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Brain Hacks 4 Leadership

Aug 30, 2018

If your interested in making better decisions, solving problems, getting the best out of yourself and your team and managing your time more effectively, this is the podcast for you. 

My guest, Jason Howlett is the Co-founder and change agent @ Manpremo.  Jason’s passion is helping people develop, with the purpose of increasing well-being and actualising potential.

Jason uses applied science (neuroscience, psychology and physiology), combined with data, to optimise brain performance and build change competency.

For the past 8 years, Jason has been working with organisations and their employees on programmes that develop Leadership and Talent; Well-being; Strategy Implementation; Mindset and behaviour change; Resilience/Grit in individuals and teams.

Before focusing his work on people, their mindset and behaviour, Jason worked in IT for 7 years.

Jason studied Applied Positive Psychology at the University of East London and has a degree in Computer Science from Royal Holloway, University of London.

Jason is a certified Personal Trainer and Lifestyle Coach.

Podcast Transcript:

Well thank you Jason, again, for joining us, and Jason's gonna share brain science and highlight what leaders can do to really maximize their personal leadership based on what we know about some of the science in the brain. He's done a lot of work with leaders over the last several years. So Jason, why don't you tell us what's important for our audience to know today.

Thank you Jill. I'm going to focus on looking at a data driven approach to increasing the performance of our brain for personal leadership. We're gonna focus on a subset of the brain functions. We'll look at what's commonly known as the cognitive or executive functions of the brain. These are things that help us to get things done, so they're critical for us being able to plan, to learn, the ability to solve problems, make decisions, and essentially to also control ourselves, to manage how we manage our impulses, but also our emotions.

These cognitive or executive functions are also crucial in us building competencies, whether that be leadership competencies or any other particular functional competencies that we wish to learn.

Now these functions are there to help us, but they are not there all the time. We do not have an infinite resource that fuels these functions. They depend on several factors being in place.

There's two key areas of these factors that we need to consider if we really want to have the cognitive part of our brain fully switched on. The first part is looking at the physical needs. The very basics, which we all know we need, which is sleep, rest, fuel, bio nutrition, and movement. So these things have been proven through neuro biological research to be key in switching the cognitive functions on. To give you an example, if we look at sleep, which is really the number one example from the physical needs, just by trying to maximize a good seven to eight hours of good quality sleep will increase our ability to learn by a minimum of 40 percent. It will also decrease the amount of stress we wake up with, which will decrease the amount of anger and fear that we have. But there are a whole host of other benefits that sleep provides. Because essentially, sleep is the number one factor to help us to learn and memorize things, but also to of course repair and restore the functions in the brain.

Another small example is movement. We know that movement's important for our heart and our lungs. But in terms of our brain, there's two key things that regular movement does. It first of all increases the circulation of blood to our brains, which brings more oxygen and nutrients to our brain. It also helps to increase neurotransmitters, which are important for the brain's function. But secondly, regular movement helps to increase factors that help the brain to develop and also become more plastic. In crude terms, you can say the brain is plastic, the brain can change. It's the term called neuroplasticity. But regular movement helps to increase this ability. This is key when looking at behavior change, or again, learning new things.

These are two examples of the physical needs, sleep and movement. But let's look at the other group of factors.

The other group of factors are our social needs, and these needs are also extremely important. They are things like feeling safe in the environment that we're in, feeling accepted, that we have a sense of belonging, that we have the recognition we need, but also a certain amount of autonomy, ability to have control over what we say and do.

These needs, both the physical needs and the social needs, are really crucial to have in place so that our cognitive brain is fully switched on. And essentially a lack of these needs causes the brain to trigger the threat response. This is really important, because when the threat response is triggered, i.e. what we commonly know as the stress response, something that causes us to want to fight or to flee or to freeze. This response puts the brain into a self preservation mode, so it no longer really cares about anyone else other than our own survival, and we become very reactive. The key thing here is that we don't just become reactive, but our cognitive functions that I mentioned before, like planning, learning, problem solving, decision making, they're offline. So the ability to control yourself is offline. So you will act much more under any sort of anger that you may feel, your ability to solve problems, make decisions, to plan, they're also offline. So you become much more primitive in how you behave and act when these needs are not met.

