The one time when no answer is the best answer

“Every task we perform that requires executive functions like planning, analytical problem solving, short- term memory, and decision making is handled by the prefrontal cortex of our brain,” says Madeleine Homan-Blanchard, master certified coach and co-founder of Coaching Services at The Ken Blanchard Companies®.

“It’s where we choose our behaviors and then act according to how we choose. My professor in grad school had an example that I’ve always loved. The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that when we are really hungry, and are being shown to our table in the fancy restaurant, and we pass the guy’s table with a beautiful Lobster Newburg on his plate, stops us from just grabbing it and shoving it in our mouth.”

But in order to keep our brain operating effectively for ourselves, we have to keep our prefrontal cortex nourished and well-rested, explains Homan-Blanchard.
“Our prefrontal cortex is a resource hog in terms of glucose and rest. Its performance is also impacted by hydration, exercise, and sleep. In some ways it’s like a gas tank. Every decision we make—from the mundane to the most critical—uses up a little bit of gas.”

The origins of balance and willpower

While most people would agree that leaders make better decisions when they are calm, centered, and well-rested, there’s always been a sense that the best leaders can function at high levels even with 75-hour work weeks and skipping meals. According to Homan-Blanchard, the latest research is showing that just isn’t true. The quality of thinking and decision-making diminishes.

“That’s why it is so important to know yourself and know how to schedule certain kinds of activities when your brain is going to be at its best. You want to schedule planning, brainstorming, and other creative activities while your brain is fresh. What you don’t want to do is schedule a meeting or a challenging conversation where you’re going to have to use a lot of self-control at the end of a brutal day.”

Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University and co-author of the best-selling book, Willpower, says that the people who are known for making the best decisions are usually considered the most well-balanced and the smartest people. But, he notes, what may be really be true about those people is that they just know when not to make to make a big decision.

Homan-Blanchard echoes that opinion and also has some advice for couples.
“You know the old adage that in marriage, you shouldn’t go to bed angry? Well, that’s wrong—especially for couples who work a lot, have kids, and have bills piling up. Having a serious discussion, and trying to reach resolution to an argument, late at night, is really a bad idea.”

So is forging ahead when someone comes running into your office demanding a big decision at 6:30 in the evening when you’re packing up and walking out the door, explains Homan-Blanchard. “The only decision for a leader to make in that position is to wait until the morning, because, chances are, you are not capable of making a good decision in that moment. Unless you’ve previously thought about it, made the decision, and just haven’t reported it back, that’s different. But if you actually haven’t made the decision yet, it is unwise because it simply won’t be the best decision.”

Take care of yourself so you can take care of others
In her work with clients, Homan-Blanchard always recommends a high level of self-care. Master Coach Shirley Anderson, Ken Blanchard’s coach, coined the term “Extreme Self Care” to express just how strange it feels to take care of yourself the way you should. The higher you go up the leadership chain, the better care you need to take of yourself.

As she explains, “You can’t keep going on an empty tank forever. The best people I’ve worked with take very good care of themselves so that they can take care of everyone around them. Because if they go down, a whole section the organization goes down.
“When I had my first child, I was so overwhelmed. And in the middle of that time I remember seeing a woman who was surrounded by children at an amusement park—at least five—maybe seven. But the thing that struck me was that she looked really calm and in charge. She looked like everything I didn’t feel I was with my one child. And on her T-shirt, she had a message that changed my life. Her T-shirt read, ‘If Mommy’s not happy, nobody’s happy.’ And I think that’s true of leaders and organizations. If the leaders are not calm, and thinking straight—especially in the face of crazy stuff going on and way too much to do—then nothing good is going to happen.”

Create processes and routines
For leaders looking to improve the quality of their thinking and decision making, Homan-Blanchard recommends a couple of strategies.
1.Set limits. Identify your best times for creative, innovative, and challenging work situations. Create, protect, and utilize those times for your most difficult tasks.
2.Create processes and routines. The more routine that you can create for yourself, the more “gas” you can save for other decisions.
3.Practice extreme self care. Don’t underestimate the importance of proper rest and good nutrition.

Clear, calm, well-reasoned thinking is a hallmark of all good leaders. Don’t forget the physical dimension of mental processes. Take care of your brain so it can take care of you.

Source: Ken Blanchard Companies, Ignite! Newsletter, March 2013 Article
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