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November 12th, 2021

Your Brain At Work LIVE – S6:E06 – The Limits of Cognitive Capacity & Transforming How We Work

With the backdrop of an ongoing pandemic, monthly resignations hitting all-time highs, and mounting reports of job burnout – nearly everyone is feeling the pressure right now. Some organizations may react to this moment by “bearing down” and pushing people harder. However, this is a major driver of the problem in the first place.

Human cognitive capacity- at both the individual and organizational level, is a precious resource that must be respected. In order to create truly engaged and productive workplaces, leaders need to map to cognitive capacity, not work against it. 

In this episode, NLI’s very own Dr. Michaela Simpson and Dr. David Rock discuss the neuroscience of capacity, motivation, and bias to better understand our limitations and share ways leaders can drive engagement and performance, while turning down the risk of burnout.

Episode Transcript





[00:00:02] SW: Welcome back to season six, episode six of Your Brain at Work podcast. With the backdrop of an ongoing pandemic, monthly resignations hitting all-time highs, and mounting reports of job burnout, nearly everyone is feeling the pressure right now. Some organizations may react to this moment by bearing down and pushing people harder. However, this is a major driver of the problem in the first place. Human cognitive capacity at both the individual and organizational level is a precious resource that must be respected. In order to create truly engaged and productive workplaces, leaders need to align to cognitive capacity, not work against it. 


In this episode, NLI’s very own Dr. Michaela Simpson and Dr. David Rock discuss the neuroscience of capacity, motivation and bias to better understand our limitations and share ways leaders can drive engagement and performance while turning down the risk of burnout. I’m Shelby Wilburn, and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute. 


We continue to draw our episodes from our weekly Friday webinar series. This week, our interview style format is a conversation between Dr. David Rock, CEO and co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute; and Dr. Michaela Simpson, Senior Researcher at the NeuroLeadership Institute. Enjoy.




[00:01:20] SW: I’m your host, Shelby Wilburn. We have a great discussion today lined up for you about understanding the limits of cognitive capacity to transform how we work. Make sure that you grab some coffee, or water, or tea, and we’re going to settle in for the hour. 


I’m very excited to introduce our guest today. She is one of NLI’s best and brightest. She studied emotional functioning in people with neurodegenerative disease in her Ph.D. program at UC Berkeley. Her experience as a researcher leads our biggest projects at NLI, translating social and neuroscience findings and distilling information into learning solutions, research, summaries and journal articles to help organizations grow. 


Speaking of growing, she’s an expert on growth mindset, speaking up power dynamics, and right now is helping to lead the charge on the science behind allyship to our solution topics. She’s a Senior Scientist and Researcher here at NLI. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Michaela Simpson. 


Michaela, it’s so great to have you today. 


[00:02:19] MS: It’s wonderful to be here. Thanks, Shelby. 


[00:02:22] SW: Amazing. And our leader for today’s discussion, an Aussie turned New Yorker who coined the term neuroleadership when he co-founded NLI over two decades ago. With a professional doctorate, four successful books under his name, and a multitude of bylines raging from the Harvard business review, to the New York Times and many more, a warm welcome as I pass the virtual mic to co-founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute, Dr. David Rock. Off to you, David. 


[00:02:46] DR: Thank you very much, Shelby. It’s great to be here with you. I’m coming in from downtown Manhattan today, where it’s kind of home sometimes. Nice to connect. And, Michaela, great to collaborate with you again. We always do such interesting things when our brains come together. So I look forward to digging into this big topic with you all. Those of you new to us, new to NLI, give you just a quick snapshot of us. We’re actually 23 years old now. I feel old. We’re an interesting organization that we do original research, peer-reviewed academic research on the biological foundations of leadership and people challenges in organizations. 


So we’re looking at how organizations function or dysfunction often around people and saying what’s the science we’re missing? What’s the biological science we’re missing? Most of it brain science, but more broad as well. And then we also advise organizations. Michaela’s in our research team. There’s a lot of the original research we do. And we’re constantly looking at new ideas, topical ideas, as well as big ideas. And then we advise over half the fortune 100 and do that globally. 


But enough about us. Let’s talk about capacity. So first of all, just a little bit of a backdrop. We’ve been talking about this since march last year that we’re all going through psychological trauma, similar to physical trauma, with similar cognitive effects. We went through shock for a few months, long stage of pain, and we’re kind of oscillating between the pain and rehabilitation stage at the moment in this. But throughout this process, one of the central challenges is really what this does to our brain. And when we’re experiencing a threat response, which is what we’ve been experiencing all this time, there’s kind of two ways we can go. When we’re experiencing danger, it can be really easy to kind of be really, really thorough and try to be exhaustive, and dot every i, cross every t, be really thorough, because there’s some kind of danger around. And that’s a natural response to danger in many situations. And we do see organizations really doubling down on like monitoring their employees. We had a whole session on that a few weeks ago. We see people really getting detailed.


