The science of optimism and resilience – retrain your brain

Resilience: how to bounce back from setbacks

Some people seem to deal with whatever is thrown at them. Deadlines, back-to-back meetings, long hours, presentations, staff issues, family, etc, etc. They take it all in their stride.

Traditional thinking leads us to believe these lucky people are born with a natural ability to deal with stress – while the rest of us struggle to cope with life’s constant demands. For some, stress is just too overwhelming.

However, neuroscience shows us that learning to handle stress and develop an optimistic outlook is within everyone’s grasp because we all have the power to literally re-wire our brain.

The science of optimism and how it affects you

Just as the brain enables us to learn a musical instrument or a new sport, it can also become hardwired to respond automatically to negative stimuli. This unconsciously learnt thought process keeps us stuck in problem-mode and stops us even noticing possible solutions – the glass is always half empty.

Left to its own devices, our brain will focus on the negative. The brain’s threat detection centre is the amygdala. This evolutionary survival mechanism keeps us continually alert to potential danger. Unfortunately the result is that many of us carry a level of background anxiety and are permanently looking for things that could go wrong.

The destructive power of pessimism…

The results of stress and a pessimistic outlook on the human body are well documented. Impaired immunity, increased risk of heart disease, cancer and other diseases; prolonged stress literally kills brain cells. Stress also impacts our professional and personal relationships and overall quality of life.

The positive thinker is healthier, happier and lives longer

So how can we combat negative thinking?

One effective solution, offered by Shawn Achor, is ‘Three Good Things’: My phone alarm goes off at 7:15pm every evening and this is my cue to remember three good things that happened during the day. This habit trains my brain to scan for good news, rather than threats. If my family are present, we take turns at the dinner table to recite three good things. In a similar vein, at work, we start every team meeting asking each person for one piece of good news. Creating this cycle of positivity really does shift the mood, and gets the meeting off to a great start.

The reason employees often complain about feeling criticised is because their manager is unconsciously scanning for threats, looking for deficiencies and perceived shortcomings, instead of praising good work. My phone alarm comes in handy here as well – at 12pm everyday it tells me to ‘compliment someone’. Again, this creates a new habit, making not only the other person happy, but also creating positivity in me.

Being positive will strengthen your resilience to setbacks and enable you to achieve where others struggle. The good news is that it is entirely possible to switch your mindset – even if you’re currently buried deep-within negativity.

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Leadership mindset – are you a mulitplier or diminisher?

So who IS the smartest person in the room?

There is an excellent leadership lesson from the Victorian era, the story of when Winston Churchill’s Mother (Jennie Jerome) dined with rival British Prime Ministers, Gladstone and Disraeli, a week before the election. She compared them thus:

“When I dined with Mr. Gladstone, I felt as though he was the smartest man in England. But when I dined with Mr. Disraeli, I felt as though I was the smartest woman in England”.

These two leaders went down in history, but as Jennie summarised with very contrasting personalities.

During their dinner Disraeli wanted to know everything about Jennie, steering the conversation toward her, asking her questions and listening intently to her responses. Naturally, she talked – we always feel good talking about ourselves!

Not surprisingly, Disraeli, the person who mastered the art of making other people feel important, won the election.

Research has established that leaders with a growth mindset (like Disraeli), or ‘multipliers’, get double the productivity out of their people compared with leaders with a fixed mindset (‘diminishers’), such as Gladstone.

Why is this?

In essence, multipliers foster an environment that shines the spotlight on their people, whereas diminishers prefer to shine the spotlight on themselves. A multiplier sees his or her job as developing the capability and intelligence of others, whereas a diminisher has to be seen as the smartest person in the room and their job is to control, manage and organise others.

Diminishers see intelligence as something fundamental about a person that can’t change much, which is consistent with psychologist Carol Dweck’s concept of fixed mindset. The diminisher’s logic is ‘if they don’t get it now, they never will so I’ll need to keep doing the thinking for everyone’. In a diminisher’s world there are very few people worth listening to!

‘Make ‘I don’t know’ a strategic part of your leadership. Uncertainty is here to stay. Acknowledging it is a show of strength.’

Tom Peters

So what are the lessons for business leaders?

Researcher Liz Wiseman summarises it succinctly:

‘Most diminishers have grown up praised for their personal intelligence and have moved up the management ranks. When they become ‘the boss’ they assume it’s their job to be the smartest and to manage a set of ‘subordinates’.’

Three behaviours Liz identifies that distinguish multipliers from diminishers are:

A multiplier removes fear and creates a safe environment: multipliers invite debate and encourage people to do their best thinking. Multipliers demand people’s best effort; and they get it!

Diminishers create a judgemental environment that has an inhibiting effect on people’s willingness to contribute to debate, resulting in sloppy thinking, poor decision-making and debased productivity. Diminishers demand people’s best effort, but they don’t get it.

