Manageable Guides

Expert views on topics relevant to all leaders and teams.

Naomi de Barra is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist who is excited about bringing great psychology to the workplace, to make businesses and people more productive. She has almost 20 years of business experience in FMCG, Pharmaceuticals, Recruitment and Healthcare. Her areas of interest are Neurodiversity, Leadership and Selection and Assessment.

Hello, my name is Naomi de Barra. I am a Chartered Occupational Psychologist and director at Integrate Psychology. So I am in my second career. My first career I worked as a leader and manager of many different people for just over a decade within the pharmaceutical industry. I decided while I was there that I was frustrated with the lack of movement and the lack of good decision-making around organisational change. So I retrained, which took about eight or nine years, to become an occupational psychologist so I could marry the enjoyment of psychology and organisations together. Today, I'm going to talk to you about cognitive flexibility and why it matters in the workplace, especially when you're managing people. We're going to talk about strategies to help keep you cognitively flexible when the world is creating lots and lots of sensory distractions. I'm Naomi de Barra and this is my Manageable Guide to cognitive flexibility.

In today's world, in only the past five years, 90% of all data has been produced, which if we just stop for a moment and think about, is absolutely mind blowing. It means that not information, but data has been produced at a phenomenal rate in only five years. It means that it's very difficult for us to become experts in any area and stay experts for very long. It means that we constantly have to keep moving and stay agile in the way in which we're learning and critically thinking about information. It matters so much in the workplace because if we don't have enough cognitive flexibility, we become cognitively rigid. And this means that we can become overwhelmed, we find it very hard to make decisions and we find it really hard to actually empathise with people in managing our team.

Cognitive overload theory was developed in the 90s and it posits that, in order for us to become overwhelmed, we are taking in much more information that our brain can physically process. When we talk about cognitive flexibility, we are really relating to or talking about our working memory. So imagine that this is our working memory and the amount that we have each day is finite. It depends from person to person, how much we have. Now, this working memory is responsible for our attention and concentration, for making decisions with quick incoming information. It's designed to keep us safe. So, if we use it all too quickly in the morning, it means it's virtually impossible for us to concentrate for the rest of the day. I'm sure you've all hit walls after you've been in meetings for too long and all of a sudden, you are finding yourself zoned out and looking out the window or writing a to-do list or something else in order to reduce that distractibility.

Let's say that this is your cognitive stuff for the day, and we're about to do a Zoom meeting. Okay, that was an interesting Zoom meeting. And if it was one that was less interesting, you would be using more and more of your working memory or cognitive stuff throughout that meeting and throughout the day. What it means is that we need to be really aware of how much cognitive resource we have each day, and we cannot abuse it. If we abuse it, it means that when we get to critical decision-making that needs to be done, when we are managing people, we no longer have the cognitive flexibility to make good decisions, which really matters when we are being very reactive in managerial roles.

If we think about how we can free up our working memory, the first and most fundamental way that we can do this, to support cognitive flexibility, is to reduce sensory distractions. Every second tens of thousands of pieces of sensory information enters our senses. We live in a world where distraction is every part of our day. And that means that the working memory that we talked about, every time you get an email notification that comes in, every time your text message goes off on your phone, or your team's message comes through, you are using some of that working memory. We think that we don't notice the email notifications pinging in and we are wrong. Every single time we see the email ping up in that right hand side, our brain has to go fifteen steps into who it's from, what it might be about, how we might deal with it, and then we come back out and focus back on our task. And that distraction uses our working memory which we have to reduce to keep cognitively flexible.

So things like reducing our degrees of distraction. For example, imagine that right now I have 360 degrees almost of distraction visually. I can see everything around me, there are people moving in front of me, around me, not quite behind me, but not far off. So this means that my brain is getting sensory information from all of those degrees. And it's absolutely essential to reduce those when you are working and when your team is working. So if they are working from home, for example, make sure that they have a really good setup, so that they cannot see too much ahead of them and they don't have too many visual or auditory distractions around them. Imagine that our working memory acts as placeholders for reminders throughout the day. Probably about 80% of those reminders don't need to be held in mind, they can be written down. So if we can take all of those things that we are holding, and write them down, either physically or digitally, it can really help. Something that can be excellent to use are mind maps. And by freeing up those placeholders, it means that we can move forward and we can encourage our team to move forward with actually what they're meant to be working on, rather than trying to remember what they need to do.

Our working memory also has a key role in emotional regulation. So when we are becoming overwhelmed with our team, or with ourselves with all of the multiple things that are happening in our lives, if we don't have enough cognitive stuff left, then we become overwhelmed. We can have what's called an amygdala hijack. This is our brainstem. This is our brain. And this is our amygdala. Our amygdala is responsible for all of our emotions, our happiness, our sadness, our anger, everything. Imagine a child having a temper tantrum when they're about three or four years old. We've all seen the videos of the children lying on the supermarket floor. Well, that's because they haven't developed their prefrontal cortex yet, which is this bit here. And this effectively covers our amygdala. It helps us to recognise that when we're stressed, we don't need to cry or shout. When we feel frustrated, we don't need to lie on a supermarket floor, although it might be fun. And it helps us to regulate and stay emotionally flexible. By being able to think I feel really overwhelmed by a meeting I've got coming up or an appraisal with a team member, by just writing it down or saying it out loud, your brain reappraises the threat and it reduces your cortisol levels.

