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?

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].

4 Legal Drugs Every Leader Should Know about and Use

Drugs. At first blush the word implies something illegal, immoral, and bad for your body and brain. However, there are 4 key drugs or chemicals that every leader should know about, use, and wisely leverage in the ministry and the workplace.

God wired our bodies and brains to use these four chemicals so that we function most effectively. And leaders who understand their function can help their teams become most productive. So, what are they and how can leaders use them?

First, a  bird’s eye explanation. There are two basic kinds of these drugs or chemicals. Neurotransmitters traffic in our brain’s neurons (brain cells) and hormones flow through our blood. There there are over 100 neurotransmitters and over 50 hormones. Some act as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter.

But these four are significant body-brain chemicals that a leader’s actions can influence in the bodies and brains of those we lead.

  • Dopamine: a neurotransmitter involved in attention and reward. When you learn something new or check something off your to-do list, dopamine gives you a nice pleasurable feeling.
  • Serotonin: the neurotransmitter the brain releases when we feel pride in our work. When someone compliments you on a task you did or a talk you gave, that ‘feel good’ sense comes from serotonin.
  • Oxytocin: the neurotransmitter/hormone called the trust hormone. When you feel safe and secure around another and feel that you belong, this chemical releases and also makes us feel good.
  • Cortisol: called the stress hormone. We need this hormone to respond to the stresses in life. But when under prolonged stress, too much cortisol can damage our cardiovascular system, suppress our immune system, and diminish cognitive function like memory.

As a leader, you can leverage these chemicals in your teams in these positive ways.

  • Dopamine (attention/reward)
    1. Help your team members set and reach realistic goals. When they do, they will get a nice dopamine burst which will motivate them to set and reach new goals.
    2. When you teach, model techniques that can help your team maintain attention and learn more effectively. Some of these techniques that can help the brain release dopamine (and increase attention) include novelty, using object lessons, adding pictures alongside words in power points, and helping the listener apply what they hear.
  • Serotonin (affirmation)
    1. Look for and acknowledge good performance from team members.
    2. Know your team members well enough to know what communicates to them “job well done” (i.e. verbal, in writing, before the group).
  • Oxytocin (trust)
    1. Provide ways for your team members to build community with each other.
    2. Spend relational time with your team simply to get to know them.
  • Cortisol (stress management)
    • While encouraging hard work, reinforce the Sabbath-keeping principle by making sure your team members take a day off to rest.
    • Regularly monitor how well your team members manage their stress. If they are under long term stress, help them develop ways to decrease it.

What specific ways could you leverage these chemicals in your unique team environment?

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Smart Leaders stay close to their Critics

MEN WANTED FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY. SMALL WAGES, BITTER COLD, LONG MONTHS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS, CONSTANT DANGER, SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL. HONOUR AND RECOGNITION IN CASE OF SUCCESS. Little did those accepted for this job out of the thousands who applied realize how true those words would eventually become.

Ernest Shackleton, a well-known explorer in the early 1900s, placed this ad in 1915 to recruit a team for his third attempt to cross the continent of Antarctica. In August of that year, he set sail with his recruits in the ship Endurance, named after his family motto: “By endurance, we conquer.” Three months later they arrived at South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic to begin their thousand-mile trek to the Antarctic Peninsula, a trip expected to take 120 days.

More than a year earlier, Vilhjalmur Stefansson had led a different expedition to explore the Arctic in their ship, the Karluk. Both ships endured similar fates in their respective voyages. Dennis Perkins recorded these words about Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition:

The masts toppled and the sides were stove in, as shards of ice ripped the strong timbers to shreds. Frank Wild made a last tour of the dying vessel and found two crewmembers in the forecastle, fast asleep after their exhausting labor at the bilge pumps. He said, “She’s going, boys, I think it’s time to get off.” ( N. T. Perkins, Leading on the Edge, New York: AMACOM, 2000, p. 6.)

Both expeditions, a year apart, had been gripped in an icy vice that crushed their respective ships, forcing each party onto the ice and into horrific conditions. Yet similar circumstances, only poles apart, yielded dramatically different results. In the months following the Karluk’s destruction, the crew disintegrated into a conflict-­laden, self-centered group, which resulted in the death of eleven of its crew.

In contrast, Shackleton’s crew, although they too confronted harsh circumstances and conflict, emerged on dry land 634 days after the expedition began. Not a single man perished. Although they faced the same hellish conditions as Stefansson’s men did, they experienced a different fate. What made the difference? Shackleton’s calm leadership presence before his critics and naysayers. 

The ship’s surgeon, Alexander Macklin, captured this important leadership characteristic Shackleton embodied that contributed to the men’s survival.