The trouble with this is that, in this time, when we’re experiencing threat, we probably just don’t have literally the capacity to be as detailed as everyone is being. We don’t have as much capacity. And instead of being exhaustive, we need to be essential. If you’re writing a legal document, you need to be exhaustive. If you’re managing a legal intern whose brain is exploding, you need to be essential. And we often forget that the work shouldn’t be how we manage.


So the central challenge is that threat we’re experiencing is very strong in this time. And as threat increases, all of our cognitive control decreases. But not just control, but capacity as well. Our cognitive capacity. So how much we can actually hold in mind? The challenge here is that right when we need a lot of capacity, because thinking about difficult things during a pandemic and during hybrid, we need a lot of capacity. We need to think really deeply, really widely, and make difficult decisions. But right when we need all that capacity, threat actually reduces that and makes it harder.


So we’ve been talking a lot for probably a year about how do we minimize the threat. How do we minimize the threat? But we’ve never kind of talked about how do we maximize the capacity and what do we do about the fact that people’s capacity to process is literally reduced under – Level one threat, it’s okay. You’re maybe more focused. You don’t get a big capacity drop. Maybe you get a focus increase. Anything greater than a level one threat, your capacity to focus really decreases. 


So this is a word we started working with some years ago. We introduced at the summit. It’s about four years ago, we introduced this concept of the three big pillars in NeuroLeadership. And capacity is a really critical one. It’s helping people process better by understanding the limits of the brain. So capacity, motivation and bias is something we kind of keep in the background a little bit. We use it to design programs and kind of do some of the deeper research. Motivation includes both growth mindset and minimizing threat through positive SCARF signals, things like that. And obviously bias is about mitigating bias. But we think these are the three most important things that managers need to do anytime at this time even more. Manage capacity, provide positive motivation and mitigate bias are probably the three most important things that we have to do. 


So we haven’t talked much, but actually we’ve been working. And, in fact, Michaela was involved closely in this project. We’ve been working on this question for a while. How do we understand capacity and work with it? And we published something that we haven’t talked about much in 2020 called the FACT Model, which is actually a framework for managing cognitive capacity and thinking about cognitive capacity. And it’s different to SCARF. SCARF is like kind of a seesaw. You want to have as much as you can on the positive side to minimize the threats on the negative side. Seeds is different. Seeds is like you’re labeling a particular bias at any time. So it’s a different kind of model. And FACT is different. Again, FACT really describes the four variables to consider in any kind of communication, delivering a webinar, building a slide deck, writing a proposal, presenting to a customer, talking to a colleague, designing learning, delivering learning. Like it’s really any kind of communication. What we want to do is work within the limits of the brain. Start with understanding those limits and work within those limits as best we can. So that’s the framework. And I guess a little bit like ages, which is our learning model. This framework, you don’t want to have anything missing. So you don’t want to have three of the four handled. You do want to be taking into account all four variables here. 


Michaela, anything you want to add just before we dig into the framework itself? Just about kind of the design of the framework or the research that went into it? I know you’re involved in that team.


[00:08:41] MS: It would be great to just dive into it, because I think it’s explanatory. I think as you were saying, this was really thought to something that we can apply to everything that we do, whether we’re doing our own research and how we talk with organizations about how to engage people in a behavior change, but also with organizations. how can they engage their people to process information better? Because when we process information better, we are better able to do our jobs. And actually we’ll have better mental health as well.


[00:09:11] DR: It’s literally what we’re saying here. How much we like the experience? How easy the information seems to be to dig into? How confident we feel to take action? All of this involves better processing, which literally means better work. And there’s a whole lot of research on this. So what this is about is people being more productive, more effective, and literally doing better work. And by the way, I’ll come back to this at the end probably. But capacity, motivation, bias is actually a foundation for three things that we assess organizations against now. So we started a few years ago to assess organizational talent practices. And we actually go in and tell a company, “Look, this is how your talent practices align with capacity or not. This is how they align with motivation principles of growth mindset, SCARF. And this is how they accidentally create bias or not.” So we’ve actually been assessing, we’re doing that at quite some scale now, capacity, motivation and bias inside all the talent practices that are happening, which has been happening for a few years now. 


[00:10:05] MS: Yeah. As you said, I mean, we see a lot of people around – Fortunately, they’re not too many people who are 75% or more. But I think we see quite a range of people where they are in terms of capacity. I don’t know if it would have been any different before the pandemic, but the stressors might be different.


[00:10:23] DR: Right. Right. I mean, definitely, the sort of 12 hours of Zoom’s back-to-back has been an issue for a lot of people and organizations that haven’t addressed that and develop some practices are going to have some challenges. 


[00:10:33] MS: Would you say those of us under capacity or 25% or more or over are not pleased with our current situations and may contribute to the shift moves in employment? 


[00:10:42] DR: I definitely think so. I mean, the data we just saw recently about the great resignation is 40% people are quitting because of burnout. And burnout is going to be not always over capacity, but it’s going to be a big factor. So you’ve got 40% of that. 