We can monitor these needs and actually simple ways. And today if I focus on the physical needs first, we can, by using simple wearables, but of course also medical grade devices, we can monitor the stress recovery balance in our body, which has a direct link to the functioning of our brain.

To keep it simple, there is a science of heart rate variability, and heart rate variability just means the variation in time between each beat of your heart. If I was to measure someone's heart rate now, and it came out to be 60 beats per minute, the assumption would be, well, there's 60 beats a minute and there's 60 seconds in a minute, so there must be one second between each beat. But the reality is this is very dependent on how activated or stressed you currently feel. For 60 beats per minute is quite a low recording, but what could actually be happening, because the heart rate is quite low at 60 beats, is that between the first beat and the second beat, maybe there is a second. But between the second and the third beat, there could be 0.8 of a second. Between the third and fourth, it could be 1.2 seconds.

The variation is very small. It's within milliseconds. That's not easy for us to measure ourself, but there are devices that you can very simply use, watches, bands, and also medical grade, electro based devices that can measure this heart rate variability. And essentially the lower the variability, the more stressed you are. So that means that using these devices, you can monitor what are the events, situations, or people that cause significant stress, and what are the events, situations with people that promote my recovery?

Because going back to the analogy before, when the brain is experiencing stress, the cognitive functions, like planning, solving problems, decision making, they are inhibited. So if we can learn, if we can trigger us self awareness on what is basically draining resources, we can help to better manage that. And this isn't about measuring yourself a life, it's just about triggering awareness.

To take that a step further, of course, this would involve regular reflection and for you to actually monitor the output from the watch or medical device you use. So what we've essentially done is built an app that takes all of the input from your wearable, and it also takes in input from your calendar, and it then notifies you over the week on what are the events, situations, that have caused you particular stress, and what are the events that have caused you particular recovery. Using this, you get a better stress recovery balance, and therefore you're better able to keep your brain switched on when you want it to be. I think that's an important point to make here, especially in leadership. You cannot be switched on all the time. I've worked with some people and organizations that even have in the signature always on, and the key thing is is that it's scientifically proven that the cognitive aspect, even if you're not stressed, cannot be always on. The brain goes through periods of what's called task positive and then task negative action.

You can think of the task positive like focused attention and the task negative like mind wandering. And it's very important that the brand can go through this cycle of focused attention and mind wandering.

I think the key message is that this is about triggering self awareness around, okay, what can help me to optimize my brain performance when I really need to be at my best, and the other things that I can do before I face a situation, like having to either sit down with my team and deliver a good or bad message. It's about when I've got conflict management, managing ambiguity, when I've got to influence people, any of these kind of key behaviors where you really want to be switched on, you know what you can do to prepare for that. But you also know what to do when things do get tough, when you do feel particularly stressed.

You have simple techniques, and we're going to go through some of those in a minute, that you can use to very quickly reduce the stress and increase recovery so that your cognitive functions come back online again. This is quite individual, hence why we use devices to really work out an issue, what works for who, because we do find a lot of people already think they know what helps them to relax, but when we measure them, their heart tells a very different story. For example, watching TV. It might feel relaxing, but it's actually a quite stressful, quite activating I should say for the brain, and especially not a good idea to do just before bed because of the way that it reduces the production of melatonin in the brain, and of course that being the key rest and recovery hormones, so your sleep quality is reduced.

But there's a whole host of different factors that people can learn about so that they know just the one or two key things to look out for and the one or two key things to practice. They can build a habit around it to to better manage the stress.

Thank you. Can you tell me, if we don't have one of those wearables on us, what are some things that we can notice that are happening that are giving us triggers, our body giving us triggers, that we might be in a stressful situation and need to self reflect a little bit?

