It is generally accepted that the combination of good leadership, engaged employees and satisfied customers is a recipe for success. What is less well understood is the importance of right-brained thinking in all of them.
Thanks to the Nobel prize winning work of Roger Sperry we know that the two hemispheres of the brain process information in different ways; while the left-hand side deals with more logical, sequential and structured thinking, the right-hand side thinks in a more holistic, simultaneous and unstructured way.
Until Sperry’s ground-breaking work in the 1950’s and 60’s, the right-hand side of the brain was thought of as being relatively unused, a defunct throw-back to a previous era of human evolution perhaps.
Even today, you only have to look at the world around us to see how left-brained thinking has dominated our lives – our education system, the hierarchical structure of organisations, our measurement systems for aptitude and intelligence. This is not to decry left-brained thinking – our logical and structured approach over the last 150 years or so has seen organisations improve productivity to a phenomenal extent. Improvements that have directly contributed to standards of living vastly in excess of anything seen before.
But the world is changing. Whereas in the early 1900s Henry Ford made a fortune producing only black cars, today’s car manufacturers have to be capable of producing a vast number of variants because customers want products to be tailored to their individual requirements – cars are no longer simply cars. As Bob Lutz, a President of American car manufacturer General Motors said;
“What we’ve got at GM now is a general comprehension that you can’t run this business by the left, intellectual, analytical side of the brain. You have to have a lot of right side, creative input. We are in the arts and entertainment business.”
The problem is that a lot of our businesses are dominantly left-brained. Look at the following diagram:
The quadrilateral shape marked in bold in the centre of the diagram shows the brain dominance of the Board of a UK FTSE 100 company, measured using the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument.
The different coloured sections represent the four major processing centres of the brain. The blue area represents logical reasoning; the green, detail and analysis; the red empathy and emotion; and the yellow, big-picture thinking and creativity.
The percentage numbers around the edge indicate the balance between right- and left-brainedness, upper cerebral (intellectual) and lower limbic (intuitive).What this shows then is that this Board is likely to be prone to being short-termist, to being overly obsessive about detail and to seeing employees as units of labour rather than as people.
On a more positive note, it is likely that the finances of this company will be in excellent order and that the majority of projects run to time and within budget.
In my experience, this profile is typical of the Boards of many companies, particularly plc’s, where the disciplines of logic and attention to detail are prized above all else.
Now let’s think about customers.
Obviously customers come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing that unites them is a collective move towards demanding more of what the American author Daniel Pink describes as “significance”.
Pink points out that when you buy something you are placing a value on its “utility” (its usefulness for the purpose it is intended for) and its significance (the way it looks, sounds, feels or smells). For example, a quick search on the Internet for fly swatters will reveal products ranging in price from 75p to £9.00. A purely logical, left-brained consumer would therefore buy the 75p fly swatter, the fact that some people are willing to pay up to £9 for a product that does the same thing can therefore only be explained in terms of it’s right-brain appeal.
There are numerous other examples – designer clothes, expensive cars, heated toilet seats – in each case people are paying a large amount of money for the significance of the product over and above its utility value.
Now think about customer service. On courses we run at Extensor we often ask delegates to write a list of phrases to describe excellent customer service. The sort of things they write are as follows:
*Listened to me
*Treated me as a person
*Really seemed to care
Interestingly, people rarely say things like “the product worked” or “does what it says on the tin”. These “utility” factors are taken as given, excellence then is going further, it is about connecting with customers on an emotional level.
The point is that, not only is great customer service a right-brained concept, but consumers are willing to pay extra for it. The difficulty for many organisations is that due to history, the pressures of the stock market, nepotism, and a host of other excuses, the Board tends to be dominantly left-brained, while the products and services they offer increasingly need to be more right-brained. This creates tension where the two approaches meet.
For example, I once had a customer who had good reason to be dissatisfied with the company I worked for at the time. As their account manager, I knew what we needed to do to correct the situation. I therefore submitted a request to the Board to supply the necessary products free of charge. My next instinct was to spend time with the customer to rebuild confidence and trust.
The Board took a different view. They insisted that I wrote detailed reports and attend lengthy internal meetings to discuss the situation. The more time I spent away from the client, the worse the situation got, until the only solution was a meeting between the CEO’s of the two companies. Wouldn’t it have been better if the Board’s instinct had been to sort out the customer first and hold the inquest later?
The solution is for the organisation to be “whole-brained” at every level. For the Board this requires them to be more leadership oriented and less managerial. If you quickly write a list of words you would associate with management, and then write a similar list for words you would associate with leadership, you will notice two things: The first is that whereas the management words tend to be very logical, structured, specific and eminently measurable, the leadership words are more aspirational, unspecific and much less measurable. The second thing is that the management words tend to be more left-brained and the leadership ones more right-brained.
This is not to say that management is bad and leadership is good or vice versa. As the great management guru Peter Drucker once said; “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Both disciplines are important and both are necessary.Getting the two in balance produces a more “whole-brained” organisation which in turn produces better alignment between the objectives of employees at all levels in the hierarchy, from the “shop floor” to the Board room.In aiming to achieve balance it should not be taken as a foregone conclusion that some of the people have to be changed. Brain dominance is an indicator of preference, not ability. For example, I am dominantly right-handed, but I can also catch a ball with my left hand and, given time, I could probably learn to write with my left hand.
What is important is an awareness of brain dominance. Although most people will know whether they are right- or left-handed, very few are aware of their thinking preferences or of those of other people. More importantly, very few teams are aware of where the “thinking gaps” might be or be aware of the subjects that might not be given sufficient consideration because the consensus within the team might be too strong.
The subject of brain dominance is therefore not simply a curiosity that might be of interest to a few people; it is a subject that should be considered as a basic element in organisational life.
By Alistair Schofield he is the Managing Director of Extensor Limited.