A multiplier creates opportunity and sets challenges, encouraging individuals and teams to achieve stretch-targets. They generate confidence and self-belief in others and a desire to succeed, to push their boundaries. A multiplier does not have to have all the answers. In the words of management guru Tom Peters, ‘Make ‘I don’t know’ a strategic part of your leadership. Uncertainty is here to stay. Acknowledging it is a show of strength.’

By contrast, a diminisher has all the answers, is highly vocal about their opinions, gives directives and loves to showcase their knowledge and intelligence.

A multiplier is an investor. A multiplier will coach their people and hold them accountable to deliver the goods, allowing them to fail and learn their lessons on the way.

A diminisher micromanages their staff, whimsically jumping in and out of the detail and punishing failure. The diminisher delivers results through their own personal involvement, whereas the multiplier gives others ownership for results and invests in and celebrates their success.

Diminisher organisation case study

Enron, the infamous American energy company, was a classic diminisher organisation: it created a culture that worshipped, and paid money for, big talent, making their ‘stars’ constantly feel the need to prove their greatness. They were more concerned about maintaining their image than addressing problems and poor decisions and ultimately, decided it was better to lie and cover up than admit they were wrong. When Enron went bankrupt in December 2001, many of its executives were indicted and imprisoned, including CEO Jeff Skilling.

Much of the cause of the most recent financial meltdown can be attributed to a diminisher- and fixed mindset organisational culture. Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker spells out the problem with the fixed mindset: ‘When people live in an environment that esteems them for their innate talent, they have grave difficulty when their image is threatened. They will not take the remedial course’.

In practice, there is a continuum between a multiplier and a diminisher

Where would you position your leadership on that scale? What practices could you undertake to make yourself more of a multiplier?


Stop your whining and take ownership!

Are you a victim of circumstance or do you take ownership when something goes wrong?

The most frequent complaint I hear from organisations is that staff don’t take ownership, accountability or responsibility. But what does this actually mean? Let’s take a simple example. If we’re late for a meeting, we will often trot out an excuse, like “the traffic was awful” or “my last meeting overran”.

This is an everyday example of not taking responsibility for our actions and blaming external interference. It’s as if we have no control over our destiny – we are just victims of circumstance. Co-author of The Oz Principle, Tom Smith labels this ‘being below the line’- blaming others or circumstances, making excuses, or denying any short-comings.

So what would an ‘above the line’ response be? Simple, “I didn’t leave early enough!”

Taking another example, imagine you are managing a project and a supplier lets you down which results in the overall project being delayed, and you have an unhappy boss to face. A below the line response would be “the supplier let me down” [Blame].

Being above the line requires a ‘buck stops with me’ mentality (taking ownership, accountability and responsibility). This requires us to examine what we could do in future to avoid a similar incident, for example: Could we have used a better method of selecting a supplier? Did we have a robust contingency plan? How about better communications with the supplier to flag up any issues earlier?

As leaders, we create more of a learning organisation with an ‘above the line’ mentality. To encourage such behaviours requires us to lay off the blame game when mistakes are made, and allow staff to come to their own conclusions about what they can do better next time. Perhaps the real definition of that over-used word ‘empowerment’ is promoting a culture of ownership, accountability and responsibility – above the line behaviours.

As leaders, we create more of a learning organisation with an 'above the line' mentality.

Circumstances count for 10% … how you deal with them counts for 90%

So where do we start? Simple: lead by example! Next time you are late for a meeting, how about saying “sorry, I didn’t leave early enough” rather than “sorry, awful traffic”? Unnerving, perhaps, but what message would this send to your staff about taking responsibility for their actions rather than making trite excuses or blaming others?

There is an extraordinary young lady called Jessica Cox, who, although she was born with no arms, has a black belt in two martial arts and a private pilot’s licence! Jessica says: “Circumstances count for 10% … how you deal with them counts for 90%”.

This certainly stops me in my tracks when I am tempted to blame circumstances for something I didn’t achieve.

Imagine you run a sales team and you haven’t hit your targets, what are some typical excuses?

My manager sets unrealistic targets…

The economy is terrible…

My salespeople don’t have the right experience…

People don’t use the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system properly…

Excuses are natural but unhelpful behaviours. Excuses don’t move us forward. They can be thought of as ‘victim’ or ‘below the line’ thinking. The good news is that for each of these excuses there is an alternative above the line response, one where we take ownership, accountability and responsibility for our results:

My manager sets unrealistic targets becomes – I don’t negotiate effectively with my manager over targets

The economy is terrible – the economy is the same for everyone – I am failing to differentiate my product

My salespeople don’t have the right experience becomes – I don’t train my staff adequately, or I recruit poorly

People don’t use the CRM system properly becomes – I haven’t created proper CRM processes that people adhere to

So next time you’re tempted to complain about something, think of Jessica – what would she say?


Want to play guitar like Jimi Hendrix – is it nature or nurture?

Is it natural talent, or could you too play guitar like Jimi Hendrix?