Yes, a super question, Jill. Whenever we experience stress, the biological factors that will let us know, and that's why think it's also important that we don't become dependent on devices, but we learn that if we can tap into the fact that our heart rate is rising. Or maybe we don't notice the high rate, but we notice our breathing rate has increased. Or we feel suddenly our pulse. Literally, we become more aware of that in our head, because we suddenly realized tension in our head. Or sweaty hands. This kind of unease would be the easiest way to say it. Suddenly you feel that tension or unease. That's a great trigger to say, "Okay, let me pay attention to what's happening right now. Let me be more present with myself so I can face whatever it is. Whether it's external, being caused by the environment around me or the people around me, or whether it's my own thoughts or feelings inside." Does that make sense?

It does, yeah. I think that sometimes we just don't even realize it's happening, and later we might look, or we might even look at, are our fists clenched, or like you said, sweaty palms. Those are things that I think are important to notice, that that means your body's telling you if we want our cognitive to work effectively as leaders, that's not going to help us.

Yeah. It's a super point, and I think that's where time to reflect or a mindfulness space practice, somewhere where you train your brain's ability to have focused attention and to become more aware of what your triggers are or what are the causes of the different things that you're feeling, so essentially emotional awareness and emotional intelligence. This is a key factor in you reducing the time of what's called the amygdala hijack. Or essentially, keep it simple. Let's say someone says something to you that triggers you, and essentially it triggers the stress response. Your brain will launch this response in literally milliseconds. And it can take a little bit of time for your cognitive brain or your consciousness to become aware of the fact that now I'm stressed, now I realize that I'm clenching my fists or I have muscle tension up in my neck. It can take a little bit longer for that to become aware, maybe a second versus a split second.

It's a short time, but the process of having time to reflect, on mindfulness is a great way to build that awareness of the fact that something's happening, and then to use emotional regulation or a technique to work with the trigger of the stress.

Is there a mindfulness practice that if I'm in the moment and I'm noticing that maybe I'm getting ready for a presentation or getting ready to have a difficult conversation, what's something that I could do fairly quickly as a leader to get my physical back in line and those less stressed so I can think through the way I want to?

Yeah, that's a great question. It's quite individual, but what we've found to be the quickest way for most individuals to reduce stress and switch their cognitive brain fully on is simply to sit there for as little as two to five minutes and to follow the following rhythm. You take a nice slow deep inhalation for a count of three, and then a nice slow exhalation for a count of normally four to seven. This is where it's very individual. It depends. But you essentially need to exhale over a longer period than you inhale.

What that does is it triggers in your nervous system the rest and recovery response, and that's been proven. If you continued that for five minutes, you actually empty your bloodstream of cortisol, the stress hormone. But even within just two minutes of getting awareness of your breathing, you can change a body from what's called a stress dominant state to a rest and recovery dominant state.

That would be the most simple one. Other people like yawning. That's also something that would trigger the recovery response. But I think the breathing would. That simple rhythm, in for three, out of four, is quite easy once you practice that a few times, to do that even in a crisis situation, because you don't even need to close your eyes. You can be in a meeting and practice that and bring more power to your executive brain.

Yeah, I love that you said you can even do it in a meeting without closing your eyes, right? Because you can do it without people noticing, but you're getting yourself back. Because sometimes we go into meetings where something triggers us.

Yeah, I mean, that's a nice short practice that people can use.

You talked about physical needs and social needs. You gave us a nice tip around physical and what's going on in the brain around that. From a social needs perspective, can you talk a little bit more about that?

Yeah. I think the key thing with social needs is that first of all, we need to consider the environment that you're in. We're gonna have a lot higher access to our cognitive functions when our brain is not launching a significant stress response. But that depends on us actually feeling safe. So are we in an environment where there's a constant threat?

Some organizations have a zero failure culture, sometimes for good reasons, many times for maybe not so productive reasons. That is something that will ... You know that if you make a mistake that you're fired or penalized, and of course that will mean that you are constantly moving around in a mild stress response, which will inhibit the brain cognitive functions. Again, you can work with that.

For mission critical situations where you really need to have zero failure, there are of course ways you can work with a case ... The belief system of the people that are doing the work to reduce that. But let's talk about the more general sense. You've got, first of all, a sense of belonging. We're social beings. It's very important for us to be in an environment where we feel like we belong, because we are beings that depend on each other. As much as we like to be independent, we really do thrive in group.

