In a business environment where surveys find 70% of employees saying they hate their work; and in which the demographics of leaders and employees are rapidly changing, it’s no surprise to hear — as a senior executive asked me, recently — “How can I prepare for what I can’t prepare for?”
Some recent research points the way. Several studies find that most people can arouse and apply seemingly contradictory capacities for different leadership purposes, as needed. They are latent or dormant capacities, dimensions of oneself that are both emotional and cognitive. They include the more linear, data-based, and structured; and those that are more improvised, non-linear and creative.
Research shows that activating them builds an important, broader mentality, not just a fixed set of actions. The challenge for leaders is learning how to activate and utilize these dormant capacities needed in today’s fluid, unpredictable environment.
The Capacity To Shift Focus At will, As Needed For The Task
Research finds that we can learn to activate and apply both linear and nonlinear capacities, as needed. One study examined this in terms of leadership orientation. Researchers at Case Western University examined a common assumption that one is fixed within either a “task” or “team-building” orientation: an analytic, linear focus on people completing tasks; or an empathic orientation, supportive of workers development and open to their ideas.
Based on brain research they published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the research team found that those capacities actually co-exist. According to lead researcher Anthony Jack, “Every normal brain contains both modes, with the flexibility to go to the right mode at the right time.” The researchers indicated that this fluidity enables a leader to shift between a more operational, linear focus, and a nonlinear focus, supporting innovative ideas and actions that enhance team collaboration and performance.
The challenge, then, is to learn how to develop and strengthen both capacities. Moreover, to learn how and when to shift back and forth in order for different kinds of situations and organizational needs. The researchers contend that the failure of the business world to value and develop both capabilities is damaging to organizations. “Emphasizing one side over the other is not the best way to promote good leadership,” Jack said.
The Capacity To Activate Creativity And Turn It Into Reality
A recent study found a gap between actions that support innovative, creative ideas and applying them to performance; to transform creative ideas into reality. This gap is strong among leaders who remain fixed within a frozen mindset and don’t know they can do both. The research found that the barrier is not the absence of the capacity, but rather focusing on goals at the expense of taking the risks that creativity requires. Both capacities are necessary.
Conducted by a team from Rice University, the University of Edinburgh and Brunel University and published in the Journal of Management, the research found that most companies are “not doing a good job in translating creative ideas so they have an impact on the firm’s performance,” said Jing Zhou, one of the researchers.
Zhou added that “The assumption is that once the employees demonstrate creativity, firms can translate it to firm-level performance. Our study proved otherwise.”
And that raises the question of what it takes to bridge that gap? Relevant, here, is the steady accumulation of research showing the neuroplasticity of the brain; that one can train oneself to develop and strengthen specific emotional states that impact behavior. Such findings demonstrate that leaders can “grow” the awareness and perspectives they need to support employees’ creativity and also channel it into actual performance.
For example, a Case Western Reserve University study examining brain activity with (f)MRIs and published in Neurolmage found that people are able to shift back and forth between brain regions associated with the both capacities – those needed to support creative innovation; and those for turning creative ideas into concrete, applied forms.
When one capacity is activated, the other remains on hold, in a sense, until needed. That is,one can’t necessarily utilize both capacities simultaneously, but most are able to strengthen the ability to shift back and forth as needed, and give primacy to the capacity most needed for the task at hand.
Another study, published in Creativity Research Journal, found that shifting between creativity and its application occurs via “high mind-brain development” that most people are able to develop. Here, Swedish researchers described that mentality as “alert, interested in learning new things and disposed to see the whole picture. They think in wide circles and are emotionally stable and unselfish.” In effect, this reflects whole brain functioning – the capacity to fluctuate between more innovative, nonlinear capacities and the more linear, applied capacities, as the situation requires.
The Capacity To Let Go Of Ego
Today’s organizations require what Adam Bryant has described as a “quick and nimble” management culture, and they benefit from “outlier employees.” This highlights the need for leaders to let go of focusing so much on themselves; to let go of the “alpha male” role, asGeorg Vielmetter of the Hay Group has described it. Such a capacity enables them to engage with diverse employees from a more humble perspective. Vielmetter pointed out that “The time of the alpha male — of the dominant, typically male leader who knows everything, who gives direction to everybody and sets the pace, whom everybody follows because this person is so smart and intelligent and clever -this time is over. We need a new kind of leader who focuses much more on relationships and understands that leadership is not about himself.”
This capacity was also highlighted by a study from Catalyst, described in Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib’s Harvard Business Review Blog. It found that when employees observed diminished ego in their managers – such as humbleness, or empowering workers, they reported being more innovative and engaged, more likely to suggest new product ideas and ways of doing work better. As Google’s SVP of People Operations, Lazlo Bock, says…”Your end goal is what can we do together to problem-solve. Without humility, you are unable to learn.”
In a similar vein, successful leaders such as Virgin CEO Richard Branson stress the importance of seeking and supporting a wide, diverse range of people, and being open to input and potential solutions through active listening:”Over more than 40 years of building our businesses at the Virgin Group, (we have seen) that employing people from different backgrounds and who have various skills, viewpoints and personalities will help you to spot opportunities, anticipate problems and come up with original solutions before your competitors do.”
The New Era
Writing in Fast Company, Robert Safian describes today’s business world as an environment of ongoing chaos, uncertainty and disruption, in which the pace of disruption is increasing. It will be marked more by “…fluidity than by any new, settled paradigm. If there is a pattern to all this, it is that there is no pattern.” And David Peterson, director of leadership and coaching at Google, has pointed out that “To ensure success in dynamic environments — such as an ever-changing future — the best bet for leaders is (to) invest in robust strategies that enhance flexibility and adaptability.” And, that “Courageous leadership and rapid learning become increasingly important the faster things change and the more unpredictable the future is.”
All of the above findings and observations indicate that leaders are able to draw upon and “grow” their necessary dormant or latent capacities — emotional, cognitive and behavioral. It’s possible to learn how to apply and utilize them in a flowing, alternating way. The challenge is for top leadership to recognize that, and provide the kinds of learning to make it happen.
A version of this article previously appeared in The Huffington Post.