(Editor’s Note: as part of our Author Speaks Series, you can enjoy below a stimulating excerpt from the new book The Brain Advantage: Become a More Effective Business Leader Using the Latest Brain Research).
Brain-imaging techniques allow researchers to witness the brain’s activity reflected in a rainbow of colors on a computer screen. When brain cells are highly active ”working harder” the result shows up as brighter colors on the computer screen. Brilliant reds and yellows indicate brain areas that are most active. In contrast, the blues and greens on a scan show a quieter, less active brain.
What would we expect to find if we examined the brain scans of people with high versus average IQ scores? We might picture the active brain of an Einstein as a hotbed of smoldering colors ”but we’d be wrong. Neurologist Richard Restak summarized a UCLA study that compared individuals with high IQs to those with average IQs. Restak wrote, The researchers started off with the seemingly reasonable idea that ‘smarter brains work harder, generate more energy, and consume more glucose. Like light bulbs, the brains of bright people were expected to illuminate more intensely than those of dimwits with a reduced wattage. What they discovered instead was exactly the opposite. Higher IQ people had cooler, more subdued brain scans “while their less intellectually gifted counterparts lit up like miniature Christmas trees..
Why would smarter brains work less hard? One strong bet is that when we are inexperienced ”when we still have a lot to learn”we have to make a conscious effort to think about what we’re doing. But later, after we’ve become more adept, much of what initially took effort becomes automatic.
The good news is that functioning on autopilot allows us to expend less brain energy on the routine aspects of the work. Our expertise allows us to direct our energy elsewhere. For example, novices use different parts of their brains than experts do. This happens in areas as different as playing chess and swinging a golf club.These studies show that less-experienced people think more about carrying out the mechanics of the task and encoding information.Experts, on the other hand, function on automatic pilot in these areas. In fact, experts sometimes falter “flubbing a basketball free throw or a golf put” when their focus shifts back to the mechanics.
So functioning on autopilot can be a great advantage. But it can also work against us. As mentioned in chapter 1, international rock climber Lynn Hill was preparing to climb a wall in Buoux, France in 1989. She threaded her rope through her harness but then, instead of tying the knot, she stopped to put on her shoes. While tying her shoes, she talked to another woman. The thought occurred to me that there was something I needed to do before climbing, she later recalled.29 But Hill dismissed the thought and climbed the wall. When she leaned back to rappel to the ground, she fell seventy-two feet. Fortunately, tree branches broke her fall and Hill survived.
Lawrence Gonzales, who tells this story in his book Everyday Survival, points out that more training would not have helped Lynn Hill. “In fact,” as Gonzales writes, “experience contributed to her accident.” She could tie her rope to her harness on autopilot but the similarity between tying shoes and tying the rope “tricked” her brain into thinking she had done what she needed to do.
So there are two sides to our ability to function on autopilot. Doing so can lead to major mistakes, as Lynn Hill’s story illustrates. On the other hand, there are distinct benefits as well. When we are trying to become more expert, in many cases our goal is to get good enough so that we can be on autopilot!
Interesting, but so what?
How can I use this information as a business leader?
Among their many challenges, leaders have two key responsibilities: developing their people and increasing efficiency. Increasing efficiency often involves standardizing, automating or simplifying processes. However, carrying out routines more automatically also has one major drawback. It increases the risk that, like Lynn Hill failing to knot her rope, people will at times implement these procedures mindlessly.
In an ideal world, for efficiency’s sake, employees would conduct much of their work on autopilot. Then they would shift off autopilot when the situation required more conscious thought. The key question for business leaders is how to ensure that people stick to autopilot when it’s working well, yet make the shift to more conscious deliberation when it’s needed.
1. What if business leaders use automated systems to remind them to periodically go off autopilot?
Professionals often step back from recently-completed projects and debrief. They assess how things went and consider what they might do differently next time. Why not extend this practice to well-established routines? Team members could, for example, look at the plans they are creating for carrying out a project. Then they could take some time to discuss questions like Is this the most efficient possible way to do this? and Is there someone else whose perspective we should get on this before we start?
Similarly, individuals can take a few minutes before they jump into their own work to ask Is there a better way to do this? Would it be better to have someone else do this? One business leader experimented with sending herself questions like these as instant messages that appeared throughout the day. When one of these prompts appeared, it didn’t usually change her behavior immediately because it didn’t apply directly to what she was doing. But over time, she internalized the questions and they started popping into her head at times when they did apply.
In many organizations, quality or continuous improvement reviews are intended to serve a similar purpose. But all too often, the reviews themselves become scripts that are executed with little thought or consideration. Leaders should shift their mindset from thinking of quality or other reviews as administrative tasks and instead approach them as opportunities to turn off autopilot.
“ Madeleine Van Hecke, Ph.D., is one of the authors of The Brain Advantage: Become a More Effective Business Leader Using the Latest Brain Research, with Lisa P. Callahan, Brad Kollar and Ken A. Paller, Ph.D. Ms. Van Hecke is a licensed clinical psychologist, speaker, consultant, and author.