Just knowing that the people around you respect you for who you are, and that you feel that you get regular recognition, helps you to feel like you belong, and that key social need basically helps to reduce stress. On the other hand, if we in a situation where we basically don't get that regular feedback or recognition, then we don't really know where we are. We don't know whether we are doing a good enough job. Are we really meeting the needs of the people around us, and are we also, which is kind of a key thing for our sense of meaning, is are we actually doing something that matters? Are we actually using our time to serve others in some shape or form? Having awareness of that is something that's key to reducing stress.

I think what's key here is to think about a meeting situation, because it's in meetings where we tend to have the greatest trigger of our emotions, especially when we're in meetings with people from all different departments. Maybe we don't know everyone in the room, especially if we're meeting them for the first time. What our brain does in that situation is it's constantly scanning to see, okay, well ... Other people listening to me, do they respect me? What do they think of what I'm saying? Am I getting any recognition? The brain is constantly scanning to see if these things are met.

So often people are sitting in a meeting room, but even if it's a short meeting, their cognitive functions can be inhibited if they are really feeling that they are not a part of the group, or that they're not being listened to or appreciated. So a simple check in, starting a meeting with a one or two minute check in where people literally share what's at the top of the mind or to use eye contact throughout the meeting. Having meetings where each person has maybe even a short time to share, but everyone shares the key things that they need. That's also making sure that there is an agenda for the meeting. Right, so what do they need, what is the information they can give, do they need to seek approval, but that everyone does get a chance to talk, and that they're listened to, just helps to increase that sense of belonging, respect and recognition.

Otherwise people would be in that meeting and they'll be seeking to preserve themselves. So self preservation behavior versus wanting to behave to benefit the group.

The tips that you gave, the things that leaders can do if they're running the meeting ...


You said start with a check in to see what's on their mind. Tell me a little bit more about that. What would that look like? Because I could imagine some managers would say, "Oh, I don't have time for that." So tell me what that would look like and help us understand the benefit.

Yeah, that's an important point. I think as a leader, what's really key when you get to that meeting is that, of course, you reiterate the direction, why do we have a meeting, what's the purpose of it, what do we want to get out of it, so that that brings everyone into this current point.

But I think a check in's important because these days meetings are the second biggest waste of productivity after absenteeism. And the reason for that is, one, they normally have too long, two, they don't have a specific purpose or agenda, and three people go back to back with meetings, which by the way, in your second meeting, you would have lost up to 60 percent of your previous meeting or more without having a short break between the meeting, because again, your cognitive functions cannot, one, retain all that information, but two, your brand needs a break. You need to get this stress recovery balance.

A check in is a way the leader can basically give each person as little as a minute to say what's at the top of their mind. And this depends on the size of the team and how close you are. But let's say it's the leader's own team. Here is the sharing. Whether it's a good or bad feeling, you don't have to share why you have it, it's not going into your personal reasons, on the fact that you had a bad start to the morning because you had an argument with your partner. It's not to go into those specifics. But it is important to, especially for the leader to start, by saying what's at the top of their mind. Because what this builds over time is transparency and trust. Trust is number one for a high performance team or a well functioning team of any kind.

Especially on the days where everyone can sense that the leader is not at their best. And by the way, again, being social animals, people don't need to say things for us to realize that there's something wrong. Body language, tone of voice, all these things give out subtle messages that there's something wrong. And I think what's very powerful is when a manager shares that, "I'm not at my best today, it's nothing to do with you." That's key, saying that it's nothing to do with you. "But not quite feeling at my best today, so don't take that personally." It allows people to see that they can be human beings in the workplace, and also, especially from an employee perspective, is they're not going to tread on eggshells thinking that it could have been them that caused the leader to not feel at their best.

The last point on the check in which I found quite interesting is to simply share what is one thing that you feel didn't go well since the last meeting and why, and what is one thing that went very well since the last meeting and why. Some people call this success of failure, but I don't think you need to use a strong term as failure, but it gives a very short term for the person to reflect on. Some people like to focus on work, or it could be both work and at home. But what is one thing that didn't go well, what you learned from it, and one thing that went really well and what did you learn from that. That's a nice way of having a check in.

