3 Thinking Errors Leaders often Commit

God gave us an amazing 3 pound dynamo called the brain. And although it weighs on average 2% of our body weight, it requires 20% of our body’s energy and blood flow. So, it follows that we should steward well our energy and consider what goes on in our brains. Great leaders recognize that great leadership demands great thinking.

Unfortunately, we often commit serious thinking errors that muddies thinking and hinders leadership. Ask yourself if you commit these thinking errors.

thinking error

Before I list them, it’s important to understand a concept called metacognition. It simply means to think about what you are thinking about. In other words, when we pay attention to our inner chatter, we’re more likely to catch ourselves in these critical thinking errors. Neuroscientists tell us that we have five times more negative networks in our brains than positive ones so we naturally default toward these errors.

Here are the three thinking errors.

  1. Catastrophizing: We assume the worse-case scenarios. We don’t get an email response from a critic and assume that they are causing trouble. It’s Chicken Little saying, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling.”
  2. Discounting: Because we biologically tend toward negative thinking, discounting minimizes the good. If you are a pastor, after a Sunday service you may have received several positive comments but the one negative comment casts a shadow over all the positive ones.
  3. Mind reading: We think we know what someone is thinking even though we have no real evidence. The fight-fight-freeze-appease structure in our brain, the amygdala, has twice as many neurons looking for the negative than the positive. As a result mind reading often results in negative assumptions.

So, how can we minimize these thinking errors. Consider using the STOP process, often used in mindfulness exercises. Here’s what it means.

S: Stop. When you feel anxiety rising, catch yourself before the emotion gets out of hand. Literally stop what you are doing to attend to yourself.

T: Take a breath. After you stop what you are doing, take several deep breaths. Studies show that deep breathing calms our sympathetic nervous system (the body’s response to an activated amygdala).

O: Observe. Observe and pay attention to the thoughts in your mind. What’s happening in your mind, in your body, or in your environment at this very moment? Don’t listen to the narratives in your mind about how bad everything is, how wrong he or she was, or what may happen at the meeting coming up. What negative emotions are you feeling? Pay attention to them. When we name them we actually reduce their intensity.

P: Proceed. By now you’ve probably paused for a few moments. You are ready to move forward, probably having caught some of these thinking errors.

The Apostle Paul understood how we easily get caught in these thinking errors. To counter that tendency, he counsels us with these words in Philippians 4.8.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.

Which thinking error challenges you the most?

Related posts:

Are you a Brain-Savvy Leader? 7 Posts that Show you How

One of my passions is to bring the conversation about how brain insight can help us love and serve God better. My blog tag line is even titled, NeuroMinistry: Leveraging Brain-Based Insight for Kingdom Impact. I’m serious about this as I’m completing an executive masters in the neuroscience of leadership (May) and wrote a book focusing on that topic that hits the shelves in May, Brain-Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry. I’ve written a bunch of blogs on this subject and I’ve included my top 7 most read posts in 2014 that relate to brain insight.

brain child
  1. 8 Signs of the Emotionally Anxious Pastor
  2. 10 Subtle Signs You have Hit you Stress Red Zone
  3. 6 Brain Barriers to Healthy Church Change
  4. 5 Ways to Get People to Pay Attention to your Sermons
  5. 6 Ways Leaders Can Keep Their Brains Sharp
  6. 4 Legal Drugs Every Leader should Know about and Use
  7. Pastor, are you Addicted to This?

What brain insight would you like me to write about this year?

6 Ways Leaders can Keep their Brains Sharp

This December I will hit the big “6-0.” Yep, that’s 60 years old. And I’ve been a pastor over half of those years. Some restaurants now even offer senior discounts since they consider me a “senior.” I can’t take them. I still pay full price. I’m not yet ready to be called a “senior.” Getting a “senior discount” on coffee at McDonalds is one thing. Keeping your brain mentally sharp is another. As our bodies age, so do our brains. Are we doomed to irreplaceable cognitive decline? Or, can we make some choices to keep mentally sharp? Fortunately, we don’t have to let our brains atrophy as we age. Here are some choices we can make to help keep them sharp.

Brain Aging

First, a few facts about the brain and aging.

