Neuroplasticity and Resilience: The Case for Mindfulness as a Growth-Hacking Tool

Mindfulness is not a lifestyle fad — it’s one way to master our most essential tool as leaders: Our brain. A resilient company is made up of individual contributions from people who know how and when they perform best.

By Samuel Mueller

For all its incredible achievements, the human brain is an ancient tool which has stopped developing for the most part about 10,000 years ago.

Yes, the same brain that invented the spindle (developed from the process of twisting fibres into a thread by hand) makes us operate today. It manages us through a complex world that is constantly shifting and changing, challenging us on every cognitive level— globalization, exponential technologies, information overflow, and round-the-clock connectivity.

The Illusion of Control

The imagination and ingenuity this exceptional organ is capable of brought us where we are today. That is indeed extraordinary; but make no mistake, our brain is still not programmed for us to be as intelligent as possible. It is programmed to be efficient and to guide us through life, saving as much energy as possible in the process.

Crucially, we are depending on it to do a lot of work automatically. Unfortunately, the short cuts our brain takes to navigate a complicated world can put us at a disadvantage.

Being aware of when it is operating unconsciously is not as easy as you think. Raising our automatic reactions and biases of a brain that functions to 90% unconsciously to a conscious level requires a lot of brain work.

And the ability to do that is very highly connected to stress levels.

The Cost of Stress

When the stress level is high your operating IQ is low. Most people have examples of moments of stress when they felt their cognitive powers weren’t fully available — for example during a performance review with a new CEO or presenting to the board of directors. Some people perform fantastically well outside of these situations but can’t perform intellectually in them. The same goes for your private life. Ask parents with teenage children.

In order to understand how much of our thinking (and subsequently our behavior) is ruled by our stress levels, we need a quick overview of the areas of our brain.

  1. The Brain Stem keeps us alive. It doesn’t “think”. It reacts and affects the rest of your body if we want it or not. When you get bad feedback, do you start to sweat? That is our brain working automatically and unconsciously.
  2. The Diencephalon regulates slightly more complex activities such as sleep, appetite, body temperature, etc. The thinking is emotional and reactive.
  3. The Limbic Brain is the emotional brain and evolved when people starting living and working in clans — it helps us understand what other people are thinking or feeling. It also has a role in practical problem solving and memory.
  4. The Neocortex is the most sophisticated part of the brain — this is where most of our reflection, problem-solving, analysis, and synthesis happens.

All input from the outside world comes to us in this order, bottom up, and is processed by the most primitive part of the brain first. So, when there is any sign of threat or strong emotion, the primitive brain takes over to protect us.

In other words, the Neocortex won’t kick in with its witty jokes, smart responses, and productive behaviors, unless all other systems are on green.

When any threat or strong emotion occurs, the primitive brain shuts down thinking and operates to protect us.

As our brain is lazy and it is programmed to save energy, the most primitive part of our brains which is in charge of most of our life.

This is why the brain wants to categorize people and to distinguish instantly between friends and foes. What we call “intuition” might to a substantial degree be our brain’s urge to come to quick conclusions.

The consequences might not be obvious to you. So-called Microaggressions are intentional or unintentional ways of communicating that might have a hostile or negative effect on the situation. Examples of this are constantly forgetting somebody’s name, interrupting people at meetings or ignoring their signals to speak in the first place.

Microaggressions are operating at a subtle level but over time their effect multiplies. Overcoming them is crucial.

Your Brain is a muscle: You can train it

You don’t have to be a victim of this. You can train yourself to recognize and change your behaviour. The impact on your performance and career, and indeed on the whole organization are big. Knowledge about this has big implications for leaders in business.

Neuroplasticity is actually a relatively new concept that has only gained acceptance in the second half of the last century and goes contrary to the traditional belief that the brain stops developing after childhood.

It has been found that the brain continues to change its structure by reorganizing itself forming and removing connections throughout life.

This is the foundation of the relatively new school of thought: The brain can be used and shaped like a muscle, a concept that is fundamental to mindfulness, for example, which purposefully seeks to train the brain in its ability to focus and to self regulate.

A Simpler, Integrated Approach

When designing our learning experiences, we take great care to craft programs that allow for the brain to be engaged at maximum performance levels throughout, which includes striking a balance of convergent and divergent thinking. It means making sure participants get outside of their comfort zone but also have moments of reflection and the possibility to re-iterate and further develop and challenge their learnings in a safe space. Mindfulness is a key part of our toolbox.

Our partner Kintla has been a pioneer in bringing Neuroscience and Executive Learning together. One of their concepts aims to bring sustainable change in their daily behaviour and emotional capacity through small shifts in their Daily Operating Rhythm that have a powerful cumulative effect on cultures, customers, and businesses.

Practice and exercise lead to the formation of new neural connections (for example to better relate and empathize with others) or removes neural connections (for example being over-sensitized to bad news).

We have been delivering workshops on this topic with fantastic responses.

Brains make culture

There are companies that have red-zone cultures and companies that are more efficient at dealing with frustrations and moments of exclusion.

How resilient a company is — how successful at navigating changing environments or overcoming mistakes and failures — is tightly connected to the mental state of its people. In the end, even collective strength is made up of individual contributions. When people are in control of their mental performance and mindful of the effect of their reflexes, they are free to innovate, to challenge each other and themselves.

Even if we incorporate all of this knowledge and seek to be conscientious leaders, we all know that there will be many triggers throughout our normal workweek that can throw us off-track.

Companies need to make sure they are providing the tools and skills to leverage these concepts and allowing these practices to build up their leader’s capacity to be a green zone force.

More about Resilience in our WDHB Quarterly Newsletter.