Probably gets everybody's brain into a more relaxed state to sharpen the cognitive ability and that executive ability of the brain.

Yeah, I agree.

So Jason, you've talked about the data driven approach to help us with our cognitive or executive function of the brain, and that part of the brain when we plan, make decisions, control ourselves. Especially our emotions to make sure that we're online. You talked about physical and social needs around that and gave us a few tip. What else is important for us to know about making sure that we're able to get the best ... We're able to use our cognitive and executive function so we're effective through the day?

I think as a leader, again, what is a really nice practice to build up throughout the day is regularly giving feedback and seeking to receive it as well. Because the nice thing about regular feedback is that you build the self esteem and self worth of the person that you're providing it to. Even if it could be feedback where you feel they could do better, but you're really giving them awareness on how they can grow and develop. Whether it's feedback on something that's gone well or could have been better, you're giving them attention, you're being present with them, and that builds their self worth, and also their self esteem of course. But what it does for you as a leader is it also builds their respect for you.

I think this habit of giving and receiving regular feedback is a really nice way of keeping your employees' brains fully switched on and also your own. Because as I mentioned with social needs, the self esteem and self worth for the individual will help them feel safe, feel recognized. That will fully switch their brain on. The fact that they respect you as a leader will give you that feeling that you're also actually functioning well and providing them with what they need. So you also feel a sense where your self esteem will increase, and therefore again, your brain will not be in a stress response. It will actually be in a mode where it's increasing these executive functions.

Jason, do you have a specific example of a leader that you've coached, or how you've used this personally to become more effective at switching on that cognitive part of our brain to make better decisions and plans?

Yeah. Let's start with what is most likely the most [inaudible 00:28:24] effective for myself, but also for whether I'd estimate over 90 percent of the leaders and people that we've worked within organizations is that it really starts with putting aside time to reflect, and during that time that you reflect, to look at the way that you're also going to be spending your time with the week ahead. So doing this either on a Friday and looking at the next week, or doing it on a Monday morning for the current week.

But really not just reflecting on what did you do the previous week, what are the key priorities you have coming up for this week, but also where in calendar have I already set specific times to practice recovery. Whatever works best for me. Have I set specific times as a leader to have the one on ones that I need to have? That time to reflect with others. Not just reflection on your own, it's reflection with others.

The other part is ensuring that you also have your other physical needs met, so where are you getting the movement that you need? Where do you have your mindfulness practice, or simply having time to be yourself? That reflection period, which can be as little as 15 minutes on a Friday or Monday, that is one of the most important factors that we've seen making a difference, because that's also ... If you build a habit around that, that is like a chain reaction that promotes all of the other things that you would like to build. Again, a habit around mindfulness or a habit around increasing the time you have with your employees. So that reflection is important.

To help people start that habit, we use a tool that basically attracts people's time management. It's completely confidential, so it's not shared with their colleagues or anyone else. But they can use that to look at, okay, how are they spending their time, where do they have back to back meetings, and where do they not spend enough time with the right people, i.e. their own team, with the leaders in the other departments and so on. So you can use that as a way to build that practice up. The key point, with technology aside, is to build that habit of reflection.

I love that you said 15 minutes, do the rear view look at the week, and then plan for your week ahead, making sure that you've got time for movement, and you've got time for recovery, and not having those back to back meetings that often leaders have, or sometimes they take pride in having.

And of course, yeah, it's also about the 80/20 rule, right? If you do that 80% of the time, it's really gonna pay off.

I think that's another thing that's challenging, especially as responsibility grows for leaders, because it's always they don't have time. But that's the thing with finding the right habits. Because I really believe, I mean it's a key philosophy of mine, that if you can automate the key behaviors that drive the greatest success for you, you have way more capacity to do the things that are new or you haven't done before, you need to learn. Because up to 45% of what we do every day is habitual. It's completely automated by, yeah, let's just say the unconscious part of the brain. And that's really important for us. But we need to practice the behaviors before they will become habitual. And we also need to make sure they're small enough to repeat.