  1. After age forty we lose about 5% of our brain mass each decade.
  2. The insulation around the axon or tail of a neuron (a brain cell) is called myelin and as we age it gets thinner. The thicker the myelin, the faster we process things. And the opposite also holds true. The thinner the myelin, the slower we process things.
  3. Dendrites, the little tentacles at the ends of our neurons that allow cells to talk to each other decline as we age. Think of a rose bush that gets pruned for winter. Although not as severe as a pruned rose bush, aging thins those tentacles.

Given these facts, how can we keep our brains sharp? Neuroscientists are now learning that we can stay cognitively healthy well into our later years. The term for our mind’s protecting our brains from decline is called cognitive reserve. The more we practice these habits now, the more cognitive reserve we take into our later years.

  1. Exercise. 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day has proven to slow cognitive decline.
  2. Learn something new. Mentally stimulate your brain. Stay curious. When we stimulate our brains and learn new things, we increase blood flow which helps keep our brains healthy.
  3. Keep healthy relationships. God created us to be in community with each other. Close, healthy relationships are not only good for the soul, but for the brain as well.
  4. Maintain a strong devotional life. At the end of our chromosomes lie protective caps called telomeres that are linked to longevity. Apparently the longer your telomeres, all else being equal, the longer you live. Long-term stress shortens them and devotional practices such as meditation apparently helps lengthen them.
  5. Don’t veg in front of the TV. Scientists are now learning that too much TV watching can accelerate our mental decline. So, go easy on the TV.
  6.  Eat your spinach. Studies show that older people who eat lots of fruits and veggies, especially the dark green leafy kinds keep their brains healthy. Omega-3 fatty acids (i.e., fish oil) also helps.

I’m encouraged by Peter Drucker, the father of modern day management. He wrote 39 books during his lifetime. He wrote 29 of them after he turned 60. He kept his brain sharp and it paid off.

What do you do to keep your brain healthy?

Related posts:

The Moody Leader: 4 Reasons NOT to be One

Churches, non-profits, and businesses require emotionally healthy and aware leaders. While competency, good management skills, and vision casting ability certainly matter, research now shows that emotional intelligence (EQ) profoundly impacts leadership effectiveness as well. One aspect of EQ, knowing our emotions, reinforces the idea that leaders must never be moody ones. Neuroscience gives us four reasons why.

Range of Emotions - Mad to Happy

Before I list the reasons why leaders should never be moody, here’s how I describe a moody leader.

  • Employes and followers aren’t sure what kind of mood he will bring to work.
  • When he feels anxious, which is often, he’s short with others and demanding.
  • He thrives on drama in the workplace.
  • He lacks self-awareness of how he comes across when he’s emotional.

So, here’s how neuroscience informs us about the downsides of moody leaders.

  1. Emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is the term that describes how others catch our emotions. If a leader is often moody, sour, or negative, that attitude will permeate that organization or church. I was once treated very rudely when I ordered a hamburger and fries at a hamburger joint. A few minutes later the cook yelled at the person who waited on me. At that point I realized who actually waited on me, the owner of the restaurant. His employees had ‘caught’ his bad attitude. I never returned.
  2. Uncertainty. Our brains don’t like uncertainty. When we sense it (“I wonder what kind of mood the boss will be in today?”), it sets up an avoidance response in us. Or flight-fight-freeze-appease center (the limbic system) ratchets up which results in fear, less team cooperation, and less creativity in the workplace. Moody leaders infuse uncertainty into the workplace. (My blog here describes our brain’s 3 leadership systems we should be aware of.)
  3. Mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a specialized group of brain cells that cause us to mimic goal directed behavior. For example, when we see someone yawn or smile, we tend to subconsciously yawn or smile. But such behavior is not limited to yawns and smiles. If a leader constantly frowns or furrows his brow in a disapproving way, it sets a negative tone in the workplace or the church. Yet, genuine smiles can do the opposite by encouraging a positive, productive work setting.
  4. Theory of mind. Theory of mind is a concept that says our minds can somewhat intuit what others are thinking and feeling. Although not mind reading, the process called mentalizing, helps us understand another’s mental states. Mentalizing helps us imagine and interpret their needs, desires, feelings, and goals. When a leader brings moodiness into relationships, he inadvertently leads others to intuit negative intents, purposes, or desires which that leader probably does not want his followers or employees to think or believe.

