4 Ways to Honor (or Overwhelm) Your Employees’ Cognitive Capacity

Keep cognitive capacity in mind to enable better problem-solving and communication.

Authored by

NLI Staff
Leaders have a role to play in helping people sustain the new pace of work and avoid burning out. Research from NLI can help organizations understand the limits of our minds, and how to work within them.

We’re all trying to navigate the tension between our personal interests and our professional commitments. As such, leaders need to help employees sustain this new pace of work, without burning out, to keep people coming together and working toward a common goal.

It turns out that research from NLI can help organizations understand these limits of our mind—an idea known as cognitive capacity—and work within them to enable successful problem-solving, optimal learning, and effective communication. Specifically, we must attend to the factors of fluency, amount, coherence, and time—a framework NLI groups as The FACT Model™—in order to enhance learning, communication, and understanding in the workplace.

We all can use the following four essential and actionable strategies to make information processing easier for employees and clients alike. Here’s how it breaks down.


How easy or hard is it to process incoming information?

Fluency is about how hard people feel it is to process information. In particular, linguistic and visual perceptual fluency are relevant in business thinking, learning, and communication. In business, fluency is particularly critical regarding learning and development, persuasion, sales, and creating a shared understanding to support the buy-in of hesitant people.

So, when sharing information, make it as easy to understand as possible—for instance, through simple language and relevant examples. When working visually, try using high-contrast lettering or images, and reduce the “busyness” of the images in use.


How much information can we hold in mind at any given moment?

To help us all process at maximum capacity, it’s critical to consider how many different sources of information are at hand. When you need to remember a phone number, a shopping list, or a set of instructions, you rely on what scientists refer to as working memory. It’s the ability to hold and manipulate information in mind, over brief intervals.

Working memory can hold only a few units of information. Managing cognitive capacity involves respecting working memory, such as by offering just the essential information in an efficiently organized manner. It helps to “chunk” information into larger units and break complex concepts or operations into steps to enable the right amount of information. This can help people avoid the need to multitask. One way to think about chunking is how we convey and interpret phone numbers: 3 groups instead of 10 numbers. For example, consider how we convey and interpret phone numbers; three groups with the first being area code. This structure helps us to maximize our cognitive capacity.


How does new information connect to existing knowledge?

Coherence is defined as “a state of a system of ideas and behaviors in which all of the components form a consistent, unified whole.” Coherence is like the “structural integrity” of ideas, in the way that buildings have structural integrity—they hold together under pressure.

One way we can help employees understand how new tactics fit is by linking them to known goals. For example, if a leader tells her sales team to focus on prospecting new leads in industries they’ve never worked before, she might want to explain how the push connects to the larger expansion strategy, rather than make the request out of the blue.


How much time does the brain need to process?

Factoring in time can help with more efficient planning projects, scheduling meetings, and setting deadlines. It can also guide our thinking on how to structure learning and communication to allow for optimal pacing.

For example, during NLI-led meetings, including our annual Summit conference, we frequently build in time to pause and digest with reflection, writing, and discussion. NLI’s learning solutions also allow for individual pacing and repetition of learning over time to meet the needs of each person.

Ultimately, the FACT Model™ offers us practical strategies to enhance learning, communication, and understanding in the workplace. It facilitates better work through better information processing.

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