Another big chunk of people, the second biggest chunk, was actually organizational changes. And to me, that probably correlates to, again, kind of too much to think about and other issues. So there’s definitely some issues there. 


Let’s dig in and keep those questions and comments coming. We’ll make some space as we dig into the framework. But I want to make sure we give you enough time to process this, which is actually the T in FACT. So let’s talk about the F and the A. First of all, here’s the framework; fluency, amount, coherence and time. We spent a long time on this framework trying to get it right and looking at many, many different architectures and many different kind of categorizing. These appear to be four independent variables that are all really important for managing capacity. So it’s a framework for thinking about improving processing, not just understanding the science. This is the framework for improving processing. So fluency is literally the effort of putting something in your head. 


The amount is different. It’s actually the amount of information that we must hold at any time. Coherence is whether new information fits or how well new information fits to existing schemas and knowledge. And time is literally the amount of time you have to process that certain amount that fits together a certain way with a certain effort. So there’s kind of a natural flow to this. So it’s a really helpful framework for looking at something that is just overwhelming and saying, “How do we fix?” right? Whether it’s a proposal, a presentation, a product, anything that you’re doing. What’s missing? Is it just too hard to process? Do we just need to cut it down to a third of the size? Is it the amount? Is it how it all fits? Or is it we need to give people more time? This is kind of how the process works. 


Let’s talk a little bit about fluency and a little bit of research to dig into. Not too much. Fluency is literally the ease or difficulty with which information is processed. Visual fluency is something that feels familiar, feels concrete. We immediately process it in our brain. So it’s a really interesting construct, fluency, and something that I’m constantly addressing as I’m trying to develop communication tools. What I’m interested in is people getting an idea immediately with as little effort as possible. And I always think about how much working memory is necessary in understanding an idea and how do we minimize that. Now let’s dig a little bit into the science.


So this is interesting. The fluency of a candidate’s name affects the perception of their capability. So, literally, how easy it is to say someone’s name has us believe that they’re capable or less capable? Fluency is a thing that you could think of it as it activates biases. It activates kind of expedience biases in a way. Expedience bias is a feeling of kind of if something feels right, it must be good. And kind of cutting corners and not actually putting in effort. So lack of fluency means you’ve got to put in effort and that would activate an expedience bias. 


So lack of fluency has a remarkably big effect on everything. In fact, there’s some research that the highest traded stocks are those with the most fluent stock tickers. Like gap is GPS, which is really easy to remember, because it’s an existing schema. It doesn’t necessarily show up in the stock price anymore, but there’s some research done on that in a number of ways. So it has a real impact. 


We’ve got to make sure that there’s high contrast between information. And what I mean by that is, for the last 23 years, every time I’ve worked with any graphic designer, and our designers now have got it and they’re fantastic. But every time I’ve worked with a new designer, they always put like really stylish lines one after the other kind of at the top of a page. Kind of smallish font. One line and then a close one. Because it looks cool. The problem is you literally can’t read it without really, really looking. And you can’t differentiate between the lines. And I’m constantly saying let’s make that as big as we can and spaced over the page so you can literally see each line really clearly. 


So if you pay attention to presentations people give you, you’ll see a lot of presentations literally take unnecessary effort to just process the words and process the language. And so as well as kind of spacing out lines, I’m constantly taking out words so that things can be done on one line, for example. 


Michaela, do you want to comment there? 


[00:15:09] MS: Well, yeah. I mean, you’re basically talking both about visual fluency as well as linguistic fluency. And so like how does something actually look on the page? Can I actually process it? Is it easy for me to understand? And then there’s that element can I actually understand what they’re actually saying? Once I can see what they’re saying, does it make sense? Can I process it very easily? 


[00:15:29] DR: Right. Right. So there’s contrast, there’s simplifying, there’s use familiar things, there’s obviously keep it short. Pronounceable really matters here. Rhyming really helps. There are all these things that we can do to literally make an idea just much easier to digest. We came up with a goal one year that stuck with us I think for three years at NLI. And every year we come up with three goals that the whole organization focuses on. Kind of three strategic goals. And one year it was strive for five. That stuck for quite a few years. And five was literally a five-point rating in terms of the feedback that we get from clients. And strive for five became a match with three words; sticky, simple, says a lot, familiar, pronounceable, rhymes, all of these principles. And so much more – It’s just used so much more. Strive for five ends up being used so much more than things that have three or four more words. 


So let’s look at some of the work that we do with organizations around leadership. There’s a constant battle that we have with simplifying. Taking an incredibly complex set of ideas and turning it into literally three things; imagine the future, inspire the team and make it happen. The fluency of that is really high. Imagine the future, inspire the team and make it happen. It rolls off your tongue. You don’t have to work hard. There’s no issues. And it’s also within a certain amount of information, which is the A, that’s really, really helpful. So this is fluency. 


Fluency and amount have some crossover. But amount is also somewhat independent variable. So you can have something that’s really fluent but it’s just way too much information. The brain can be overwhelmed by literally having too much to process. And so the amount of processing is literally about can you do something with that information? Because if you can’t even hold it in mind, you’re not going to remember it and you’re not going to connect the information to existing schema. If you actually can’t hold it, it’s just like it’s not actually being processed. So you want an amount of information people are holding that they can keep holding. 