“Shackleton at this time showed one of his sparks of real greatness. He did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment; he told us simply and calmly that we must winter in the Pack, explained its dangers and possibilities; never lost his optimism, and prepared for winter.” (J. Marcuson, Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry, New York: Seabury Books, 2009, Kindle ebook, loc. 1117, emphasis mine)

Shackleton exemplified a key quality needed for every leader: engage your critics. In his time of crisis, he calmly connected to his men, especially the dissidents and troublemakers. It made the difference between life and death.

When our environment breeds anxiety and our critics try to stir up trouble, we can defuse this anxiety by calmly staying connected to them. Neuroscience actually verifies the biblical principle from Proverbs 15.1 that says, “a gentle answer turns away wrath.” It’s called emotional contagion. Others will catch our calmness which actually helps quiet the emotional centers in their brains responsible for anxiety and fear.

Men in Shackleton’s expedition noticed his calm, steady demeanor. When they were stuck on the ship, even one of his most pessimistic crewmen wrote these words in his journal.

“He is always able to keep his troubles under and show a bold front. His unfailing cheeriness means a lot to a band of disappointed explorers like ourselves. . . . He is one of the greatest optimists living.” (ibid, Kindle loc. 1182).

Shackleton keenly understood the importance of setting an example for his men on how to handle conflict and stress in a crisis. As you might imagine, living under such harsh conditions could easily cause arguments and disagreements. Yet those disagreements rarely disrupted unity because he developed an atmosphere that also encouraged dissent to be brought into the open.

Shackleton constantly faced four choices when confronted with dissident people, the same choices spiritual leaders face today:

  1. Pander and give in to critics to restore tranquility. Often because the critics are big givers or wield relational influence in our churches, we pander to them.
  2. Isolate or ignore critics, troublemakers and those with whom our personalities rub, thinking that if we don’t hear those voices, they will go away.
  3. Get defensive and power up to quiet the critic.
  4. Show courage and stay calmly connected to the critic.

Shackleton wisely chose the fourth option. Smart leaders do the same.

How have you managed the critics in your life?

(Taken and adapted from People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership by Charles Stone. Copyright (c) 2014 by Charles Stone. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. www.ivpress.com.)

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The Cortisol Stress Flooded Church: 9 Signs and 8 Antidotes

Cortisol, the stress hormone, is often associated with negative effects that prolonged stress puts on our bodies. Those effects  include weight gain, anxiety, heart disease, depressed immune system, digestive problems, sleep impairment, and even effects on memory. But could churches be negatively affected by cortisol as well? That is, if the leaders and culture of that church are constantly stressed, and flooded with cortisol themselves, could it affect the church negatively? I think it can and does in many churches. Consider these 9 tell-tale signs of a church flooded with cortisol.

  1. Your leadership team seems to always be uptight, tired, and sick a lot.
  2. Little trust between staff, elders, and the people in general exists.
  3. The leaders incessantly push bigger and better programs and ministries. They often switch from one great idea to the next.
  4. Your staff experiences lots of turn-over.
  5. An atmosphere of suspicion and “the wary eye” seems to pervade the church and your teams.
  6. Staff meetings are conflict filled or staff simply don’t say much in meetings for fear they will get reprimanded.
  7. A heavy spirit seems to linger over the office and even the church itself.
  8. Tension and conflict fill elder and/or deacon meetings.
  9. You seem to focus most on problems rather than victories or stories of how God is working.

How many of these did you check? Granted, spiritual forces are at work here as well. It’s not just a biological thing. But if more than two of these are true of your church, you might need to take a good look at your church’s stress level. Your church may be flooded with cortisol.

How might a church dial down a cortisol culture? Consider these potential antidotes.

  1. Create a ‘do not do’ list for your church. Pare down what you do so that leaders and volunteers don’t feel run ragged. Do a few things well.
  2. Teach your leaders how to build trust. Here’s a recent blog on building trust. When we build trust, we help activate the trust neurotransmitter oxytocin in our brains that creates a feeling of safety and belonging. Here’s a video of a recent talk I gave on building trust.
  3. Build fun experiences into your staff calendar. Don’t make every encounter revolve around pressing ministry issues.
  4. If you are the main leader, dial down your own intensity. Take breaks during the day. Deal with your own stress. Take your day off. Disconnect from technology 24 hours each week.
  5. Begin your staff and elder/deacon meetings with praises and victories.
  6. Share stories in your services that point to God’s blessings and changed lives.
  7. Over-communicate with your church. When people sense they know what’s happening, they will tend less to assume the worst. When we assume the worst we become anxious and cortisol ratchets up.
  8. Smile a lot. Our brain has what are called mirror neurons (brain cells) that prompts us to mimic the intentional, goal directed actions of others. Model give body language to others that you want them to imitate. And, make it positive.

Do you think churches can be affected by cortisol in leaders? Why or why not?

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Does Your Emotional Force Field Attract or Push Others Away?

