Humans tend to be creatures of habit. Repetition means there are no surprises or dangers lurking in the shadows. Certain parts of the brain, including the basal ganglia, are responsible for repetitive behaviours. Breaking free of the daily routine is necessary, however, to be a more adaptable, agile, and responsive leader.
Habits are not always a bad thing. Each of us has preferences, including how we dress, how we decorate our houses, and who we choose to live and work with. Settling into a habit or preference, however, and being unable to change whatever it is can inhibit growth and agility.
The basal ganglia are located deep within the brain, and they interact with many other areas, including the brainstem, thalamus and cerebral cortex. These structures help us control motor movements, habit learning, and emotions.
Neuroscience has closely examined habit learning in recent decades. The basal ganglia interact with the cerebral cortex in corticostriatal loops (motor, visual, executive and motivational). It is thought that the basal ganglia have such a variety of functions because of these loops.1
HABITS VERSUS DECISIONS--WE NEED THEM BOTH
While the basal ganglia hold our habits close, the prefrontal cortex helps us make decisions. When we routinely engage in a habitual behaviour, the prefrontal cortex is essentially on standby or idling.
Think of something you do almost every day, like tying your shoes or brushing your teeth. Do you remember actually brushing your teeth this morning, or is it so habitual that you automatically do it? You can likely check your email or read a news update while brushing your teeth because your brain doesn’t have to expend much energy on the task, leaving your prefrontal cortex free to do something else.
Fortunately, our brains exhibit neuroplasticity, which means our minds can modify neural connections. No habit is “set in stone”, so we can always choose to take a different path or discover a new possibility. Increasing your adaptability will ensure that you are exercising your prefrontal cortex, keeping your brain as healthy as possible.
“Enjoying success requires the ability to adapt. Only by being open to change will you have a true opportunity to get the most from your talent.”
Nolan Ryan, former Major League Baseball pitcher
LEARNING TO BECOME MORE ADAPTABLE
Our adaptability keeps us continuously aware of the changing environment around us. Leaders who are not adaptable will be unlikely to keep us with the constant barrage of new information, new technologies, and changing economic conditions. We can create a culture of agility when we create effective communication between various parts of an organisation.2
Large, cumbersome companies that adhere to management and leadership techniques of the past are simply unable to adapt in a climate of rapid change. Staying flexible and accepting change is key to successful adaptation, so consider these tips to help you handle uncertainty.
Stop doing things the “old way”. Leaders must be able to listen to new ideas and change themselves to fit into new circumstances. Instead of feeling fear, focus on curiosity and a sense of adventure. Step outside your comfort zone and give others the opportunity to implement their ideas.
Update your vocabulary. A brain that processes more will get a better workout. Think of vocabulary words as weights for your brain. Augment your communication skills to better connect with those around you, at work and home.
Embrace new talent. Businesses must invest in the talented people they need to forge into the future. While short-term leadership is necessary to meet immediate deadlines, long-term leaders, including people who aren’t even leaders yet, will be crucial as the world moves away from Capitalism and toward Talentism.
Adaptability is a state of mind. Our brains have an enormous capacity for change. While habits are not always bad for us, they do not require much effort from our prefrontal cortex. Venturing away from the daily grind will increase agility and adaptability, keeping our brain healthy and high-functioning.
1. Seger CA, Spiering BJ. A Critical Review of Habit Learning and the Basal Ganglia. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience. 2011;5:66. doi:10.3389/fnsys.2011.00066.
2. McLennan K. Building Leaders for the Imagination Age: The Case for the i4 Model. About my Brain Institute. 2016;1. [White Paper].