Now, complicated research on this, the most dependable thing is like a three-second rule. It’s not a seven chunks, or three chunks, or three chunks is definitely a useful schema. We can hold three chunks of anything better than four, better than five, and more useful than two. So three is a really fantastic number. But it’s really a three-second rule, which is the amount of time it takes to say something in our mind’s voice. You got a mind’s eye. Close your eyes, you see things. You got a mind’s voice. If I say remember the song Wonderwall. You don’t remember the entire in a second of Wonderwall. I’m not going to sing it, although it is my karaoke song. You don’t recall the entire song. You actually recall about three seconds of the song, which is the way audio working memory works. So you’ve got visual working memory. You’ve got audio working memory. With audio working memory, you recall about three seconds. There’s some variation. But if you give people a chunk of information that’s within that three second rule, they can process it, hold it, do things with it. If it’s outside that working memory capacity, they just literally can’t process the information. They can hear it. They can see it. But they can’t make meaning of it, right? They can’t kind of activate the network on their mental stage and compare it to other ideas and kind of basically do anything. 


Michaela, do you want to add something there? 


[00:18:45] MS: I think I just want to – As a social scientist, I always like to talk about individual differences, right? And so when we even talk about how much information anybody can hold in mind at any time? I will acknowledge there’s some who probably can. In terms of the amount of information we can hold, it varies for different people. But it’s also what’s the information coming in? And going to kind of to the next one, not to get too far ahead, but are people getting information that’s connecting to what they already know? So if you get information that’s completely new and really kind of foreign to you, yeah, it’s going to be much more difficult than you hear information, you’re like, Ah! I’m connecting it to what I already know.” So we actually can take in and away more information that way if it makes sense. So I don’t want to jump ahead, David, but I just want to acknowledge that, that it’s not just absolute one way or another. That there’s always a continuum.


[00:19:34] DR: Yeah, there’s a connection between these things. So fluency has a bit of a connection to amount. Amount has a connection to coherence. Because you can hold much more if it actually fits. And so we’ll move on to coherence in a moment. They’re independent variables, but they have some interesting connections to the other variables. 


So what you want is as little effort as you can to process a small amount of information as you possibly can. And how we do that? We want to make things visual. So the visual network is much more robust than the auditory network. So you don’t want to activate that three-second rule with people having to hear what you’ve said. You want people seeing what you’ve said. You don’t want people to hear what you said. You want them to see what you’ve said. And the reason for that is the visual working memory just holds a ton more information than audio working memory. So hearing something, we say the word elephant and you don’t picture it. You’re not activating a lot of networks. But if I say the word elephant and you picture an elephant, you activate a ton more neurons in your visual cortex, language center, memory center, and all this stuff. The visual cortex in particular is very big at the back of the head, the occipital lobe. You’ve got a more robust network to then connect to other networks. 


There’s a very tangible, quite concrete reason for making things visual, is you’re just harnessing a much bigger network which enables you to test that network, and explore it, and consider it, and connect it to other networks and all that. Of course, we want to simplify. We want to get to the essential. We want to take larger units, break them down into steps. 


Chunking is a really, really powerful thing. And anytime you take a lot of information and try and chunk it into three, or three-by-three, or try to chunk it into three or no more than four categories. Anytime you feel overwhelmed is a great first step.


[00:21:18] MS: People who work with a complex formula also have a single word for each of the factors. So basically, talking about taking the complex and doing what you’re saying, simplifying, right? So something can be very complex and a lot of information. But we find ways to simplify it. You just gave us an example of that.


[00:21:35] DR: That’s a great example. How we do that is we chunk. For example, if you watched – There’s that great series on Netflix about the woman who’s incredible at chess. But anyway, if you study kind of chess and chess masters, it’s not so much that they understand every possible move. They actually chunked. And so they know they’ve got a chunk for a certain kind of move that starts with the left-hand pawn going forward. Like they’ve got a chunk for that and they can see what tends to happen, and a chunk for all these different moves. And they can compare chunks.


There’s a lot of research on chunk acquisition and how we kind of form these chunks and how useful they are. But you can leverage that and just make sure that you’re always grouping and organizing into three or, at most, four as we lean into that. 


All right, a little bit more on this topic. It’s such a rich one. What’s behind the lack of fluency and the overwhelming amount of information in our organization? So when we think about organizations, things are just often far too complex, too much information, not fluent. What’s behind that, you think? Let’s get some comments in the chat. What do you think drives lack of fluency and the overwhelming amount of information? 


When there’s a lot of stress, sometimes we go to being exhaustive. We feel like we have to cover everything because of our anxiety. That could definitely be it. We’re anxious about every possible bad thing. So we feel like we’ve got to cover it. 


