to access and unblock obstacles to success and also offers confidential, unbiased support, whilst still paying attention to the objectives that have been set by the business. Equally, every now and then an issue emerges which needs dealing with quickly and then leaders can have intensive coaching, which is a way of immersing the coach and coachee in the issue that they are focused on, over a 12, 24 or even 48 hour period. Coaching in this intensive way allows people to keep revisiting the issue after periods of reflection and has been proven to deliver results, fast.
One other way for leaders to press the pause button is by using the natural environment. There has great deal of research into how the natural environment impacts learning. Rachel and Stephen Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory shows that too much focused attention on anything can lead to mental fatigue and the remedy to this is found in exposure to nature:
Many of the fascinations afforded by the natural setting qualify as ‘soft’ fascinations: clouds, sunsets, snow patterns, the motion of the leaves in the breeze – these readily hold the attention, but in an undramatic fashion. Attending to these patterns is effortless, and they leave ample opportunity for thinking about other things. (Kaplan, S. 1995)
Paying attention to the environment in which any thinking, training or coaching is happening is crucial – it helps people to disconnect from the negative psychological anchors of the office and allows people to focus better on what they are doing or thinking. It creates a reflective space for learning, enabling people to be more present and mindful, and therefore more able to have more effective thought processes and therefore make better decisions.
It’s clear then that giving senior leaders time to press the pause button can have huge benefits to their health, the quality of thinking that they are able to do and the decisions they make. This in turn impacts on the performance of the business in which they work.
But it doesn’t happen by accident. For leaders to feel able to take the time to stop and think, the culture has to be created by the organisation first. They need to feel able to take the time out to think without it reflecting negatively on them. It has to be made an expectation of their role. And through adopting Time to Think principles, investing in coaching, and encouraging people to pay attention to where their thinking is happening, HR and L&D can help start to work towards that change.
Kaplan, S. (1995) The Restorative Benefits of Nature: Toward an Integrative Framework, Journal of Environmental Psychology, Vol. 15, Issue 3. pp. 169-182
Wickremasinghe, N., 2014. Is that all there is? Self compassion and the imperfect life. Other thesis, Middlesex University/Ashridge Business School.
Wyman, M. (2015) Beyond 20 seconds: The independent mind of the board, The Corporate Report, pp. 11-15