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The Neuroscience Behind Habit Change

In her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about a friend who exclaims when she sees a beautiful place, “It’s so beautiful here! I want to come back here someday!”

“It takes all my persuasive powers,” writes Gilbert, “to try to convince her that she is already here.”

This story is an illustration of the two networks in our brain that we use to process thoughts–the narrative network and the direct experience network.

The narrative network is the default network from which we operate. We use this circuitry when we think about the past or the future. It is automatically triggered whenever we are not task-focused. And it is also our social network, where we focus on stories about ourselves, others, and situations.

The brain hardwires everything that we repeatedly do–this is how habits are formed. So the stories we tell ourselves over and over become default paths, the circuitry the brain naturally activates.

On the other hand, the direct experience network enables us to experience the present moment via our senses. It observes both outer and inner signals, but doesn’t judge them as good or bad. For example, you may do a quick body scan to observe how you are feeling in the moment before approaching a difficult conversation. Though many of us spend most of our time in the narrative network, you can benefit from the direct experience network with intentional practice.

From an organizational perspective, these networks are active during virtually all the work we do. From managing difficult conversations to organizing a team, these two networks are always at play. We constantly balance processing our external environment with creating an internal narrative about our experience.

So how might we use these networks to facilitate greater awareness?

Research has found that people who regularly practiced noticing their default and direct experience paths, such as experienced meditators, have a stronger ability to choose which path they were on. Daniel Siegel, a leading researcher in this area, says, “The greater the ability one has to be mindful in the present moment, the more ability one has to regulate one’s emotions.” That is where Self-Management, one of the four domains of Emotional Intelligence, comes into play.

Researchers at Duke University found that more than 40% of our actions each day are based on habit rather than conscious thought. When considering how to create a new habit, such as providing more meaningful feedback to your team, the brain has to override its default wiring and create a new response to triggering situations.

One method to overcome this hardwiring is to build an if-then plan, where you can cue your mind to behave in a certain way in a specific situation. By developing “implementation intentions,” we create the opportunity to rewire our brains in potentially triggering situations.

For example, a manager might have a habit of focusing on what his team did wrong instead of what they did right. In this situation, he might say, “If I want to give feedback during our 1:1 conversation, then I will pause and first ask a question about their thinking.” By reframing the behavioral event with an if-then statement–and follow through on the “then” action enough times–you can support the growth of a new, better habit.

Practice is crucial to rewiring the brain. It turns out that writing down our intention to change a habit greatly increases our chances of following through. A 2002 study found that 91% of people who planned their intention to exercise by writing down when and where they would exercise each week ended up following through. By linking an if-then plan to an existing habit, one is able to embed the habit more deeply.

Consider the following steps to integrate a new intention to your daily practice:

  1. Identify an unproductive habit that you would like to change. What is one change that would make your life more fulfilling?
  2. Reflect on the impact of this habit on your life to date. How has this habit served you? How has this habit harmed you?
  3. Make a personal commitment to change this behavior. What are the risks of not changing the habit?
  4. Now that you have identified the habit, create your if-then action plan. What will you do the next time that you are triggered? What will this new habit feel like one month from now? Make sure to write down your responses.

Recommended Resources:

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How to Shift Team Mindset for Effective Collaboration

Collaborating for collective success expands our understanding of ourselves and others. We are enabled to co-create the world we want to see. In this series of articles, you will learn from inspiring stories of individuals, teams, and organizations committed to creating more sustainable team norms. These experiences can help us identify critical variables and Emotional Intelligence competencies that are vital for successful collaboration.

 

There is good reason why collaboration has become so important in the workplace. Organizations need to build their capacity for adaptability and agility in order to remain successful in an increasingly dynamic economy. Collaboration in humanitarian action has also emerged as a more effective response to global challenges. Research indicates that “working with people who have different perspectives or areas of expertise can result in better ideas and outcomes.” Finding commonality among such varied perspectives also offers new complexity and difficulty. By understanding how to harness tensions in a constructive manner, we can guide teams and organizations toward effective collaboration.

What is at the heart of collaboration?