If we can start to practice that over time and not punish ourselves too much when we miss it, then we will be able to automate more of these key things and have way more cognitive capacity or performance to address the new or unexpected things that come up in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

That's one thing we'll never have more of is time. It's fixed.

Yeah. Exactly.

Good point. Thinking about those habits. What is one thing that a leader could do or potential leader could do right now that's going to make them more effective at making better decisions, planning, getting control of that cognitive executive function?

I think the number one thing, to be quite honest, it's simply to prioritize sleep. This goes back to the physical needs. I can of course add one that people can do at work in second. Well, some companies here in Denmark actually can sleep during the work day. But the number one is sleep, just to work - and very specifically here - work with the one hour before bed, because that hour is a very important window on which you can impact the percentage of recovery and quality recovery that you get during yours. A lot of people will spend that hour by working, using their phone, or essentially using devices, and all of these devices emit blue light from the screen and decrease, as I mentioned before, the production of melatonin in the brain, and will really decrease the percentage of recovery you're getting, especially the deep sleep and REM sleep. So switching out television> But when you really need to be your best, no alcohol, actually no alcohol at all during the day would be ideal for your sleep, but especially after 4:00 in the afternoon.

I mentioned devices, but those last little looks at the phone or email is a really bad idea during that hour, because even though the short look at it will not be enough for the blue light to maybe have an issue, the thought process that that triggers, especially if you see an email that means that there's an emergency has occurred or something you're going to face tomorrow is gonna be something that is demanding, subconsciously your brain is going to be working with that. That's very activating.

Getting rid of devices and using that hour to simply either read a book, quality conversations with your partner, catching up with a friend, but actually using something that will help you to wind down. It might be a nice cup of herbal tea. I mean, this is quite individual, but for the majority of the people we see, reading a fictional book or a Kindle that's not back lit is a really nice way for them to allow their natural recovery process to kick in and get a good quality sleep, and that's the number one thing for your brain performance. Good quality sleep.

The other tiny tip, which is super simple to implement, which I think has had one of the biggest effects throughout the day for both leaders, but for any employee, is to put in their calendar for ... Well, you can try it right after the call now, but if they're going to be at work tomorrow, to actually put in their calendar specific time. Just block out as little as five to 10 minutes as a private event so no one else can book them, and practice that breathing I mentioned before, where you're breathing in for a count of three and out for a count of four. Because that's one of the fastest ways to regulate your stress recovery balance, and you don't need any devices, you don't need to close your eyes. You just need the trigger to do it, which could be as simple as a calendar reminder.

Those are wonderful tips. Sleeping and breathing are two things that we do every day.

Hopefully, yeah.

And honestly, simple things to maximize that, to help us think more effectively and really get more control over ourselves can go a long way.

Well Jason, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much for sharing your insight, and the great data and research about the brain and how we can really be more effective in planning and making decisions. I wanted to give you one last opportunity to see if there's anything else you'd like to share with the group.

First of all, thank you to you Jill for the invitation. Appreciate the talk.

You're welcome.

The only other thing that I will say is that again, it's important to find what works best for you. And as you mentioned before, sometimes technology can help, but it's not something that anyone should depend on. But it's taking the time to build your own awareness on what are the things that are really draining my resources and what are the things that are gaining my resources is a great starting point on which you can then use to build the personal leadership. And that I think is critical when leading others, because it all starts with leading yourself. The greater the self awareness and self management you have, the greater your ability to be able to be present and to be able to know what to do to lead others.

Think that would be the closing point.

Great. Thank you. Well, I appreciate your time today and your tip, reminding us the best way to lead others is lead ourselves first. Thank you very much.

You're welcome, Jill. Thank you.


I hope that you have enjoyed this and can start using some of these great techniques to create more cohesive teams.  Make sure to subscribe to be alerted to ongoing podcasts. I work with leaders and their teams to apply these concepts, grow themselves, their teams and their business.  Schedule a free 30 minute consultation here to see if I can help you, your team or your organization.  You can reach me, Jill Windelspecht, directly by email at and visit my website at



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