Managing your mental resources: an essential skill for any leader
Future leaders must demonstrate a wide range of skills, from insight and creativity to the ability to cooperate and communicate. Meanwhile, leaders can only deploy these competencies if they are first capable of managing their own — and their employees’ — mental energy.
Special contribution from:
Jean-Christophe Beau and Gaël Allain the founder and scientific director respectively of My Mental Training PRO.
The list of skills expected of our leaders for the year 2020 is long. As well as being flexible, cooperative, empathetic, visionary, critical and multicultural, leaders will need to be good unifiers and coaches plus more besides! It is a mixed bag that also includes knowing how to mobilize an array of human, technical, emotional and intellectual resources. By exploiting these riches — not just for their own benefit but also on behalf of their teams — leaders can identify, analyze and harness (often faint) signals. But what should you do if you are worn out by the excessive, never-ending demands of your work, particularly those linked to digital technologies?
Is managing your mental resources a key skill?
Is your mailbox overflowing with messages? Do you have a packed schedule with too many meetings? Do you work in an open office where you are disturbed by constant interruptions and noise? Is your brain fi t to burst? Under these circumstances, how can you think clearly, listen to people and look at the bigger picture? The ability to marshal our mental resources so we can generate original ideas is not as easy as it might seem. Several different ideas need to come together by chance for truly creative thinking to emerge, and it is a process that requires moments of calm and / or times when the mind is free to wander, which is what enables original ideas to take shape. Such was the case with Newton’s apple, and it is also what happens when an idea comes to you in the shower. But how much space is there in the daily life of a decision-maker for downtime and mental relaxation? The same principle also holds true for all the other skills we expect of our leaders (such as a caring attitude), which require behavioral, cognitive and emotional resources that are not available when we are on edge.
Mental ecology is about establishing a set of rules for managing your intellectual resources on a sustainable basis so that supply meets demand.
These are the reasons why experts such as Daniel Goleman, author of The New York Times bestseller Emotional intelligence1 believe that our ability to manage and maintain clear focus, as well as to refocus and regenerate mentally, is a critical skill that determines success in all areas of our lives. The same notion is also taken up by the well-known German publication Manager Magazine2, which announces that the ability to handle mental resources will be the fundamental skill required of tomorrow’s leaders. It is a core competence that facilitates and serves the leader’s entire skillset, as well as that of his or her teams.
There are ways of tackling the rising tide of information – avoiding processing information superficially while ensuring you do not sink into mental exhaustion.
Infobesity and information processing
Mental ecology is about establishing a set of rules for managing your intellectual resources on a sustainable basis so that supply meets demand. The concept draws directly on research into working memory, attention and the basic functioning of the brain. Long before digital tools were invented, psychologists were taking an interest in our attention span and ability to concentrate — and had already pointed out limits. Théodule Ribot, for example, in Psychologie de l’Attention (published in 1896) concluded that in a “state of fatigue or exhaustion, it is impossible or extremely difficult to fix the attention”. In the same vein — but in the second half of the 20th century — Alan Baddeley carried out research into how much information the human brain could process simultaneously. Baddeley developed the concept of working memory, which basically means our processing power. This type of “RAM” is indeed limited; the human brain, for example, can only handle four or five items of information at the same time. Another discovery is around the brain’s “default mode”, which was discovered in the early 2000s by the neurologist Marcus Raichle (among others) and his brain imaging techniques. Brain imaging revealed the brain’s pronounced activity at rest, when a person is daydreaming and letting his or mind wander. In other words, the very important lesson of this discovery of the brain’s high consumption when passive is the significant cognitive processing that takes place when an individual is not concentrating on anything specific. In short, even when we think we are not doing anything, our brain is actually organizing information in its memory, creating new connections and digesting emotions. This functioning can only take place at certain key times, especially when we are taking a break… but not the kind of break that involves reading our emails or looking at social networks! This is why tech addicts, including digital natives, suffer more acutely from attention issues: their brains have no space in which to regenerate. This raises a key question for leaders: how much time do they have in the day to let their minds wander? The brain is not built to cope with permanent overstimulation, a state that does not tally with its default operating mode or its attentional capacity. Under these conditions, it is normal to experience periods of mental overload characterized by gaps in our attention span, loss of a global perspective, irritability, and anxiety at not being able to cope.
