One of the joys of working in a Network of curious people with widely varying interests is the breadth of ideas that we are exposed to. This provides the environment for the creative collision of ideas1. Those who operate regularly in such environments will be used to such collisions and enjoy adding their own connections and insights.

The theme of this blog is how we learn and how our decisions are powerfully shaped by the things we talk about and pay attention to. The blog was triggered when I saw a connection between two very different pieces of work that were sent to me by colleagues. If the hypotheses outlined below are true, I was able to see the connection precisely because I had been paying attention to different parts of our profession and had been immersed in very different client engagements over the last month. The mental links I was making every day made it easier for me to notice other hard to see connections.

Quantum Zeno effect

David Rock (an author, consultant and lecturer) and Jeffrey Schwartz (a research psychiatrist) presented a webinar in 2006 called the Neuroscience of Leadership. In this, and in the accompanying article, they explain how neurons in our brain communicate with each other through an electrochemical signal driven by the movement of sodium, potassium and calcium ions. The communication channels are little more than one ion wide and therefore follow the rules of Quantum Mechanics. Quantum theory tells us that when you pay attention to something its state does not change; the metaphorical ‘watched pot that never boils’. This, in very broad terms, is the wonderfully named Quantum Zeno Effect2 (QZE).

Further research by the authors explored what happened when close or repeated attention in one’s mind was paid to a particular thought, experience or insight. The attention “kept a circuit or link open and dynamically alive”. Over time the links “became not just chemical links but stable, physical changes in the brain’s structure”. These changes are why “people who practice a specialty every day literally think differently, through a different set of connections, to people who do not practice the specialty”.  Rock and Schwartz spell it out for business: “Professionals in different functions – Legal, Operations, Finance, R&D, Marketing, Design, HR, have physiological differences that prevent them from seeing things the same way”.

So next time you are at a meeting and the idiots from the other functions just don’t seem to ‘get it’, it could well be that their brains are wired differently and they are processing assumptions and data in completely different ways. It is equally likely that the criteria they use for decision making bear no relation to your own ‘flawless and impartial’ logic.

So how do the heroes of the 7th Cavalry ride into this movie to save us from the chaos caused by the QZE tribe? Unfortunately, this story may not have the predictable happy Hollywood ending…..

Robert Bateman is an Officer in the famous US 7th Cavalry who wrote in The Washington Post about a worrying trend he was seeing in the US military. He entitled his piece ‘Soldiers and Warriors’ and it spoke of the increased use of the word ‘Warriors’ in place of ‘Soldiers’ in the Army and Marine Corps.3 So why should this be cause for concern?

Bateman is clear in his answer: “This is a bad sign, because calling us warriors is not only inaccurate, it displays an ignorance about what a warrior is all about. The bottom line is that a real “warrior” is really just about himself. Indeed, the key difference between a Soldier (or a Marine, or an Airman) and a “warrior” is almost that simple. A serviceman does his job as a part of a complex human system, he does so with discipline and selflessness as his hallmarks. Courage also matters, of course, but it is only one of several values that are needed. The serviceman is the product of a Western society which, while it values individualism intrinsically, values subordination in pursuit of a collective objective as well. A warrior, on the other hand, is the product of a culture or subculture which is essentially purely honor-driven. That is not a good thing.”

He goes on to examine the honor culture: “…the behaviors of individuals are driven almost exclusively by the need to gain and then to protect, their personal honor. In an honor culture, honor is seen as a commodity. Honor is almost a material thing which must be accumulated. It can only be won by action. And because it is a commodity, it can also be taken away. In both cases this is an individual’s responsibility, he must gather honor as he can, and he must defend both his own honor and the honor of his family.”

The message from Bateman, and the vast majority of those commenting on his article, is explicit; we must not let the warrior ethos and honour culture take over from the creed of the professional soldier who puts service before self. But hang on a moment… how can simply replacing one word with another undermine the proud history of the US military? Step forward the Quantum Zeno Effect. When you are exposed, from day one of Basic Training or Officer School all the way through to your first firefight in the Combat Zone to the lexicon of the warrior, you become hardwired to process information and make decisions in a very different way. You are being set up to behave in a way that is not congruent with the needs of a modern combat force.

Of course, Bateman could as easily be writing about some of the characters involved in various corporate meltdowns in the last few years. In fact, if you look at politics, sport, or many other human endeavors you will see the soldier versus warrior dynamic at work.

So it is not just the military who are hardwiring their people through the repeated use of words, metaphors or stories. What about your workplace? Are the heroes that are talked about in your organization the warriors? Is the behaviour that elicits praise all about toughness…honour…deliver or die? What words have you chosen for your new strategy, and are they inadvertently undermining your desire for collective creativity? Could your intentions to stimulate collaboration be struggling to take off because the words in everyday use signal that it is unwelcome – and maybe you could focus on changing your language rather than creating a fiendishly complicated cross-functional bonus matrix.  Change won’t happen overnight, but when the words and metaphors you use are fully aligned with your strategic intent, and if you keep on using those messages, you are helping to create the conditions for the unconscious minds of your people to support your goals.

The good news is that, by consciously directing your attention, you can literally re-wire your brain to experience things differently4. That enables us to unlock some of the negative impact of tough experiences from the past by re-writing the stories that we tell ourselves. Our negative, or inappropriately positive, somatic markers (see past blogs) can be challenged, helping us to make better quality decisions. Most importantly, when we embrace the fact that we can alter how our brain is wired, we create many more opportunities to enjoy ourselves and achieve more of what we want in life.

  1. Creative Collision is a technique used by Nick Van Heck of ELP to bring together apparently unrelated topics. Often, after analysis, the themes do stay unconnected, but occasionally a real value creating insight leaps out. This forcing together of ideas is a stimulating element of workshops where disruption and complexity are on the agenda.
  2. No, not the name of a low-budget science fiction movie. Although I was listening to the radio on the way to the airport this morning, and the presenters were asking listeners to send in their ideas for ludicrous movie mash-ups. My favourite was: “Predator versus Bridget Jones; The Musical”. The piece was great fun to listen to and I bet some of the ideas might just make it in Hollywood.
  3. Thanks to Ben Clayton-Jolly for passing this to me. The article also resonated strongly with his personal experiences of military and business leaders.
  4. Those of you who have seen me this winter will have noticed I have been running my own QZE experiment. I have been traveling without a coat, wearing a light t-shirt in temperatures down to -5C, constantly telling myself that “I am not feeling cold”. I know the temperature is low, and supporting evidence is provided by hat, coat and scarf wearing fellow travellers, not to mention the snow on the ground. However, I do not experience the temperature as uncomfortable. Warning: If you are going to try something similar, please don’t follow the example of a colleague by foolishly going out running when it’s -20C. Take it easy and give your brain time to build those connections.
Michael Newman Michael Newman

Michael has an innate curiosity and loves to ask questions of himself and others. Over the years he has found that a well-crafted and timely question can open up unexpected new avenues or approaches.

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