[00:22:51] MS: People try to be efficient and shove tons of info into small spaces. Lack of trust, lack of prioritization. That’s a big one, right? How do we discover what’s essential? Because we’re often – As you know, we’re often bombarded with so much information. And part of that skill is, “Okay, what is it that we actually accomplish? What do we need to do? What are our priorities?” 


[00:23:11] DR: Right. 




[00:23:15] SW: If you enjoy this podcast, you’re going to love our annual conference, the NeuroLeadership Summit. Coming to you virtually on February 15th through 16th, 2022. We’ll bring business leaders, academics and visionaries from around the globe to an incredible virtual gathering where we’ll zero-in on powerful insights, trends and breakthroughs, as well as the principles of neuraoleadership. All to help leaders and teams adapt faster in a transforming world. 


Join us online, February 15th through 16th, 2022 and attend sessions available across the globe. You can watch session live, participate in breakout rooms, interact with other members of the NLI community, or access content on demand. No matter how you prefer to engage, we promise you won’t want to miss it. To learn more and to save the date, visit summit.neuroleadership.com.




[00:24:13] DR: There’s something about leaders who try to kind of raise their status by using a lot of words or even by just filling a lot of space. There are leaders who can approve their status with a lot of big words. Of course, it’s really difficult to be simple. There’s that quote from – I think was Mark Twain who said, “I wrote you a long letter. I’m sorry. I didn’t have time to write you a short one.” Because it really does take time. You’ve got to do iterations and iterations to make things really simple and clear. You’ve got to actually know what you’re talking about. That often takes many iterations of an idea. I think about the learning solutions we build. And some of our solutions we’ve been iterating for like five to ten years. They’re so simple now, but they started really complex with like 20 ideas, and then 10, and then five and then we finally worked out the three things that really matter and we can focus on those. So some things just take an evolution to actually work out what really matters. 


I mean, you can be over inclusive in a way and end up with just complete overwhelm amount of information. So you want to be optimally inclusive, which is not under-inclusive, not over-inclusive. So there can be interesting challenges there.


Let’s talk about coherence and time. So you probably don’t know, because we’ve been terrible at sharing some of our papers. And I’m trying to change that a bit. But we actually wrote a whole paper on coherence. And it’s one of my favorite papers. It’s such a fascinating topic. And coherence is actually the structural integrity of ideas. And when I say structural integrity, I mean that literally. So I’m going to give you a picture now to make it more fluent in less amount – Imagine an architect looking at a blueprint, and they look at a blueprint and they can see if they’re a really skilled architect in their 20, or 30 or 40th year. They can see looking at looking at a blueprint that something has structural integrity. Like this is going to hold together. You’ve worked within the rules of engineering. Versus this is going to fall apart. You can’t build that. They have really good models for structural integrity. They know that there’s a weight load issue. They know things need to be connected. They know things need to be balanced. They know you can’t put too much. 


Anyway. So architects, physical architects, understand structural integrity of buildings. We have insight designers at NLI. We don’t have instructional designers. We have insight designers. They’re really insight architects as well. And what we’re looking at all the time is the structural integrity of the ideas that we’re presenting. So it took three years to publish SCARF, and about three and a half years to publish SEEDS, because we weren’t ready in terms of having the structural integrity really right. 


So I love coherence. You can’t tell. It’s such a fascinating concept that there’s nowhere near kind of talked about. And it’s literally how information fits together. And it turns out to be a really, really important construct on so many levels. And I’ve been learning about this recently. And maybe, Michaela, you’ll have some comments. But the medial prefrontal, which is kind of the center of the prefrontal, it’s such an interesting network. It’s actually the social network on one level. So it’s the network that’s active when you’re not doing anything. It’s the default network. It’s a network for thinking about yourself and other people and how the connections work. 


So this medial prefrontal is actually about the connections between people. But it also turns out to be about the connections between ideas. And there’s been a whole lot of research by Leila Davachi at NYU and others showing that when we can easily recall information, it’s literally because new information has actually fit into our existing schema, and that the media prefrontal is active. Is that when you learn something and you’re not activating the medial prefrontal, it doesn’t stick, because you’re not actually seeing the relationships between everything. 


So the MPFC is almost like this relationships network in a way. It’s kind of understanding and holding relationships between things. And it turns out people are important relationships to us. But it really does that for relationships between all ideas as well. It’s such a fascinating thing. So new information, it’s just a sound. And in the brain it’s just electricity. This new information has to fit within existing networks in order for actually you to make any sense of it at all. 


Michaela, do you want to riff on that at all? I know you’ve been closely involved in some of this work peripherally. But it’s such an interesting concept.


[00:28:26] MS: I mean, it really is, and it’s more like practical examples. So I love talking about the brain. But I was just thinking about music and dance. And David, I know you’re a musician. And I’m a musician too. And I play piano and I read notes. And for those of you, for something fitting together, as you learn something, those of you who play piano and you have to figure out your fingering. So you may say something on the page and it’s very complex, but you have to figure out what can I do to make it all fit together. And that helps us learn something. When we dance, you need to chunk things together, but it has to relate. The previous steps have to relate to the next steps. So as we think about coherence, we can think about it in terms of the workplace. As managers, how do we impart information to the people we work with? But we can also think about it in other aspects of life, whether it’s cooking, whether it’s in terms of music and dance. Coherence is so important to learning because we do have to connect the new with what we already know. It’s very profound.