In Miss Pickens’s third-grade class at Glen Oaks Elementary School in Fairfield, Alabama, I performed the first of many science experiments. As a full-fledged geek, I looked forward to those experiment days. One day Miss Pickens gave each of us a small, rectangular magnet about the size of a stick of gum, a sheet of white paper and a small container filled with metal filings. She told us to place the magnet on our wooden desks and then place the paper over it. Then she instructed us to slowly pour the metal filings on the paper. Magically, the metal filings clumped into semi-circular shapes at each end of the magnet. She then explained that those filings aligned themselves with the unseen magnetic force fields radiating from each end of the magnet. Thus I learned about the concept of force fields. In the same way every leader and pastor carries with him or her their own emotional force fields.

You’ve probably met people that carry around a magnetic, attracting one. My wife does. She loves people, and people immediately sense that. They feel drawn to her because her personality and caring persona invite interaction. One the other hand, I’ve known people that carry around an emotional field that pushes people away. It doesn’t take much interaction for me to feel uncomfortable or even repelled by such people.

Neuroscience describes a process called theory of mind that enables us, to some extent, to intuit the emotional and mental state of somebody else. When we notice someone’s body language and eye movements, we subconsciously can sense his emotional state and whether he is for or against us. Although not foolproof, this ability helps us pick up on subtle cues from others and “read” their emotional force field, whether it draws us to them or pushes us away.

An episode in the book of Ruth illustrates the idea of force fields.

When the women in Bethlehem first saw Naomi years after she had left with her husband, they were shocked at what they sensed in her. Her name, which meant “pleasant,” no longer described her countenance. Instead, her losses in the previous decade had led left their mark, and the women immediately sensed it. No longer “pleasant,” she asked them to call her Mara, which means “bitter­­ness” (Ruth 1: 19-20).

In a similar fashion, I would often sense the mode of a leader in a former church (I’ll call him Jake), simply by looking at him. He would sometimes come into a meeting with an emotional field that screamed, “I’m in a bad mood, and I’m going to resist everything you say.” His entire persona telegraphed his adversarial mood.

In contrast, I recall another leader in a former church that always carried an emotional field that said, “Charles, I am for you and with you. I support you.”

When we step into another’s emotional field, it does affect us. We often function in unhealthy ways in response to these fields. When I sensed the adversarial leader’s mood (Jake), I would often subconsciously tense up. My anxiety level would rise, and I would put myself on guard for fear of being hurt in some way. As a result, I could not think as clearly and would easily become defensive.

On the other hand, when I sensed the other leader’s affirmative mood, I felt safe. I could be myself, listen and be fully present for her.

This experience parallels how the poles of magnets either repel or attract each other. Difficult church conditions often give rise to repelling emotional fields that can cause conflict, personality clashes and distance. When we find ourselves in these adversarial fields, we must draw deeply from our spiritual resources, as Nehemiah did that we see in the book named after him.

Instead of disconnecting, powering up or reacting, we must stay calmly connected to that person. Our responses significantly affect the emotional fields of others in a positive or a negative way. When we keep our cool in the face of conflict, we think more clearly and can actually moderate the person’s or the group’s overall anxiety.

Consider Canada geese, for example. When I lived in Chicago, I’d often jog in the fall near a field packed with resting geese. When I ran near them, inevitably one would crane its neck, look at me and stand up, which caused the rest of the flock to do the same in a ripple effect. The one goose’s “anxiety” fed the others’. But after I ran by (unless for fun I ran at them), that initial goose would lower its neck and sit down, which cued the rest of the flock to follow. Its anxiety, or lack of it, affected the entire flock.

That’s how it works in churches and organizations. It travels from person to person in groups. If a pastor or leader brings his anxiety into a staff meeting (or a church service), it likely causes everybody else’s anxiety to rise as well. Likewise, if he relates to others with calm instead of anxious­ness, they mirror his calmness. As Margaret Marcuson writes,

“When a leader is clear, calm, and confident, people find their own confidence increased, and they are more likely to follow.”  (Leaders Who Last, Kindle loc. 815)

Calmly connecting does not mean we never get emotional or show passion. Nor does it imply we should become best friends with our critics. Roberta Gilbert explains it this way:

“If the leader can make a more frequent contact with difficult people (notwithstanding the fact that we all want to distance from them) they will often settle down. These contacts don’t have to be large amounts of time, they simply need to take place. And, sometimes, they don’t need to be about issues. Contact simply needs to be made.” (Extraordinary Leadership: Thinking Systems Make a Difference, Falls Church, VA: Leading Systems Press, 2009, p. 136)

So managing our emotional force fields is key to leading well.

How has your emotional force field, whether positive or negative, affected those you lead?

Taken by permission from People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership by Charles Stone (Kindle Locations 2003-2029). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.