We are all so wonderfully unique, which means that the things that affect our working memory depend on us. So let's imagine our personality types. So there are many different ways of looking at this but we all talk often about the big five. So that is openness. So how much are we open to change? Do we like routine or do we get excited and energised by doing things differently? Conscientiousness. So do we like following rules and regulations, or do we like having as much autonomy as we would like over our activities? Extraversion and introversion and ambiversion sitting there in the middle are often ignored. This has to do with where we get our energy from. So are we energised by people and lots of sensory information, or are we energised by just being on our own and being biologically under stimulated? The other area is neuroticism. So how anxious are we? How responsive is our brain to cortisol and all of those hormones? Do we respond anxiously to different situations, or are we pretty laid back? And finally, agreeableness. So how likely are we to conflict with other people? Do we find that comfortable? Do we like to have difficult conversations, or do we move away from them?

Now understanding where we sit on each of those spectrums is absolutely essential in knowing whether or not we are using our cognitive resource because if we're working in environments that feel comfortable, then we are less likely to be using that cognitive resource. I like to think of personality types as a stress thermostat - we all walk around with them on a daily basis. So I know that I'm extroverted during the day, and by the evening, I don't like people at all, I'm done. So I know that in order to reduce my stress, I don't generally talk to people much in the evening. I also know that I'm open to change. So if I'm doing too much routine stuff on a daily basis, that increases my stress. I need to be doing things that are varied and exciting and new, otherwise, I feel stressed. One of the most essential things to do is to understand what increases your stress and what reduces it. And then we move on to the same for your team members. How many times when you felt down do people say to you or keep your chin up, it will be okay? When we're feeling like that we are cognitively depleted. Think about that working memory again - we don't have the capacity to just put our chin up. It's not that easy. Our brain has already produced a cascade of hormones to reduce our metabolism when we're feeling sad, or to make us move away from things when we feel scared. And knowing that that's happening could first of all be really useful but it's also useful to know that there are things that we can do to combat this.

One of the things I recommend to so many of my clients is building their own resilience toolkit. So hopefully, you will all have lots of evidence in your inboxes, from printouts, from conversations, of ways in which you've performed well. When you've helped other people, when you've made good managerial decisions, when you've developed somebody, and they've been promoted into a more senior position, for example. So the first task is to gather all of that information, spend a couple of hours, to search through previous emails and gather this data about yourself. Now, it's not about thinking "I'm the best at everything". It's not that at all. It's not an exercise to build ego, it is an exercise just to rebalance. Thinking about this idea that when we are down, we are cognitively depleted, we cannot just put our chin up because of this cascade of hormones that are making us withdraw. By reading positive things about ourselves and reminding ourselves of what we are good at, our brain naturally chuck's out some lovely mood boosting hormones. So it helps to combat some of those hormones that are making us feel low. That's the first thing. The first thing is to gather information on what you've done while and ask your teams to do the same.

The second, which is one of my favourites, is to add some mood boosting foods in. For example, dark chocolate is excellent, bananas are brilliant for potassium, blueberries, coffee is also excellent. Think about what you can physiologically do and eat and intake and consume in order to rebalance that as well. Once you begin this practice, it's then useful to keep noticing what you do well. Our brain is designed to see threats in the environment. It's designed to point our brain and direct it towards things that we have not done very well. So by noticing those things that we do well, it helps us to start becoming more of a balanced critic on ourselves and our team. Feedback is an essential part of managing any team. We often wait until there's something big to discuss to feedback, but it's absolutely essential that on a regular basis, we are feeding back the things that we notice. Research shows us that the more we notice what we do well, and areas that we need to develop. the easier we find it to feed back to our team members as well. One of the important things to remember when we consider our resilience toolkit is that it evolves over time, we will get new stresses each day, and each week, we will get new challenges with new team members. So it's so important that we continue to evolve and to continue to gather new information about our strengths, our areas of development and keep checking in on ourselves to make sure that we stay cognitively flexible.

So in summary, there is too much incoming information for us to deal with and cope with on a daily basis. As a response to this, if we're not careful, we can become cognitively rigid, which makes it hard for us to make decisions and stay emotionally regulated. So in order to protect our cognitive flexibility, we need to always think about our working memory. The first thing that we can do is reduce our distractions. So turn off those email notifications, let people know that you're not available for a certain amount of time per day, make sure that your degrees of distraction are reduced where possible. And think about this for your team. The second is really understanding you and understanding your individual responses to stress. What are your triggers? What are your personality preferences and how would you prefer to work? And then recognise that that will be very different for each of your team members. So ask them, let them tell their stories. Let them tell you how they prefer to work. And then finally, we talked about the resilience toolkit. So how when we are feeling overwhelmed, do we bring ourselves back? How do we help ourselves combat that cascade of negative hormones and mood boost in order for us to keep moving in times of adversity and keep being excellent managers? I'm Naomi Barra and this is my Manageable guide to cognitive flexibility.