[00:29:26] DR: Storytelling is a way of developing coherence. A story is how things fit together. A story of who does what to whom and what order stories create coherence. It’s much more than just how well things are connected. It’s kind of a bigger concept. It includes how well things are connected, but also it includes like are there extraneous elements that just don’t need to be there? Are there duplications? Are there tangles? We’ve got two things that say the same thing. Is there one set of instructions for every idea? So it’s much more than just how things connect. And we actually broke it down at one point into about five variables. And we’re able to assess the coherence with data of like a learning solution. We can look at a learning solution and say this is the level of coherence.


We did that some years ago with a one-day program that someone else had designed for a client. They asked us to assess coherence. And we found 23 different models that half of them did the same things in a one-day program. No one had like pulled back and said, “Hey, what are we trying to achieve? And what’s the most efficient way to do that?” They just kind of thrown everything in there. 


So when you think about structural integrity, it’s not just do things fit? It’s do they even need to be there? It’s how well do they fit? Because there’s a quality of connection as well. 


[00:30:37] MS: Do they even make sense? It has to make sense, because you can be presented with something and you’re like, “There is a disconnect because it doesn’t make sense.” We’re saying one thing here, but there’s evidence otherwise. Something needs to make sense.


[00:30:51] DR: Yeah, when something doesn’t make sense, you basically make this unconscious decision. Either I’m not smart enough. Or the person putting this together wasn’t smart enough. And usually we choose the latter and we discard information that doesn’t fit together. So when something’s not coherent, if we can’t see how it all fits, the brain kind of says, “Eh, this obviously isn’t important enough.” Or you sort of have to decide you’re not smart enough when you can’t see how something is relevant. But usually we go to, “I’m just not going to care about this because someone clearly hasn’t thought through this enough.” So I’ll come back to it you know later. Or if we keep working on something, we get the Zeigarnik effect where the brain just keeps working on this and keeps working until you’ll eventually find the connection.


The other thing about coherence is it goes in lots of directions. If you’re designing a complete culture change program, there’s vertical coherence between your vision, your mission, your values, your leadership principles. Whatever you’re doing, there’s this vertical coherence. There’s also a horizontal coherence between, say, all the different learning programs that you have and how they fit together. So you want to think of coherence in multiple different ways. And we didn’t kind of prepare this today, but if we did a whole session just on coherence, there’s literally a very data-driven way to actually measure it of any particular communication. Could be a slide deck. It could be a webinar. It could be a training program. So you can actually measure in quite a data-driven way the actual coherence of an individual, or a complete change program, or learning strategy, or even corporate strategy. You can measure the coherence of an organizational strategy what their business strategy is. So it’s a really, really interesting construct to be thinking about. You can tell we love it. 


Just a way to think about it, if you try to learn Japanese and you have no experience in that, it’s really hard because you have no schema, existing schema to build on. If you already speak Spanish and you’re going to learn Italian, actually, you have phonemes, which is a unit of sound. You have similar phonemes. You don’t have to learn those. Japanese, you literally haven’t practiced your mouth saying those sounds ever. So you don’t literally know how to say the sounds. You have the alphabet. You have the grammar. You have a whole lot of chunks that gives you a huge head start. Whereas learning a completely new language is really, really difficult. So this is a way to think about coherence, is it’s much easier to tie into existing frameworks than a completely new one. 

There’s another thing I think is really fascinating, really, really fascinating. If you actually accept this, you might change just about everything that you do. People are only about 27% accurate, about quarter accurate when they make judgments about how well they understand something. In other words, about a quarter of the time people actually understand something when they say they do. It’s kind of crazy. Think about that for a minute. A quarter of the time we understand something. We think we do. 


So you’ve got learning architects who are designing programs. They don’t really even understand what everything’s about. You’ve got leaders who think they understand what something’s about. They really don’t. And we’re rushing to put out content. We’re rushing to put out different material, different marketing material. But we actually don’t really understand what we’re doing a lot of the time. 


So one of the sources of poor coherence is we think other people understand what we’re talking about. They don’t actually understand a lot of what we’re talking about. And so we’ve got to put more work into this. 


One of the the habits we worked on with Microsoft, we got down to three words, was ensure shared understanding. It was actually one of the practices they call there. So there’s principles and practices. And ensure shared understanding became this really, really important practice within the context of create clarity in ensure shared understanding. And it’s such an important thing to do given this factor. So this is one of the reasons for poor coherence. 


