Leading through influence and adaptability

This article originally appeared in openforum.com.au

We need new ways of thinking and doing to keep up with an ever-evolving business environment. Jenny Brockis explains how the brain savvy leader effectively navigates change with curiosity, an adaptive mindset and emotional regulation.

In a world full of change, just keeping up has become a full-time occupation.

Rapid technological advance requires us to incorporate new ways of thinking and doing and has led to the automation of many tasks. This can result in an undercurrent of anxiety and fear – of losing our job, of becoming irrelevant, and a general state of fearing the future.

Looking beyond the potential threat towards a potential opportunity is where the adaptive leader can exert significant influence.

Influence comes from understanding how the brain perceives novelty; its preference being to seek familiar patterns. While curious, the brain has to decide very quickly whether this poses a potential threat or reward. Because our evolution has depended on our ability to stay alive, the brain’s default setting is to assume danger first and ask questions later.

The brain savvy leader looks for ways to minimise the threat response and promote the towards-state of possible reward.

The importance of this lies in the findings of neuroscience that shows how a towards-state promotes a more positive mood and better access to the pre-frontal cortex, helping us to think well, learn effectively and get on better with others. Reducing threat influences our level of adaptability, boosting resilience and capability.

Adaptability includes three core components: curiosity, mindset and emotional regulation.

Curiosity is the enquiring mind, asking how things can be done differently, improved upon and corrected if necessary. The curious leader recognises they don’t have all the answers and is willing to ask questions, listen and ask for help. Curiosity contributes to critical thinking, examining the information available, checking its validity, and our own biases and assumptions to facilitate the best decision.

We make sense of our world using our own set of lenses, filtering information against the backdrop of our values and belief systems that evolve during our childhood and are carried forward into adulthood. The attitudes we adopt whilst being deeply embedded can be altered thanks to our wonderfully plastic brain that enables us to develop new patterns of thinking and habits to supersede those we identify as being less helpful.

Working in an environment where “that’s the way we do things here” is great for consistency and worked well in previous eras where employees expected to work according to a set of rules. However, it leaves little room for innovation or adoption of new technologies.

A fixed mindset means we see the world in a black or white dimension with no room for any shades of grey. Being content with the status quo means there’s no incentive to do things differently and avoids that nasty risk of failure.

The adaptive leader with an open mindset looks beyond the boundaries of their own knowledge and experience to seek new challenges and possibility, comfortable with the notion that failure simply reflects what didn’t work and provides the opportunity to improve next time.

The ability to regulate emotion is a skillset frequently underestimated in its power to influence good decision-making and faster problem solving. Emotion underpins our best cognition. The adaptive leader looks to promote a positive workplace atmosphere that enhances collaboration, contribution and creativity.

Adaptive leadership is the continuum that effectively navigates resistance to change and promotes possibility thinking by disrupting the status quo.

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