Have you ever wondered why, when you leave a two-hour meeting you usually have very little retention of what was said? An onslaught of stimuli and information comes our way every day. Why do our minds label some of it as important, and the rest becomes no more memorable than this morning’s Starbucks experience?
Lack of focus is not due to too much TV as a child, it’s a function of our Reticular Activating System. (Also called the extrathalamic control modulatory system, but let’s just call it the RAS). The RAS is a structure embedded deep within the brain, that helps with two main business functions; 1) highlighting information as relevant while it is being experienced, and 2) stimulating pattern recognition that can be used as innovative fuel.
What if you had a tool that could improve information retention in the moment, and mind training for the future? By simply asking the right questions at the right cadence, you plant seeds of thought in the minds of your employees and create thought patterns that drive your business forward.
Awareness must be regulated during our waking lives, since our minds have a finite amount of resources and simply cannot process all of the external stimuli that we experience each day.
The metaphor ‘asleep at the wheel’, is not far from the truth. Our brains are actively ignoring information that isn’t deemed vital. When we zone out in meetings, the RAS is acting like a switch to protect us from being overstimulated by a massive amount of information in a short period of time. When it is turned off, we “zone out”. When the RAS is on, we have increased awareness and retention of vital information.
In meetings, the person in control of the conversation is often a leader who is forwarding a well thought-out agenda. But for the employee who is listening to the information, it may be perceived as uninteresting or even threatening. When we are uninterested, the RAS is not activated and what we hear just becomes noise. And when we feel threatened by something because we don’t understand it or it seems overly burdensome, many of us shut down.
Bolt, the fastest pigeon in the world was sold for £300,000 last year to a Chinese millionaire. Belgian pigeon fancier Leo Heremans also sold the rest of his aviary collection at auction for over $5 million. Did that seem random to you? It was my intentional strategy to activate your RAS. I recommend starting meetings with information that people are not expecting, as it gets them to pay attention. This technique brings them fully into the room and makes them present, thereby creating a work culture that encourages innovation instead of deterring it.
Unfortunately, too many managers are not focused on what their people are thinking, they are focused on what they are doing from an employee performance perspective. That’s the impetus for far too many boring meetings. Managers give direction so that employees will hustle and get sh*t done. For most of today’s knowledge-worker industries this performance management strategy makes no sense.
Yes, we are all results-focused and desire a certain amount of output. But unless you are running an assembly-line, you hired people for their creative thoughts, unique perspectives and experience. Take a minute to stop and think if there is a better way of managing employee performance. Is there a way to elicit brilliant ideas from your best and brightest? Companies must create a workplace culture to allow for people to create and think creatively, or they are missing out on a competitive edge.
As inventor Charles Kettering said, “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.” When a person asks a question, the process of solving it begins in his or her own mind. This not only leads to employee growth, but exceptional staff retention. When someone else places an idea in our heads, we may or may not retain it. But when we form our own ideas, they are more relevant to us.
In the business context, I activate the RAS in others by asking feedback questions instead of just telling them what to do. That is one of the main ways that 15Five helps stimulate a work culture of innovation. We ask, What is one thing to improve your role? What is an innovative idea you have for the company/product? Employees offer responses, and place those ideas into their mental “important” bucket.
When something is relevant, it becomes top of mind, new neural pathways are formed and the listener naturally retains that information. The trick is to sow the right seeds so that we place certain work goals within the category of important information. The best way to do that is through the repetition of what we learn every day.
The good news is that the RAS can be trained. If you ask somebody a question once, you can get them to reflect in that moment. The person may draw a blank for the first response, but ask again. They will likely offer some idea, and with repeated questions they keep thinking about it. Soon, it becomes embedded in their minds like a piece of code.
Repetition allows each priority to become increasingly relevant. You probably experienced the phenomenon the last time that you purchased a new car. You researched it, looked at images of it over a long period of time and see it every day after purchase. Suddenly you starting seeing that car everywhere. Did people follow your idea to buy a silver Toyota Camry, or did that particular object become more relevant to you through repeated exposure?
Ask employees a question four times over the course of the month and they begin to always think about certain activities and ideas on a regular basis. After three months, an employee’s RAS is automatically activated by the most important initiatives. Ask your team those same feedback questions all year and they become idea-generating machines.
As an added bonus, employees begin to fine-tune their systems. The particular details of one’s job has more weight, and employees see information once perceived as extraneous, as now being beneficial to their roles. They connect dots that they could not sense before, and what they see and hear becomes the inspiration for great ideas instead of being just another lost opportunity.
Photo Credit (edited): Adam Bowie
What’s the one question you want top-of-mind in the thoughts of your employees? Leave us a comment below.
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