This is also really interesting. For those of you involved in learning, if we think about learning coherence, a lot of people in learning love like these fun, seductive, interesting details kind of novelty. So we often think when designing learning that people need novelty. This was actually studied. And what they found is that when lectures included novelty, people actually recalled less. So just pushing for the novel is not the way that you improve learning, for example. And I see this all the time. A company will say, “Hey, we’re going to keep this really fresh and interesting. So we’re going to bring in three different thought leaders. You’re one. We’re going to bring three different thought leaders to all talk about leadership.” And then I look at what I’m going to say, what the other two people are going to say. And I’m going to say this might look novel to you, but people’s heads are going to explode because nothing’s going to fit together. It’s more important that everything fits together than everything’s novel. We see kind of a pushback around this. 


So the why is a really big one. Connecting things together is really important. Relating back to goals. Michaela, anything you want to jump into before we go to time? I’m looking at time and I’ll make sure we’ll spend less on time and kind of get to the conversation in a minute. But anything you want to add on coherence? 


[00:35:30] MS: No. I was just thinking about organizations. When you talked about – We talk with organizations about being coherent. Again, what is your message that you’re trying to convey to the people who are working for you? And when you think about parents, what does that term? Like, do as I say, not as I do. But we have to model that behavior. And so when we think as organizations or even as leaders, what are we saying? And are we actually modeling that? And if there’s a disconnect, it’s not coherent. People are going to consciously or unconsciously see or feel a disconnect. So it’s really important in our messaging, whether we’re individuals, we’re managers, we’re leaders, or organizations, that we are consistent and that our messaging makes sense. And it all connects with one another and people can understand the coherent whole message. And that’s really important.


[00:36:18] DR: And to tie this together, the more that message is fluent, like clarity, energy, success, and it’s not much information. Like the amount’s low in that case, and it’s coherent, right? Now you can really hold these ideas in mind and do things with them. So when you develop a set of culture principles that are really fluent and easy to recall and use, it has this really interesting effect. We’ve been talking to a lot of companies about culture lately. They’re really anxious that their culture is going to evaporate. But having a framework is really helpful for everyone to know what really matters. But you also want to remember that culture is learned through watching what people do, watching the habits that are at work. And we really learn that from watching faces and watching people’s facial responses and emotional responses on their face as they work. So provide you keep cameras on in your interactions, culture should be pretty intact. Even more so if you’ve got a really, really clear architecture for what matters. That fluent isn’t too big and is coherent. And then finally, you’re giving people time to process. 


So one of the things – And maybe I’m guilty of this. Maybe I’m the worst person at this, but it takes about a third of a second to really process a sound. It takes a beat to process an idea and connect it to different ideas. But now when you think about like a slide that has like an eye cart, like a ton of information, it might take you five minutes just to actually understand the data and just hold it and process it and see any relevance. And yet I’m often the subject of presentations where folks already understand it and assume that I will be able to understand it in 10 seconds or 30 seconds. So we’re misunderstanding. We’re often misunderstanding the time it takes to process something. And it really does take you know a bit of time to kind of get an idea into our head. 


And what’s interesting is people have different times for that. And I think Amazon had it right when they said process at the start of a meeting with a document so that people can read fast, read slow, go back and forward, do it how they need to. And we do that at NLI with all our internal meetings, and consulting, everything. We’ll have a document people can process. So no one’s having to present it. It’s really powerful.


But one of the things with time, you obviously got to reserve time for complex or abstract information. In our internal meetings and consulting, if you’re watching us work, you would regularly see us, whoever’s leading the meeting, would often say, “I’m going to shut up for two minutes and let you process what we’ve just said and think about the implications. Or any questions?” Just about every meeting, it’ll happen at least once, is we’ll say, “Hey, that was a lot to process. Let’s just shut up and think and just take some time to digest this.” And then all this really rich stuff. We might say, “Look away from the screen for two minutes. Let’s just be quiet and we’re just going to think about everything we’ve just talked about and reflect on it. We’ll come back together in two minutes, or three minutes, whatever. Make some notes on paper.” And then once you’ve looked at your notes, see what’s really meaningful and put that in the chat. 


So you’re giving people time for complex or abstract information to really process and also allowing people to process at their own pace. And of course giving people breaks to process these things as well. So we’re not thinking enough about time. Processing does require sufficient time. It really is something that you can’t get around. 


So here’s another question for you. As we think about coherence and time, what else might be behind the lack of coherence and good time management around process information? Now maybe it’s similar things from fluency and amount. I don’t know. I’m curious. In an organizational context, what’s driving lack of coherence and really managing time? 


[00:39:53] MS: Poor planning, lack of architecture. Tyranny of the urgent. I like that. Very sticky. Background info on the topics. I’m assuming others understand what we understand. Kind of speaking, talking about what you were talking about earlier, David. Assuming we’ll say something. And of course people know what we’re talking about. Stupid deadlines. Rushing. Unrealistic expectations. Losing sight of the real goal. Not having a clear goal. There’s a lot about just the rush, the urgency, even an addiction to that. Too many distractions.