 

Emotional complexity multiplies in a team environment. Vanessa Druskat, an expert on group Emotional Intelligence, says that teams are “emotional incubators” and acknowledges the importance of emotions as the contagious energy that can propel the progress of a group. This contagious influence spreads rapidly, making emotions the lynchpin of successful collaboration and shared understanding. Of course difficult emotions, like frustration, can also work against groups and negatively impact collaboration and results. We observe these dynamics in all types of teams and organizations navigating change: mergers between companies, the consolidation of departments or functions, relocation, etc. Harnessing these tensions in a constructive way is at the heart of effective collaboration for teams and organizations.

LIFE: A collaboration in need of its own emergency response

 

Emotions were strong, and tension was in the air. Several team members were not talking to one another. Relationships had soured due to a climate of reduced resources, leadership changes, and new research findings that had major implications for their strategy.

LIFE was a group of organizations working together to assist a global emergency response initiative affecting millions of people, but the overall mood in the 30-member team was not conducive to effective collaboration. Individually, each member had a strong sense of commitment to the initiative, however, as a group they felt stuck and had lost their momentum. LIFE was polarized in two camps: Those who wished to address trust issues and feelings of exclusion, and those who wanted to avoid discussing emotions altogether.

The collaborative network was on the brink of collapse. “This is a critical moment. We have lost trust. It used to be different, but this time we’re going to make or break this initiative if we can’t figure out how to collaborate,” one executive confided. The first objective was to have open and frank discussions to find new ways to communicate and work together.  

LIFE’s way forward started with developing a Growth Mindset and Positive Outlook

 

The team decided to engage in a learning process that included a face-to-face team session. This meeting was the first pivotal point in a process that embraces what Stanford researcher Carol Dweck describes as a “Growth Mindset.” With a Growth Mindset, change and conflict become opportunities for positive transformation. With the help of their organizational coach, the group engaged in reflective dialogue. Together, they created a set of group norms to navigate difficult conversations. Their guiding principles were a non-judgmental approach characterized by kindness, openness, and a willingness to understand the perspectives of others.

 

Sometimes, it is in the empty spaces during conversations that progress emerges within a team. “Has the world moved on and are we getting stuck in our own illusion?” a group member exclaimed during one of our meetings. Profound silence followed by deep breaths of relief were heard all around. Addressing the elephant in the room affects everyone involved and acknowledging a difficult truth accelerates change. Now, able to address their situation with clear eyes, positive emotions arose and created a climate in which new possibilities for learning and forward motion began to emerge.   

 

Try this exercise to help your team reflect and more fully embrace a Growth Mindset:

  • Share a video called “Stuck on the Escalator.” It will bring some laughs to the room and create a light-hearted opportunity for the group to examine how they might carry stuck mindsets with them.

 

  • Ask them to reflect on the following questions in pairs and then to share with the whole group:
  • Do we have a feeling that we are stuck (“triggered”) on the team?
  • What are the thoughts (or stories) associated with this feeling?
  • What are the opportunities for learning and growth given this situation?
  • From where we are now, what is the first step we need to take to move forward?

 

Going through these exercises, the team realized that unspoken disagreements and a lack of transparency had created feelings of exclusion and distrust. As LIFE put their new group norms into practice, glimpses of Self and Social Awareness started to emerge in their group discussions. “Now I understand the situation you are going through given the cut in resources. We can help you to overcome this,” responded a participant to another colleague in front of the group. Everybody listened to this authentic acknowledgement and it was one of the first positive moments that resonated with the whole team. Slowly, discouragement was replaced with optimism. This perspective brought a new energy into the room and helped team members to reconnect immediately.

 

As psychologist and author Daniel Goleman describes, Positive Outlook is the ability to see the best in people, situations, and events, despite setbacks or obstacles. Research shows that in a team setting, Positive Outlook contributes to a positive emotional climate that spreads throughout a group. This climate leads to improved cooperation, less conflict, and better performance. The LIFE team created the conditions to improve the emotional and social norms required to foster high levels of energy and motivation in their group dynamics. Ultimately, a Growth Mindset, in conjunction with Positive Outlook, allows teams to develop a new understanding of what’s possible, instead of trudging on with unaddressed frustration. Collaboration is not the absence of conflict. It is learning to deal with it in a compassionate way and growing together in the process.

 

Next up in our series on EI & Collaboration, we will explore how teams can develop norms based on trust and empathy to communicate effectively.

 


Leaders who take time to understand different perspectives work toward finding a common ground on which everyone can agree.

