How to Foster ‘Aha’ Moments in your Team

Wise leaders encourage their teams to solve their problems with their own insight rather than with the leader’s insight. When an staff person or a volunteer brings a problem to us, it’s often easier and less time consuming to give them advice and solve their problem. Yet in the long run such a response can foster dependency on us to solve their problems and diminish their motivation simply because the solution isn’t theirs. And, people are less likely to act on somebody else’s ideas anyway. So how can we replace ‘answer giving’ with self generated insight?

Idea face

Insight is a solution to a problem that recombines what we know in a new and fresh way that often leads to creativity. Rather than solving a problem analytically, when we focus our attention outwardly on the problem, insight occurs when we turn our attention inward and becomes less focused. This inward focus can help us experience a sudden ‘aha’ solution. This historical illustration about insight describes the ‘aha’ process well.

We use the word ‘eureka,’ attributed to Archimedes (c. 287 BC – c. 212 BC), to describe an ‘aha’ moment, a flash of insight we sometimes get. As a brilliant scientist in antiquity, Archimedes is perhaps known for a story about his inventing a method to determine an object’s volume. A goldsmith had forged a crown of gold for the then king, King Hiero II. He was concerned, however, that the goldsmith has substituted the cheaper metal silver for some of the gold. He asked Archimedes to find the truth without melting the crown. This stumped Archimedes until a flash of insight appeared to him.

One day as he took a bath, he noticed the water level rise as he stepped in. Suddenly he realized that by making few mathematical calculations, he could use water volume displacement of the crown to determine if it was indeed made of pure gold. In his excitement, he ran into the streets naked crying, “Eureka, Eureka!” which means in Greek, “I have found it.” Thus, the word ‘eureka’ we use for insight. Through this insight he then discovered that the goldsmith had indeed substituted silver for some of the crown’s gold.

Archimedes had discovered an insight in a moment when he wasn’t even thinking about the problem. When we get a ‘eureka’ or an ‘aha’ insight, we just know the answer without actually knowing how we got it. The insight doesn’t come piece by piece, but usually all at once.

Researchers who study insight use a word game called Compound Remote Associate (CRA) problems. Study participants try to create three two-word phrases from three words that could share a common word. For example, consider these three words: barrel, root, and belly. What two-word phrases can you create that share a common word? Participants often use the word beer to create beer barrel, root beer, and beer belly. After they solve the problem they press a button to indicate how they solved it, either logically or with an ‘aha’ insight. Using both EEG and fMRI, neuroscientists then examine their brain functioning (Jung-Beeman et al., 2008) to learn what happens during insight.

Through these studies they’ve discovered a process that occurs in our brain when it receives an insight. First, our brain is at rest in what is called the default mode. We may be daydreaming or our minds may be wandering. MRI studies show that at this stage, the alpha wave (the wave active when the brain idles during daydreaming and relaxation) spikes. This indicates that our brain is visually gating (Sandkühler & Bhattacharya, 2008), reducing the visual input it’s processing to reduce distractions.

This is in contrast to the brain’s dominant wave, the beta wave, active during visual focus and alertness. The alpha wave shows that the part of our brain behind our eyebrows is more active prior to an insight. This part of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex, lights up when it senses conflict. This makes us more aware of competing alternatives and enhances our predisposition to switch between difference solutions (Beeman, n.d.), potentially creating an insight. That is, if one solution doesn’t work, the brain will try another. This part of our brain helps orchestrate attention since it is so highly connected to the rest of the brain.

Finally, at the moment an insight occurs the gamma wave spikes (Kounios et al., 2006). A gamma wave, the fastest brain wave, sweeps across the entire brain 40 times per second to bring our brain to attention, much like how a conductor synchronizes an orchestra when he raises his baton. The gamma band activity indicates new brain maps are being formed, the insight. And when that happens it literally feels good because neurotransmitters are released. As the insight occurs at the point of gamma synchrony, right hemisphere activity also increases to help us make connections with subtle associations we might have otherwise missed. The brain’s right hemisphere, which process information more intuitively and holistically, apparently drives the insight process.

I envision a setting ripe for an insight akin to a guy drinking lemonade while sunning in a lounge chair at the beach. Then, as he reads a fishing magazine, the solution to a nagging work problem suddenly pops into his mind. That image contrasts to his intense mental state a week prior at work when he tried to solve the problem, much like how Rodin’s famous sculpture ‘The Thinker’ pictures. So, insights are more apt to come when are brains are less focused and rested.

