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Since the onset of global health crisis, the world has watched as leaders have been praised — or criticized — for their handling of the disaster. An example from the former category is New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, whose response was both decisive and compassionate.
The Times Editorial Board observed:
“Beyond politics, economics and science lie qualities of character that can’t be faked, chiefly compassion, which may be the most important in reassuring a frightened, insecure and stricken population.”
Politics aside, the events of the past few months have shed light on the hallmarks of effective leadership. I won’t pretend that running my company comes close to the demands of leading a country, but I’d argue that the most successful entrepreneurs possess a similar ability to make decisions governed by emotional and by analytical thinking. The secret lies in learning to summon one or the other — or a mixture of both — depending on the circumstance.
What’s more, even if you have a strong inclination toward one way of thinking or the other, experts have found that you can learn to hone them both.
But first, a closer look at these distinct functions of our brains.
How experts understand the mind
Picture a time when your friend confided in you about a personal issue — a breakup or a sick relative. Now, imagine a time when a colleague or employee asked for help on a work matter. Chances are you see yourself in two very different modes. In the first, you’re listening and trying to put yourself in your friend’s shoes. In the second, you’re problem-solving and methodically searching for potential solutions.
According to research by Case Western Reserve University professor Anthony Jack, our brains have two major neural networks: the analytic network (AN), which comes into play during decision making and analytical thinking, and the empathic network (EN), which is how we make qualitative observations and understand our environment, including ideas and people.
Professor Jack, who conducted neuroimaging studies on the brain, says that these two networks work in opposition – like inhaling and exhaling. When one is at work, the other is at rest, and vice versa.
Most of us have one side that tends to dominates. Maybe you’re someone who usually acts on gut instinct. Or maybe you’re the person who deliberates over the logical extension of each decision for hours. For entrepreneurs, the secret to success lies in figuring out how to activate both networks and switch back and forth as needed.
Drawing on both neural networks
I think we can all agree: Context can affect our way of thinking. If you’re like me, when you step into the office — or if you’re working remotely, step into “office mode” — your analytic network takes charge. You can be the most empathetic person when it comes to family and friends, but when you click into work mode, compassion slips to the wayside.
But being a more empathetic leader can help your business in more ways than one. Writing for Entrepreneur, Blank Label co-founder Danny Wong explains why empathetic-led companies are more profitable:
“Empathetic entrepreneurs typically measure their organization’s success by the number of happy customers and staff they support. And clients and employees are fiercely loyal to businesses that truly understand them.”
Luckily, there are simple things we can do to override our default work mode.
According to Harvard Business Review, anyone can learn to better control the neural networks driving their thought processes through “self-awareness, deliberate practice, and conscious intent.” It’s a three-step process that begins with identifying your dominant network.
When faced with a problem, take a moment to be mindful of your approach. Do you tend to be rational — brainstorm, research, and test solutions? Or are you largely driven by an emotional or creative impulse? If you pay attention for a couple of weeks, chances are you’ll notice your patterns emerge.
Next, get in the habit of practicing the non-dominant neural network. If your default mode is analytical, practice the empathic side — listen to people, take time to understand their point of view, and avoid rushing to find the logical solution.
If you tend to be analytical or EN-driven, then practice mapping out more methodical approaches when questions arise. Helen Lee Bouygues, who founded the Reboot Foundation with the aim of helping people to improve their critical thinking skills, recommends cultivating three simple habits:
Reason through logic
While the first two are pretty self-evident, the final point entails making a deliberate effort to surround yourself with people from different backgrounds and perspectives.
“It’s crucial to get outside your personal bubble. You can start small. If you work in accounting, make friends with people in marketing. If you always go to lunch with senior staff, go to a ball game with your junior colleagues.”
Diverse viewpoints and honest feedback are invaluable to an entrepreneur and her ability to think analytically. That’s why bestselling author and former Googler Kim Scott, who has been a CEO coach for companies like Dropbox and Twitter, believes that strong leaders practice, and surround themselves with people who practice, what Scott calls “radical candor”™ — caring personally while challenging directly.
Finally, practice switching back and forth between the AN and the EN networks, being mindful of which is in the driver’s seat in different situations. If you’re deciding on how to tweak your business model in the coming months, you’ll want to wear your analytical hat. But if an employee comes to you with anxiety about commuting to the office, a little empathy will go a long way.
By drawing on both sides of the brain, you can solve today’s problems, safeguard your business for what the future holds, and cultivate a loyal team and user base.