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Attention Density” and Behaviour Change - the moment of insight”

This article reflects similar readings I’ve completed that discuss the psychological and particularly the neurological context of attention and leadership.  Where leadership takes place” in the brain is definitely a critical component of present research, and it is equally important to my own learning.  It appears to be a burgeoning area of scholarly work.

Rock & Schwartz begin the article by highlighting one of the most important realizations any social change agent can have: social change is literally social” change”.  Creating social change involves creating changes in the behaviours/habits of interacting people.  This is an enormous challenge.  We are literally talking about changing people.  Isn’t the idea that people never change” a common trope?  Why is this such a talked-about challenge, and how is behaviour change” implicated in leadership development?  Questions abound!

  • As a geek, this article presents exciting concepts for the integration of Psychology and other fields.  It describes the Quantum Zeno Effect, which I should look into more, and relates this effect to the neurological system.

The overriding thesis of the article is that old” ways of leadership — incorporating behaviourist techniques like reward and punishment or humanist techniques like self-actualization/goal orientation into management and change-making — are still being used despite no longer being supported by neither research nor success.  Referencing new frontiers in cognitive, social and neuropsychology, the authors suggest that there are better ways to produce change on an organizational scale. 

Instead, the action they recommend is to recognize the importance of mental maps” of behaviours in people, and to figure out how to change those mental maps of behaviours through moments of insight”: events or experiences that invoke changes in attitudes and expectations more significantly and more rapidly than without the insight.

  • During one of these moments of insight, research has shown that physiological processes take place in the brain that enable the creation of new connections across the mind.  The authors suggest that these moments of insight become changes in behaviour by being reinforced through paying it repeated attention.
    • Leaders wanting to change the way people think or behave should learn to recognize, encourage, and deepen their team’s insights.”

The very nature of these insights illustrates an important necessity for this type of behaviour change to work: they need to be generated by the individual, not given to them as conclusions.

  1. Moments of insight generate energy and good feelings — things constructive to the reinforcement of an idea while making it easier to resist previously known behaviours.
  2. Understanding the complex uniqueness of other people’s minds and behaviours leads to the conclusion that it is very inefficient to teach” someone to reorganize his/her thinking and behaviour compared to letting others develop their own insights.  This requires self-observation.

The authors use the term attention density” to describe the amount of attention we pay to a particular mental experience over a duration of time.  In other words, the greater we concentrate on a specific idea or mental experience, the higher attention density” we’ll have on that idea/experience.  They suggest that when a threshold of attention density is reached on an idea/experience, those thoughts and actions become intrinsic to the individual’s identity.

  • They define the intentional use of this phenomenon to learn as self-directed neuroplasticity.”
    • A possible demonstration of this concept is found in a 1997 study of public sector managers who went to a training program, which increased productivity by 28% alone”, but in managers who had follow-up coaching, productivity increased 88%.

They suggest that an attention model” of education that engages this phenomenon makes behaviour change-type learning much more possible than traditional modes of learning.

    • The key is getting people to pay sufficient attention to new ideas, something the e-learning’ industry has struggled with.”

It is possible that good/effective leadership is actually a function of a leader’s ability to induce others to focus their attention (at a threshold of closely enough, frequently enough and for a long enough duration) on specific ideas that produce the desired behaviour change.

So, leaders can effectively create behaviour change not (necessarily) by focusing (and drawing attention to) problems in their teams, but instead by working to encourage and incite new ideas/insights to happen that relate to solutions. 

  • [Invoke change in your team] through a solution-focused questioning approach that facilitates self-insights, rather than through advice-giving.”
  • Leaders can make a big difference by gently reminding others about their useful insights, and thus gently eliciting attention [where it] otherwise would not be paid.”

This approach is one that we have sometimes used accidentally, but capturing it and actively focusing on implementing it into programs may be a missing piece critical to true success. 

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