As far back as I can remember, I fancied myself as a rock star! So when I turned 13, I persuaded my reluctant parents to buy me an electric guitar. I was convinced I’d be the next Jimi Hendrix; I thought I’d be a natural. I wouldn’t need to practice much – in fact, if I had to work at it, that would mean that I wasn’t naturally talented.

As you can probably guess, I never became a rock legend. I gave up the guitar, dismayed at my lack of progress. My rock and roll dreams were consigned to the dustbin of history!

Nature or nurture?

Most of us have been brought up to believe that talent is innate, for example Mozart was born musical, Tiger Woods was born a golfer, Einstein a physicist, etc. We believe that our abilities are governed by our genes – our DNA is our destiny! Prof Carol Dweck of Stanford University labels this type of thinking a fixed mindset – either you’ve got talent or you haven’t.  In my case, I clearly fell short when it came to the guitar, so there was no point trying to improve as I’d never make the grade.

By contrast, a growth mindset understands that talent and ability grow with practice, and innate ability is overrated. Research shows that a growth mindset goes hand-in-hand with high performance and happier, healthier individuals.

Managers with a growth mindset get double the productivity from their staff compared with fixed mindset managers

Dweck’s research is backed up by neuroscience findings that show that the brain actually grows and changes structure as we learn new skills. This was first discovered in 1999 at University College, London, where MRI brain scans of London taxi drivers showed that their hippocampus (the part of the brain used for spatial navigation) was much larger than in ordinary people.  The longer they’d been taxi drivers, the larger their hippocampus.

There are also many well documented cases of stroke victims who have made almost complete recoveries because the brain rewires itself to reallocate the processing from the ‘dead’ part of the brain.

In the workplace, it’s been estimated that managers with a growth mindset get double the productivity from their staff compared with fixed mindset managers.

As for me, I decided to give the guitar a second chance at the age of 40. This time my mindset was definitely growth. Armed with a good teacher, the right kind of practice and mental attitude, I managed to achieve a very competent standard.  Okay, I’m no Jimi Hendrix, but I am now achieving my rock and roll ambitions… and loving every minute I’m performing with my band on stage.

A word of caution – there is a continuum between a fixed and growth mindset.  People can also have a growth mindset in general, but a fixed mindset in specific areas.

Is your fixed mindset affecting your ability to lead? We can help!


Want to be more like Richard Branson? Here’s how …

“You’re good with your hands…” my parents told me when I was a young boy, “…and your brother’s the intelligent one”. What this spelt out to me was that I was thick! Psychologist Laurel Sheaf explains, “Early in life, we might feel judged or compare ourselves to others and think we come up short. To compensate, we figure out strategies to address whatever we think of as missing. Those early decisions become far-reaching declarations that set the stage for our whole future.”

This certainly rang true for me –not being up to the mark intellectually ran the show well into my 30s, regardless of what people said to the contrary.

Imposter Syndrome

This is such a common experience that there is a name for it: Imposter Syndrome. This toxic condition of low self-esteem becomes an explosive mixture in organisations when managers feel a need to cover up their perceived shortcomings in case people “find out who they really are!”

This often leads to dictatorial and defensive managerial behaviours, which is an example of what Prof Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset, where we believe that who we are is an immutable truth. Liz Wiseman, a former Oracle executive, calls these types of managers diminishers. Diminishers blame others for failure whilst attributing successes to their own talent.

Who am I?

In biological terms, who we are is represented by a network of 86 billion neurons in our brain. These neuronal connections are who we are – or more correctly, who we have created ourselves to be through a lifetime’s experiences.

Thanks to fMRI imaging and neuroscience research, we now know that the brain is plastic and we can create new neuronal patterns and quite literally re-structure our brain. We are not prisoners of those early decisions we made about who we are.

Foundations for a growth mindset

Neuroplasticity lays the foundations for what Dweck terms a growth mindset – the recognition that we are all able to grow and change substantially, acquiring new skills and thinking patterns as we go through life. We can throw off the shackles of past limiting beliefs and create new futures for ourselves… to be more like Richard Branson, or any other role model we aspire to.

Limiting beliefs typically take the form of “I don’t have a musical bone in my body”, “I’m not the creative type”, “I’m no good at sales”. Or even more pernicious, “I’m not a very nice person.” Self-awareness of strengths and limitations is healthy; however when we let this impede our growth, ambitions and self-image, it becomes toxic.

Self-awareness of strengths and limitations is healthy; however when we let this impede our growth, ambitions and self-image, it becomes toxic.

Debunking limiting beliefs

Limiting beliefs of course seem very real. But their only reality is that of neuronal patterns (or mental events) generated by our brain. They have no more validity than this old picture of me with Richard Branson. It appears real, but I am actually posing with Richard’s wax doppelganger at Madame Tussauds!

In Sheaf’s words “In seeing ourselves as authors of these [flawed] interpretations, we come into the immense freedom of a whole new domain of possibility.”

What limiting beliefs do you have about yourself and those around you?