Consider these tips to help your team learn to develop insight.

  • Daydreaming: Insight often comes when we daydream and allow our minds to wander (Christoff et al., 2009). Teach your team how daydreaming can help them solve problems. Encourage your team to schedule times to daydream and to allow their minds to wander rather than always actively trying to solve problems. Help them realize that thinking less about a problem may actually bring the solution. In fact, some companies such as Google, Intuit, and Twitter expect their employees to take time for daydreaming about projects other that than those they’re working on (Waytz & Mason, 2013).
  • Mood: When we are in a positive mood, problem solving often comes more easily (Subramaniam et al., 2008). Yet when we’re anxious, we solve fewer problems because the anxiety uses up brain resources. So if you’re facing a dilemma in your organization, it might help if the team watched a funny movie to stir the creative juices.
  • Location: Encourage your team to discover the kinds of activities that help put them into an insight state. Two settings have helped me generate insight. Ideas pop into my mind when I read and walk at a reasonable pace on my treadmill. Insight also comes more readily when our family leaves for vacation while it’s still dark. I’m the driver and I’m usually the only one awake that early in the morning. With little roadside distraction, my brain has generated many good ideas during those three or four hours of solitude.
  • Application: Although insight gives us a nice dopamine rush (the neurotransmitter involved in attention and reward), we all know that the feeling eventually wears off. Remind your team to record their insights in an easy to remember location so that they won’t forget them. Even if your team member can’t immediately act on an insight, getting him to commit to acting on it at a later time can help translate the insight into action (Rock, 2007, p. 108).
  • Speed: If you’re working with a team member who is trying to find a solution to a problem, don’t rush the process. Give him time to engage his brain. Allow space in conversations and encourage him to carve out some down time to give his brain a break.

The above is a brief excerpt from of my newest book to be released next April entitled Brain-Savvy Leadership: the Science of Significant Ministry. 

How have you helped foster ‘aha’ moments among your team members?

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Sources:

Beeman, M. Insight in the Brain. Available from: <http://groups.psych.northwestern.edu/mbeeman/PLoS_Supp.htm>.

Christoff, K., Gordon, A.M., Smallwood, J., Smith, R. & Schooler, J.W. (2009) Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (21), pp.8719–8724.

Jung-Beeman, M., Collier, A. & Kounios, J. (2008) How insight happens: learning from the brain. Neuroleadership Journal, (1), pp.20–25.

Kounios, J., Frymiare, J.L., Bowden, E.M., Fleck, J.I., Subramaniam, K., Parrish, T.B. & Jung-Beeman, M. (2006) The prepared mind: neural activity prior to problem presentation predicts subsequent solution by sudden insight. Psychological Science, 17 (10), pp.882–890.

Rock, D. (2007) Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work. Reprint. HarperBusiness.

Sandkühler, S. & Bhattacharya, J. (2008) Deconstructing Insight: EEG Correlates of Insightful Problem Solving. PLoS ONE, 3 (1), p.e1459.

Subramaniam, K., Kounios, J., Parrish, T.B. & Jung-Beeman, M. (2008) A Brain Mechanism for Facilitation of Insight by Positive Affect. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21 (3), pp.415–432.

Waytz, A. & Mason, M. (2013) Your Brain at Work [Internet]. Available from: <http://hbr.org/2013/07/your-brain-at-work/ar/1> [Accessed 26 June 2013].

Are you a Grateful Leader? 3 Key Indicators

Jesus once performed an amazing mass healing when he healed 10 lepers all at once (Luke 17.11-19). However, what amazed Jesus most was that only one leper came back to thank him. The responses these lepers gave so astounded Jesus that Luke records three questions He asked out loud after the healing. “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (vss 17-18) The big deal Jesus made about gratefulness in the one leper (and the lack thereof in the nine), points to the high value He places on a grateful heart. I believe leaders among all should evidence a grateful heart. Evaluate your level of gratefulness against these three gratefulness indicators.

Thank You

Indicators that you are a grateful leader.