Mental ecology has an impact on performance
Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2016 put the spotlight on employees and leaders who are “overwhelmed”. Furthermore, a recent collection of studies3 on performance highlighted the close link between a leader’s effectiveness and the mental health of his or her staff. Good psychological health not only fosters commitment, creativity and cooperation, but also reduces absenteeism and turnover. Managing our mental energy properly also helps us to meet challenges, such as one-off rush jobs, related to perceived workload4. The latter clearly depends on our levels of mental fatigue and the feeling of being equipped to cope. The result is that teams with a higher level of mental energy will be more productive, and with less perceived effort. Meanwhile, however, 59% of employees surveyed in 20 countries said they feel physically or emotionally drained and mentally distracted5.
FOUR BASIC PRINCIPLES OF MENTAL ECOLOGY
Concentration : The ability to focus, one of the fundamental rules of intellectual performance, consumes a huge amount of our mental resources. One of its defining is that our concentration is highly susceptible to interference (especially for the over-forties). Mental ecology is built on the capacity to prioritize the most demanding cognitive tasks, setting aside time to work without interruption and avoiding parallel tasks. The rules of corporate life should also include a system for managing disturbances and intrusions.
Regeneration : A culture that incorporates micro breaks is a guaranteed way of maintaining sustainable performance. Set time aside to give free rein to your intellect. It is also important to include micro breaks based on relaxation practices and / or mental imagery, when attention is focused proactively on selected activities (breathing and so on). Whether at work or at home, the same same goes for our right to switch off and have long periods when we can regenerate.
Emotions : Putting time aside for your brain means it can cope more easily with strong emotions. It also helps to generate the emotional stability required for sustainable cognitive performance. Emotions that are processed during breaks do not then have to be processed during periods when you are concentrating. Cardiac coherence, attentional diversion and focus-shifting techniques are suitable exercises to perform.
Relationships : A manager who creates a safe and secure climate optimizes the use of the brain’s resources. Worry and rivalry waste mental resources and are detrimental to the tasks we need to perform. Very specific, shared rules can be helpful in managing response times. “I can disseminate information at any time of day or night if it corresponds to my own modus operandi but I must not demand immediate replies.”
How can you spread mental ecology in a company?
Managers and all employees need to take three steps to implement mental ecology measures.
1. Raise awareness: Inform and spread individual and collective discipline around preserving mental resources. The idea is to enable employees to regain control and autonomy over their work by restricting the flow of continuous information. Leaders need to understand that it is more productive for them and their staff to be left in peace so they can think through complex issues.
2. Provide one-time resources: micro resources for visualization, mental stimulation or regeneration so you can tackle the most demanding situations. Digital coaching applications, based on exercises derived from cognitive science, relaxation therapy, and athletic mental training, exist that meet this aim.
3. Suggest regular mental training exercises, including mindfulness. These should only be provided, however, if the question of attentional cycles, stimulation-free periods, response times, mental regeneration breaks, and so on have all been established!
Actors on the ground must approve the use of mental ecology in a process of assessment and adaptation of the suggested practices. The goal is to find a compromise between collective rules for managing information and autonomy, including the breaks we need to mobilize our intellectual resources properly. In Germany, where the cognitive performance of an aging labor force is a major issue, the TÜV6 organization has recently launched a corporate certification program for good mental health practices.
The latter clearly depends on our levels of mental fatigue and the feeling of being equipped to cope.
This new approach to our (mental) quality of life at work is on the rise, with the critical issue being our right to take time out. It is a method that is very much in keeping with the concept of the “happiness manager”, who is tasked with ensuring a positive work environment. Certain business schools that are leading the way on digital transformation, such as Grenoble School of Management, have even added mental ecology to their student programs. Perhaps these under-graduates will become the mental resource directors of tomorrow?
1. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, 1996.
2. “Konzentration als Kompetenz” Managerseminare (September 2016).
3. See in particular: “Leadership, followers’ mental health and job performance in organizations: A comprehensive meta-analysis from an occupational health perspective” by Diego Montano, Anna Reeske, Franziska Franke and Joachim Hüffmeier (Journal of Organization Behavior, July 2016).
4. This depends only in part on the actual workload, according to the reference document published by Anact.
5. “Energy Project 2015” Harvard Business Review.
6. SGS-TÜV SAARLAND certification body.