Learn to Toggle for Leadership Success

The move from specialist to leader can be challenging. Fortunately, new advances in neuroscience support a focus on learning to lead.

Like many STEM professionals, Kurt excels at his practice as a highly sought after tax attorney. His style of using analytical thinking has supported his success in the practice of law. He finds it easy to be steeped in data-driven situations that require sharp focus and logical decision-making. He has had years of practice building his skills as a task leader by identifying and fixing problems to achieve effective outcomes.

As he prepares to take over the leadership of his practice group, Kurt recognizes that to be successful he will also need to attend to the socio-emotional aspects of leadership that promote engagement, creativity, vision, and ethical decision-making. But how can he expand his repertoire when his preferences are so pronounced?

Kurt highly values his logical and rational approach to finding accurate solutions to problems, so he chooses to work alone and avoids working with others who may slow him down and cause emotional interference. Kurt realizes that this approach extends to all areas of his life.

“I search for problems everywhere, just so that I will be able to analyze the situation and find a solution. That means that I search for what is wrong and criticize it, even with my wife. It never dawns on me to notice what is right or to offer praise.”

Kurt may not realize how he reinforces his preferences everyday into well-worn pathways by seeking experiences that will allow him to be successful. As he continues to pay attention to data and tasks, he simultaneously avoids situations that force him out of his comfort zone, especially those involving relationships. Left unchecked, Kurt—like many specialists and professionals—may become entrenched in his approach. Entrenchment is like riding a bike in a well-worn rut, moving forward on autopilot without the ability to steer the bike.

Kurt’s experience can be explained by recent developments in neuroscience. Boyatzis, Rochford, and Jack found that "the division between task-oriented and socio-emotional-oriented roles derives from a fundamental feature of our neurobiology: an antagonistic relationship between two large-scale cortical networks.” The task positive network (TPN), linked to abstract thinking, allows us to focus on analytical work and problem-solving; whereas the default mode network (DMN), linked to concrete experiencing, allows us to be self-aware, socially engaged, creative, and prone to ethical decision-making. When we activate one network, we simultaneously suppress the other. Over time, it takes more energy and awareness to “toggle” between the two networks.

Kurt’s activation of his TPN allowed him to be focused on details to enable him to solve problems and achieve results. But because he is exclusively focused on tasks, he is actually suppressing his ability to engage in the relationships that are essential for successful leadership.

Although leaders may have a strong preference for tasks or relationships, they can learn to use both neural networks more flexibly and fluidly, reducing the energy and effort required to switch back and forth. Through practice, leaders can attend to both task and relationships intentionally, and differentiating the roles can be helpful.

How can leaders learn to toggle?

Dial down a strong preference to allow activation of the other network, and intentionally practice the less preferred approach. By recognizing his preference for tasks, Kurt can slow down his automatic response to allow another part of himself to emerge. For instance, Kurt recognized how his task focus was his sole emphasis in any email communication. He took a “just the facts” approach to write what he really wanted to say. Later, he returned to the top of the message and inserted a line or two of “niceties” to increase the chances that he would engage and connect with the other person. Before long, Kurt found himself toggling back and forth in real-time conversation, too.

Although he experienced a definite learning curve, Kurt recognized if he could get “out of his head” long enough to connect personally, he was able to engage with others and build self-awareness, too. Even though Kurt may always have a preference for tasks, he can learn to use more of his potential over time as he learns to be a more flexible leader.

Concrete experiencing and abstract thinking are described in the book, How You Learn Is How You Live: Using Nine Ways of Learning to Transform Your Life by Kay Peterson and David A. Kolb, and also featured in this previous post on Lead Change.