How To Master The Opposing Sides Of Your Brain

People are often promoted for their analytic ability, but they may lack the people skills needed to be a good manager.

How To Master The Opposing Sides Of Your Brain
[Photo: Flickr user J E Theriot]

Do you have a business-focused brain or an empathetic one?

In other words, do you typically work with a task-oriented focus, meaning you’re comfortable solving problems, focusing attention, making decisions, and controlling your actions? Or are you more relationship-oriented, meaning you’re comfortable connecting with others and making ethical decisions, and have a good handle on self-awareness?

Whichever one is your default mode of thinking, researchers find that the other is likely suppressed since the two are anticorrelated, says Anthony Jack, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. For example, if you’re busy getting things done, your brain has already switched off your ability to be empathetic.

The exact reason why this phenomena occurs is unknown, says Jack, but researchers believe your brain just simply evolved to this resting state so that the two neural networks don’t interfere with one another. The antagonistic relationship was first observed in 1997, but has since been expanded by a number of research, including Jack’s, whose 2014 paper with colleagues from Case Western Reserve looks at how the reciprocal inhibitory relationship between opposed brain networks affects the way we lead organizations.

Why The Wrong People Get Promoted

“Current organization culture is very much geared towards intelligence and analytic thinking and being task-focused,” Jack tells Fast Company. “This is also the reason why people get promoted, because they’ve been given tasks and they perform really well. They stay on task, they get it done. The problem is, when you become a manager, you need a bigger picture. You need to be aware of how to develop the individuals around you so that you can get the best out of them.”

Organizations that embrace only the task-positive network are doing nothing for their management development, cautions Jack. His paper says:

“An important consequence of this constraint is that an over-emphasis on task-oriented leadership can prove deleterious to an organization: in particular when openness to new ideas, people, emotions, and ethical concerns are important to success. On the other hand, the over emphasis on relationship oriented leadership may prove deleterious to focus and the execution of clearly defined goals.”

In short, good leaders need to be able to switch fluidly between the two modes of thinking, depending on the appropriate situation, but this can be challenging to master. If you turn on your emotional and empathetic brain when you’re trying to focus on a very specific well-defined task, you’ll get distracted and end up losing track. On the other hand, if you’re supposed to be making an ethical decision but you’re in the task-focused network, your socio-emotional side can be thrown off.

How To Switch Your Mindset

How do you go from one to the other? Jack recommends participating in activities that force you to engage in in-depth understanding of someone who has a different point of view than you.

“A good manager in an organization understands each job in the organization,” he says. This involves what kinds of lives everyone in the organization is living. Instead of focusing on whether or not your team members will hit their performance goals, find out the path they need to take to perform at their highest potential and if there’s anything standing in the way of their success.

While the ability to switch fluidly from one neural network to the other is a valuable skill for managers to have, it isn’t healthy for both to be coactivated. Jack explains there are only a few instances when both networks are simultaneously activated.

One instance occurs in unhealthy competitions where you’re just so focused on winning, you’re basically manipulating everyone else around you. “[In this situation], you don’t care about the people you’re interacting with,” says Jack. “You’re just trying to outthink them.”

Another time the two networks are commonly coactivated is known to be related to many different mental disorders, including schizophrenia and manic depression.

“The main signature of psychiatric mental disorder all relates to, does your default mode network talk to each other the way that we see in a healthy brain? Does it turn off the other network when it comes on and get turned off by the other network?”

Interestingly enough, very creative people tend to have less of a suppressive relationship between the two neural networks than less creative, mentally stable people.

Jack explains: “What’s really fascinating about that is that it’s long been observed that [creative] individuals and the families of the individuals who are highly creative tend to be prone to mental illness at higher rates than the normal population.”

“The most stable brains have a lot of suppression between those two, but if you don’t have suppression, it may lead to some very, sort of valuable, unusual qualities, but it may also lead to mental instability.”

Jack adds: “Creativity which has often been categorized as when logical constraints come together with emotions, which kind of broadly fits the two networks as well. So we know that the moments of creativity insights involve coactivation of the two networks.”

About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.