So you can see that moody leadership does not contribute to healthy teams, trust, creativity, leadership effectiveness, or cooperation.

If you think you may be a moody leader, ask someone who truly cares about you to gently remind you when you start acting moody.

Related posts:

7 Ways Multitasking Dumbs Down Leadership

Most leaders face the challenge to get more done with less time. Our so called time-saving technologies like smart phones, texting, and faster internet have actually done the opposite. They have created more work for us because they often make us accessible 24/7. This availability and rapid speed of communication has created the expectation from others that we should get more things done, and get them done faster. This reality tempts us to think that multitasking can actually save us time to meet the demands of life and leadership. However, multitasking as a way to increase productivity is a myth. Neuroscientists are now learning that multitasking negatively affects leadership in several ways.

Busy Businessman

Wise leaders understand that a key to productivity lies in their ability to focus their attention on what’s most important at the moment. And as neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin writes in his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload“Multitasking is the enemy of a focused attentional system.” (The Organized Mind, p. 16)

Before I give the 7 ways multitasking dumbs down your leadership, a quick explanation of multitasking will help.

When I say multitasking, I don’t mean that we can’t do two things at once. We can drive and talk to our spouse at the same time. We can jog and listen to a podcast on our iPods at the same time. And we can wash dishes and talk to our kids at the same time. We can multitask when one of the tasks is imbedded in the habit center of our brain (the basal ganglia), like driving. We drive without thinking about driving.

But multitasking that I’m writing about is attempting to do two things simultaneously that requires the focused attention of the executive center of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex), like listening to a podcast and answering email at the same time.

With that concept in mind, here are 7 ways multitasking will dumb down your leadership. Daniel Levitin expands on these concepts in his book. I highly recommend it.

  1. Reduced efficiency: Multitasking is not really multitasking. It’s simply switching rapidly from one task to the other and that switching carries a cost. It’s called task switching cost. We actually are less efficient with our time when we try to simultaneously do two attentional tasks versus doing them consecutively.
  2. Foggy thinking: Multitasking increased the production of the stress hormone, cortisol. When this happens we get anxious, our brains get overstimulated, and our thinking gets scrambled. This results in foggy thinking.
  3. Dopamine addiction: Multitasking can cause the feel good, reward neurotransmitter dopamine to increase by rewarding our task switching. The brain loves novelty and when we switch tasks and find something novel in that switch, we get a tiny feel good boost. An example is that while you’re preparing a sermon or talk, you tell yourself, “I’ll just quickly check Facebook to see if I see something interesting.” If you do see something interesting it reinforces this pattern of distraction because it feels good. And then when you get back to your sermon prep, you again experience the cost of that task switch. It’s the, “Hmmm, now where was I?” As Dr. Levitin writes, “Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused attention, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugarcoated tasks.” (p. 97)
  4. Reduced problem solving ability: Multitasking can actually reduce your problem solving performance by the equivalent of 10 IQ points. People who regularly multitask have poorer short term memories which diminishes problem solving ability.
  5. Important information goes to the wrong part of your brain: One neuroscientist studied students who tried to do homework while watching TV. He found that information from their schoolwork did not go into the part of the brain responsible for memory (the hippocampus) where it should have.
  6. Depletion of brain nutrients: The brain gets its fuel from two sources: sugars (glucose) and oxygen. When we multitask, we actually burn up the brain’s fuel which leaves less fuel for the more important mental tasks required of leaders. Yet when we stay focused on an important task, we actually reduce the brain’s need for glucose.
  7. Impaired decision making: When we constantly switch tasks, we’re faced with more and more decisions we must make. Do I answer this email now? Should I file it somewhere for later? Do I answer that text message now or later? As a result we lose impulse control because our brains tire from constant decision making. As a result we lack sufficient mental energy to wisely make decisions for more important issues.

So you can see that multitasking does not really save us time or help us become better leaders or pastors. The next time you catch yourself tempted to multitask, reread this post. It just might help you become a better leader that day.

How have you seen multitasking affect your leadership?

Related posts: