Is it a good thing that leaders carry out over 60% of their activities every day without thinking about them?
It is a fact of life that our brains automatically downgrade our conscious thoughts and actions to subconscious or unconscious thoughts and actions as soon as it can. So things we have thought about and acted upon before soon become part of our cognitive underworld.
In some ways this is not a bad thing because it keeps us efficient, as we don’t have to concentrate so hard on things that we regularly engage in. So, switching on the computer, accessing and answering emails, moving between Word and Excel, or scanning the monthly figures we may all do with ease, not like the first or second or even third time we had to do each of these activities.
In this way we leave the active, conscious part of our thinking and actions to things that are new, complex or hard to sort out. ‘What are we going to do with the unexplained and sudden fall in profits?’ ‘Why has morale fallen in the department?’ ‘What are the future trends we need to be paying special attention to now?’
The danger is that we take the subconscious world for granted. “It can take care of itself.” We need to trust it (our instincts, our automatic pilot) so we can attend to the novel and urgent. There is growing evidence from cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience that we cannot and should not take the subconscious for granted.
Not taking things for granted are particularly important for leaders who need to be clear headed about what they are doing and why they are doing it. The trouble with relying on the subconscious is that it’s work relies too much on the past and in doing so makes assumptions about the present that may be false.
My day is made up of one experience after another. I automatically take in information about these experiences, just enough to see if they match the things stored in my memory and if they do the conscious part of me loses interest and the subconscious takes over and determines what I do as a result of the experience, based on what I have done in the past.
The trouble is life can move so fast and pitch us from one situation to another with rapid speed. One second we are trying to devise a powerful piece of communication for a presentation and the next we are answering the phone to handle a people problem or answer a query about the last email we sent. We end up relying more and more on the subconscious dimension of our minds to steer us through the rapids of changing directions.
As leaders we need to be more certain we are gathering all the real, and emerging, information that is in front of us, and making our responses as much through what is real than what is unconsciously remembered.
We need to be able to move things from the subconscious into the conscious to check we are going in the right direction and making the right responses. The remarkable thing is that we have the capability as human beings to make these shifts. In doing so we keep an eye on our own performance as leaders before potential blunders become real mistakes or poor judgments that need to be undone.
This process is call self-regulation. It is the process of regulating our own thinking and actions so that the subconscious can more readily be accessed and checked before we commit; and it can all happen in a split second so it doesn’t slow us down.
Self-regulation is a mental discipline and we can develop it through practice. We can benefit from developing this capacity whatever our experience level (seniority) or age.