  1. I avoid rush-i-ness
    • Rush-i-ness (a word I made up) pictures the leader who rushes from one task or meeting to the next. In his rush-i-ness, his hurry causes him to miss what he should be thankful for. Nine of the healed lepers were in such a hurry to show their healed bodies to the priests (the Jewish law requirement for re-entry into society) that they forgot to thank Jesus. Rush-i-ness stifles gratitude because in our hurry, we often miss what we should be grateful for. John Ortberg wisely noted that hurry points not only to a disorganized schedule, but to a disorder heart.
  2. I intentionally look for things about which to be grateful. 
    • We all deal with a brain phenomenon called inattentional blindness, missing what is right before our eyes because we are focusing on something else. In a famous research experiment a researcher filmed a half dozen students tossing a basketball back and forth to each other. Half-way through the 90 second video someone in a gorilla outfit appears in it as he walks in front of the students, pauses, and then walks off. In studies of people who watch the video and are told ahead of time to focus on counting the number of times the ball is tossed, an average of 50% miss seeing the gorilla.
    • In my masters program in the neuroscience of leadership, I watched the video with the same instructions (count the ball tosses) and I didn’t see the gorilla until my prof showed us the video a second time.  I was too focused on counting the ball tosses that I missed the obvious. We leaders are often guilty in the same way of missing what we should be aware of and, thus, thankful for. The leper didn’t let the need to appear before the priest keep him from gratefulness.
  3. I verbalize my appreciation to others for what I’m grateful for. 
    • Jesus was omniscient. He could have read the minds of all the lepers and noticed that they were grateful and been satisfied with that. He didn’t do that, however. He made a big deal about only one returning to thank him and the other nine not doing so. I believe we complete true gratitude when we verbally express it to God for his specific blessings or tangibly show gratitude to those around us.

Ask yourself these questions how you as a leader value and practice gratefulness.

  1. Who on my team did I tangibly appreciate last week?
  2. Have I built into my annual goals and plans tangible ways to thank staff and volunteers?
  3. How would others describe my practice of gratefulness: like the one leper who returned (tangible gratefulness) or like the nine who didn’t (very little if any gratefulness)?

I’d love to hear how you build gratefulness into your ministry or organizational culture. What have you found to be effective gratefulness practices?

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How to Have a Tough Conversation with a Staff Member

Leadership often requires that we navigate tough conversations with staff and employees. It’s easy to neglect such vital conversations for several reasons: fear, they’ve gone sour in the past, we don’t know how, etc.  But to lead well, we must not avoid those talks. I’ve learned that a simple process called active listening can help make those interactions go much better. Here’s how it works.

Two businessmen having an argument

First, appropriately set up your conversation. Assume, for example, that an employee named John is consistently late to work and you need to talk to him about that. To give him some sense of control (when we feel like we have control we can dampen the brain’s fear response), don’t spring the conversation on him. Ask John in a non-emotional moment that you’d like to talk about office hours at his convenience. Ask him to let you know a time that might work.

The conversation might go like this.

John, I’d like to chat with you for about 15 minutes about our office hours. Would you mind looking at your calendar and suggesting a couple of times that might work with your schedule? After I hear from you, I’ll check my schedule and then we’ll set a time. Thanks.

So assume that you both agree on a time. Before you meet, carefully think through what you want to say using this simple acronym, DESC, that I learned from my friend Sharon Swing. This easy-to-remember tool can help guide your conversation, keep it positive, and secure commitment for the desired change. Here’s what DESC stands for.

  • D: Describe the negative behavior.
  • E: Express the emotions you feel when you see the negative behavior.
  • S: State the positive behavior you desire.
  • C: Explain the consequences that will result with the new positive behavior you desire.

Here’s what a conversation might look like using the DESC model. I’ve shortened the conversation for brevity’s sake.

D

John, I’m noticing that you are often late to work. As you know we want to be here at nine so we can get in a full day of productive work.

E

When you are consistently late for work I feel frustrated because it does not provide a good example for the rest of the team. Sometimes I also feel angry at you because we’ve talked about this before. I don’t want to start my day feeling frustrated or angry at you.

S

Going forward, I want you to be at work at nine.

C

When you start arriving at work on time, it will help keep up team morale and help me start out with a positive disposition toward you for the day.

After you share your thoughts above, ask for a commitment from John to be on time and then set a mutually agreed upon follow up date to gauge progress.

This simple tool works not only in the workplace, but at home as well.

How have you handled those difficult conversations?

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6 Ways to Build Community in your Leadership Team

God created us to live and work in community. The more community we experience, the stronger our teams. Highly productive teams often exude strong personal bonds and work in an atmosphere that fosters community. Good leaders understand the importance of community and actively seek to build it among their teams. Consider these 6 ways to build community in the teams you lead.