But how does one develop this competency? What does it look like in different contexts?

In Conflict Management: A Primer, Daniel Goleman and colleagues introduce Emotional Intelligence and dive deep into the Conflict Management competency. In this quick read, the authors illustrate the valuable skills needed to manage conflict in a range of settings.

 

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Room for Growth: Overcoming Our Fixed Mental Habits

Underlying beliefs play an important role in how we learn and grow. When you believe you can grow, you understand that effort will improve your performance and lead to increased happiness and well-being. Stanford researcher, Carol Dweck, coined the terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” to describe underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence.  

 

  • With a Fixed Mindset, you believe whatever talents or capabilities you have, including intelligence or creativity, are static, “you’re either born with it or you’re not.” You believe striving to improve will only get you so far–and there is an inherent inability to excel in something you aren’t “gifted” in. This fixed mindset also holds true for your belief about what others can or cannot achieve.
  • With a Growth Mindset, you believe your capabilities are a baseline and improvement can occur with intentional effort, persistence, and practice. You understand abilities can be developed.

 

Dweck’s research identifies how the beliefs you adopt about your ability to change and grow deeply impact how you live your life. The truth is we all vacillate between the two extremes of fixed and growth mindset, depending on our mood, our confidence, and the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Maureen’s Story

Take the story of Maureen, a manager in a tech company, who routinely felt sidelined in meetings despite her subject matter expertise. She struggled to move her projects forward because she was quiet, and her colleagues tended to talk over her. Maureen knew she was smart. She graduated at the top of her class from an Ivy league school and loved her field of work (no problem with a growth mindset, here). However, she believed her shyness was a personal deficit. She thought being a persuasive communicator was just not in her wheelhouse and never would be. Consequently, she resigned herself to remaining in the shadows of more extroverted peers.

Here, Maureen’s self-limiting beliefs (SLBs), a type of fixed mindset, were demotivating her from trying to improve. They were thoughts that became mental habits, leading her down a behavioral path that kept her from realizing her goals and potential.

Calling Out Self-Limiting Beliefs

There are times when our beliefs about ourselves get in our way. Often, SLBs are unconsciously-held beliefs. Increasing our Self-Awareness can enable us to recognize SLBs. But even then, sometimes we don’t see that which is closest to us. This is where working with a coach can be beneficial. A good coach can help us spot our SLBs before we spot them on our own. We can also actively retrain our brains to think with a growth, rather than fixed mindset. 

Cultivate a Growth Mindset, Try This:

Over the next month, notice when you have negative or self-critical thoughts about yourself. Pay attention to what triggers self-critical thoughts and how you feel when you experience these thoughts. Then, replace the self-limiting belief with a growth mindset response. Download our Growth Mindset Tracking Tool to help you along the way.

 

Everyone falls into SLBs sometimes. We just need to notice when our brains are stuck and remind ourselves that our brains are built to grow, change, and learn. What can you say instead?

  1. The power of yet: Add yet at the end of your fixed mindset statements.
    Example: “I can’t do this.” → “I can’t do this YET!”
  2.  Say stop: When your SLB voice is getting out of hand, tell yourself to stop and clear your mind before continuing.
  3. Start using the word you instead of I. Example: “I got this.” → “YOU got this!”

 

The most important thing to remember when it comes to mindsets is this: the thoughts and beliefs we hold have the potential to empower or defeat us. Our narratives are a significant part of our lives we CAN control. Growth mindset is the belief that skills can be nurtured through learning and effort. By reframing our self-limiting thoughts as they occur, we can train our brains for positive growth and open ourselves up new opportunities.  

Recommended Reading:

 

 

Want to learn about the competencies that comprise Emotional Intelligence? Our series of primers focuses on the twelve Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies, which include Emotional Self-Awareness, Adaptability, and Empathy.

The primers are written by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, co-creators of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency Model, along with a range of colleagues, thought-leaders, researchers, and leaders with expertise in the various competencies. Explore the full list of primers by topic, or get the complete collection!

 

 

 

 

For more in-depth reading on leadership and EI, What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters presents Daniel Goleman’s ground-breaking, highly sought-after articles from the Harvard Business Review and other business journals in one volume. It features more than half a dozen articles, including “Reawakening Your Passion for Work.”