[00:40:24] DR: Yeah, fantastic. Yeah. And just because we can go fast doesn’t mean we should. Cars can go at 150 miles an hour. Doesn’t mean we should. No. We’ve put limits on that, right? Yeah, we could, in theory, do 18 hours a day of meetings. Should we? No. We could do 12. Should we? No. In terms of really focusing and interacting, probably three or four hours is a lot in a day, but with a gap between in terms of still having your full capacity, right? Your capacity will be limited otherwise.


[00:40:55] MS: So we want to realize that we want to create a healthy – We want to be healthy, right? And so as you were saying, David. Just because we can work and do things, doesn’t mean we should be doing that all the time. We need the opportunity to recover, to relate to other people. 


And I would just like to mention inclusion. When we think about time and we’re working with any number of people who could be facing all kinds of stressors, distractors to their attention, and there are some people on the degrees of attention, like attention deficit disorder, that information coming in too much or from too many different people can really be a off-putting and they can’t take in information. Somebody, English, we’re just saying US, we normally speak English. English might be their second, third or fourth language, which means it’s going to take longer for them to process that information. You might be visually impaired, hearing impaired. So just even thinking, as I speak fast, how do we slow things down? 


[00:41:51] DR: Right. Right. Right. Capacity. I mean, it’s interesting. When we first used the word at the summit, I actually asked at the end of that summit how many people have thought about capacity like multiple times a day? Pretty much the whole room put the hand up. It became this real feature of that event with just like really thinking about capacity. 


So here’s the framework, fluent, amount, coherence and time. What do you think organizations can do about this, about the whole lack of capacity awareness? It’s a real human need, like eating. We respect our capacity to digest food, right? Organizations respect food digestion capacity. We don’t seem to respect cognitive digestion capacity. We give people a week’s worth of food to eat in a day and think they can just do it. What can organizations do? No meeting Fridays? I love no meeting Mondays, or minimal meeting Mondays. It’s hard to do no minimal meeting Mondays, because your brain is fresher. You’ll get more work done. Versus Fridays where you’re just exhausted and you won’t actually get much done anyway.


[00:42:51] MS: Space between meetings. 


[00:42:52] DR: Yeah, 25 and 50 minute meetings. A gap every three meetings. So after three – And these need to be principles. They can’t be rules. But hard principles. Clarify purpose. 


[00:43:01] MS: And we need to digest information. We literally digest information. We need the time to digest information.


[00:43:08] DR: Yeah. Our learning solutions, we don’t really do one-off learning events. We do a month. So we basically break any big idea, like allyship, or inclusion, or breaking bias. But we break this out into the three biggest insights and then give you a month to digest them one at a time in all sorts of different ways with your really little snippets. It’s really powerful to remember that. This is relevant to learning, to communication, to marketing, to sales, to meetings, to really all of it.


[00:43:34] MS: Empathy for the human experience. Just sitting and considering others.


[00:43:39] DR: Right. Empathy for the human experience. I’ve mentioned the summit a few times. Our next summit’s been scheduled. It’s going to be virtual maybe with some in-person sites all around the world. And so a whole bunch of in-person sites, if we can do it. But it’s going to be a two-day virtual event. And actually what we’re going to focus on is making organizations regenerative as opposed to just sustainable. And the way to do that is really respect the limits that we have. Like understand the human limits around capacity, motivation and bias. So we’re going to do a ton of work on that in February. Hold the date to be there. Maybe one of my team can put a link in or the date for that. It’s coming up next year. 


It’s such an interesting framework that we haven’t loved much at NLI. I’m not really surewhy. It’s such an important issue respecting capacity. And I think that this is an architecture that helps you kind of break it out and really see where the issues are and see what you can fix. It’s not a disruptive model like SCARF and SEEDS that you’re kind of seeing it every day. Although you might. You might start to see fluency issues everywhere if you spend some time on this. 


But throw in the poll kind of how we can help you and how we can help follow-up. Take care of yourselves, look after each other, keep doing what matters. Not try to do everything. And I think you’re going to enjoy the next month or so of these events. We’ve got some really exciting content coming up. Back to you, Shelby.


[00:44:54] SW: Awesome. Great. Thank you so much again, Michaela and David, for today. It’s been a wonderful session. So with that, we’d love to hear your opinions and your feedback too. And we’d love to hear your thoughts on that. Also, we’re hiring. So if you’re interested in working with our team and joining in on the projects that we’re doing, visit neuroleadership.com/careers to learn more about our open positions. We also have our podcast. So if you enjoyed this conversation, you’ll be able to listen back to it as well as other great episodes that we have in our podcast, Your Brain at Work. And that’s available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to your podcast. And then, yeah, it’s Friday. We’ll be back next week, on the 29th, for a wonderful conversation focusing on the rate realization and the three percent conundrum. So we’ll have more information of that and have the link to check it out and sign up on our site. And thank you so much. Have a wonderful Friday.




[00:45:56] SW: Your Brain at Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us make organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you listen to your podcast. Our producers are Matt Holidack, Daniel Kirschenblatt, Shadé Olasimbo, and me, Shelby Wilburn. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky, and logo design is by Catch Wear. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you here next week. 



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