Question: Finding and killing Osama bin Laden has required focus, patience and persistence from presidents and top government officials over a decade of repeated setbacks--qualities that are in short supply in a world where time horizons are becoming increasingly short. How can leaders resist the natural temptation to move on to other priorities when goals begin to look like they might be out of reach?
You know that technology is changing our lives, but did you know that it is also changing our brains? And the result of these changes will make it increasingly difficult for leaders to set long-term goals requiring patience and persistence.
According to UCLA's Memory and Aging Research Center, we are all effected by neural rewiring, but it is most noticeable in your newest employees--those “digital natives” who were born into a world of laptops and cell phones, text messaging and twittering. Researchers are discovering that daily exposure to computers, smart phones, video games, Internet search engines and so forth stimulates brain cell alteration and neurotransmitter release, gradually strengthening new neural pathways while weakening old ones.
There is much value in the new neural circuitry. Your newest employees arrive with a heightened ability to react more quickly to visual stimuli and to shift through large amounts of information rapidly to decide what’s important and what isn’t. But the downside includes shorter attention spans and a increasing expectation of instant gratification.
To set long-term goals for short-focus employees is going to get tougher. Here are a few suggestions:
1) Grab employees' attention by making the goal novel or unusual. There is a section of the brain known as Broca’s Area, which is a sort of filter for sensory input, sifting through everything we see and hear and read to separate the useful, the pertinent and the unusual from the rest of what we can call background noise. In other words, Broca’s Area looks at all input and lets pass what is familiar and commonplace, but stops to examine what is novel or surprising. When something is described as having arrested our attention, the phrase is more than apt: Some piece of input or information has in fact been detained for questioning.
2) Make an emotional appeal. According to the neurologist and author Antonio Damasio, the center of our conscious thought (the prefrontal cortex) is so tightly connected to the emotion-generating amygdala, that no one makes decisions based on pure logic. Damasio’s research makes it clear that mental processes we’re not conscious of drive our decision-making, and logical reasoning is really no more than a way to justify emotional choices--and emotion gets our attention. Emotionally charged stimuli (ECS) persist much longer in memory, and people remember the emotional components (fear, joy, surprise, anger, embarrassment, etc.) of an experience better than any other aspect. That's not say that employees don't need facts. But what matters more than the facts alone is the ability to place those facts into a meaningful context and to deliver them with emotional impact.3) Let employees create the goal. At the moment when someone chooses change, their brain scan shows a tremendous amount of activity as insight develops and the brain begins building new and complex connections. When people solve a problem by themselves, the brain releases a rush of neurotransmitters like adrenaline, and this natural “high” becomes associated positively with the change experience. So provide enough background information (about trends, customer demands, competitive pressure and other key issues) and a forum for employees to reflect on and discuss the implications of those forces for the organization. Rather than lecturing and providing all the answers, try asking questions and letting people work out the solutions on their own.
4) Continually repackage the goal. The term “attention density” refers to the amount of attention paid to a particular mental experience over a specific time. The greater the concentration on a specific idea, the higher the attention density. High attention density facilitates long-term behavioral change. One way to encourage people to pay attention to a long-term goal is to continually repackage it in attention-grabbing ways–in a story, a game, an experience, a humorous skit, a metaphor, a symbol or even a song.
5) On the way to the long-term goal, create "short, fast wins."To encourage people on the way to achieving goals that require persistence and patience, mangers need to design short, fast wins. One executive put it this way: "A long-term goal can overwhelm people. I always begin with a series of mini-goals that I know my staff can achieve, and then I use those victories as confidence-builders and reinforcement for reaching larger and larger objectives.”
View all panel responses to the discussion The Osama bin Laden mission, and the art of persistence
Carol Kinsey Goman | May 2, 2011 6:15 PM