How to be a more effective leader

18 July 2016 By David Reynolds, Davidson Executive Group Manager

Do you think giving your staff more breaks would make you a more effective or liked leader?

As someone who has been in the executive recruitment field for more than 20 years, I hear on a regular basis how many leaders or executives are kept up at night thinking “what can I do to make them work better as a team and be more engaged?”

They are not alone. In a recent article by Caroline Webb (McKinsey Quarterly February 2016) on how small shifts in leadership can transform the team dynamics, she suggests to improve staff engagement and motivation trying a few simple trips.

Webb suggests that simple tweaks in leaders’ communication and behaviour can potentially create a much more productive atmosphere for you and your team.


Dealing with information overload

After interviewing a few leaders, she found that information overload and multitasking were hot topics. One leader, Antony, linked it to the brain’s activity and how it is split across two complementary systems: one deliberate and controlled and the other automatic and instinctive.

The deliberate system is responsible for sophisticated, conscious functions such as reasoning, self-control, and forward thinking. It can only do one thing at a time and tires remarkably quickly.

The brain’s automatic system lightens this load by automating most of what we do from day-to-day.

However, the brain’s deliberate system becomes more exhausted. The automatic system increasingly takes the reins, leaving us prone to making misleading generalisations and kneejerk responses.


Is multi-tasking such a good thing?

This brings me to the point as to why multi-tasking can be a problem. We think we can parallel process, but each tiny switch from one conscious task to another—from reading an email to speaking on a conference call for example—wastes part of brain’s deliberate system’s time and mental energy.

And those switches cost us dearly. Research shows that people are less creative, more stressed, and make two to four times as many mistakes when they deal with interruptions and distractions, as compared to concentrating on one task at a time.

Another way that the deliberate system’s limitations play out in the workplace is that decision-making quality drops the longer people go without a break.

Classic cognitive biases like groupthink and confirmation bias take firmer hold, and we’re more prone to sloppy thinking in general. In one study, where hospital leaders were trying to encourage the use of hand sanitiser, they found that compliance rates fell when people worked long hours without a break.


Silver lining

But here’s the silver lining. If leaders encourage people to go offline when doing their most important work, as well as taking more frequent breaks, they’ll see an uplift in productivity, innovation and morale.

As Antony said he knew that a common hurdle to taking breaks and avoiding multi-tasking was that people often felt they needed to be constantly showing their responsiveness to senior colleagues by always being available, whether on email, instant messaging or in person.

He knew that his own behaviour would be central to shifting norms in his organisation.

He decided to place a timer on his desk to signal that he was taking 25 or 45 minutes to go offline—something that also helped him focus his brain on the task at hand—and wore enormous noise-cancelling headphones to amplify the message.


Just bugger off for a while!

And then, between deep working sessions, he would ‘bugger off for a walk’, as he puts it.

The role modelling worked, Antony says. “It’s become a collective thing in the office now and everyone’s decided that breaks are a legitimate use of time because we get so much more done afterward.”

Antony and his co-founders also created a ‘Monday Meeting’ for all of the staff to discuss how they were working together as a company. After some time, it surfaced that pressures were mounting, threatening to derail their commitment to focusing and recharging. “It was an emerging cultural behaviour and we wanted it to stop. So we set some rules, like ‘we encourage each other to have lunch’ and ‘we schedule breaks between meetings’,” Antony said.

Most importantly, he felt, “we as leaders had to take responsibility for our behaviour and give out the right signals, use the right language, celebrate the right behaviours in others. So we cheered people for leaving the office to go for a run. Later, we adopted the phrase ‘leaving by example,’ encouraging people to use it instead of a mumbled, guilty excuse for taking a break.”

In a Monday Meeting, the leaders took one further step to reduce cognitive overload by asking everyone to name their two priorities for the week. Antony said “the ‘two priorities’ rule” encourages people to be realistic and focused in their work.

 Discovery mode

Another leader Webb interviewed, Ros, believed the problem is our brain is constantly looking for threats to fend off or rewards worth pursuing.

When we’re more focused on threats than rewards, we’re in defensive mode. Our brain diverts some of its scarce mental energy into launching a ‘fight’, ‘flight,’ or ‘freeze’ response and as those instinctive responses unfold - looking more like ‘snap, sulk, or skulk’ in the workplace -  scans show less activity in the parts of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex.

Simply put, some of our more emotionally sophisticated neural machinery goes offline.

But then there’s discovery mode, where people’s brains are focused on the potential rewards in a situation. For instance, this could be a feeling of belonging or social recognition, or the thrill of learning new things. If leaders can foster a rewarding environment, even amid the most difficult situations, it’s likely that they can dampen that primal feeling of being under threat just enough to nudge people out of defensive mode and back into top form.

So now Ros always begins meetings by talking about what they’ve done well. The result: she could see how it calmed everyone down and helped people think more clearly. Ros emphasised that “it’s not about trying to spin or gloss over the problems. But beginning with what’s working well puts everyone in a more open frame of mind, meaning we can look at what’s not working without people getting defensive.”

Ros also reinforces her team’s feelings of autonomy and competence, two things that feel highly rewarding for the average brain. Usually, when a colleague has an issue, leaders help by offering advice or direction. But that can backfire, because a well-intentioned “have you tried this/that . . .” can be subconsciously interpreted as a judgment, as in: “why haven’t you tried this/that?” This mild cognitive threat can be enough to constrain the deliberate system and make people less creative in their own thinking. The alternative: create a space for people to do their own best quality thinking.

Ros uses the “extreme listening” technique. She asks someone what they want to think through, and lets them talk without interrupting or making suggestions. Sounds simple, but Ros says it feels a little strange initially.

Ros says helping colleagues feel capable of handling matters on their own “is one of the greatest gifts you can give someone, as it provides a great boost to their resilience and confidence.”

It means leaders have to meet three main types of deep social needs if they want their colleagues to thrive:

  • Inclusion: “Do I belong?” Existing staff may be worried that they’re going to be excluded from the exciting new work. The newbies, meanwhile, will be wondering whether they truly fit in.
  • Respect: “Do people recognise the value I bring?” Everyone on the team wants to feel that their efforts are useful and appreciated.
  • Fairness: “Am I being treated just like everyone else or do I at least understand the reason that things are the way they are?”

The evidence is pretty clear. Colleagues will behave more like their best selves, more of the time, if leaders take a few modest steps to foster an environment where people’s brains aren’t overloaded.

Focus more on rewards than threats.

So when are you going to ‘bugger off’?


David Reynolds, Davidson Executive Group Manager, has over 30 years of experience as an executive in the recruitment, consulting, accounting and tourism sectors.