Four casual middle-aged friends holding hands
  1. Provide regular relationship building experiences for your teams to deepen their chemistry and their friendships.
    • Foster the sense that nobody is in an ‘out group.’ If some team members are perceived to be in an ‘out group’ it can set up a subtle prejudice that can affect team dynamics. Teach your team that because we naturally default to seeing others as being in an ‘out’ group, your team must be vigilant to avoid it. Monitor for cliques. Be vigilant especially when you bring new team members on board.
  2. Create physical gathering places in the workplace that encourage socialization. 
    • Something as simple as water cooler conversations can help build community.
  3. Regularly remind your team to see other team members’ perspectives.
    • Teach your team to learn to walk in other team member’s shoes. It’s called mentalizing. Mentalizing helps us see situations from the perspective of others. Studies show that the more we do this, the more we are likely to feel empathy toward and relate more positively to those whose perspective we are taking.
  4. Help team members share their goals.
    • When team members share goals, their connection to each other and their commitment to the team’s goals will intensify.
  5. Build an attitude of gratitude among your team.
    • Model gratitude so that your team can see it in you. Regularly explain how gratitude not only is Biblical but that it actually helps build team cohesiveness.
  6. Build trust.

What have you done to build community in your team?

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10 Ways Leaders Build Trust

If a leader wants to lead well and successfully, he or she must build trust with those around him or her. Without trust, teams won’t thrive or even survive. I believe we leaders must prioritize building trust with and among those we lead and serve. Consider these 10 ways to build trust with your teams.

trust building
  1. Speak truth, but always in love.
    • Eph. 4.15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.
    • Don’t spin and don’t flatter. Tell the truth, but don’t use a bat to do it. Jim Carrey starred in a movie several years ago called Liar Liar. He always spoke the truth but with no love, consideration or respect.
    • One of the most successful ways to deplete people’s trust accounts is to send angry emails. Don’t do that. See my blog here about misusing email.
  2. Golden rule trust.
    • The golden rule says, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you.” (Matt. 7.12)
    • In other words, give trust to others and they will give it to you. If you don’t trust others, don’t expect them to trust you. Trust gets reciprocated. You want trust, you have to extend it to others
    • Biblically rooted trust does not mean blind trust. Stephen M. R.  Covey calls it smart trust. There must be some credibility and history before you give full trust. I recommend his book Smart Trust.
    • Smart trust means that you have a propensity to trust and that you extend and inspire trust in others.
  3. Risk transparency.
    • People don’t trust what they don’t see. Trust requires humility in that you give part of yourself to others so that you actually give the power to them to potentially hurt or disappoint you. Banish hidden agendas. Don’t make things appear what they are not. Be willing to admit your failures and struggles.
  4. Go the extra mile to right wrongs.
    • Don’t cover up. Don’t make excuses. Own your own failures. You will build trust in others when you admit it when you were wrong.
  5. Give credit where credit is due. 
    • Practice Matthew 18 by dealing with conflict 1-1 first. Don’t let others con you into their conflict when they aren’t willing to apply Matthew 18.
  6. Be accountable.
    • God gives more opportunity and responsibility to those who have proved themselves trustworthy.
      • “‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’ (Luke 19.17)
    • Hold yourself accountable and responsible. Don’t blame others when you should take responsibility.
  7. Do what say you will do.
    • Behave in ways that builds trust in others. Show up the same way every day. Don’t be mad at everybody one day and happy as the lark the next day. Be consistent.
    • … those who fear the LORD…keeps his oath even when it hurts… (Ps 15.4)
    • … show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. (Titus 2.10)
    • Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. (1 Cor. 4.2)
  8. Practice authentic empathy.
    • Empathy is the ability to step inside the shoes of another, feel his emotions, and see life from his perspective. When you seek to truly empathize, it creates safety.
    • One of the Old Testament words for trust (batach) has a meaning of “careless.” When you trust your spouse or someone else, you feel so safe that you are careless—or free of concern—with him or her. You don’t have to hide who you are or be self-protective (from Focus on the Family).
  9. Seek understanding before being understood. In other words learn to truly listen.
    • My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…. (James 1.19)
    • The more we know each other and truly listen, the more we can understand why others do what they do.
    • Listen to understand, not build your case, not to reply, not to find loopholes in the other person’s argument or viewpoint, not to correct them, but listen to first understand.
  10. What would you add as a tenth?

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