The impact of Cognitive Overload on Strategic thought, Bias and Inclusion
“Our executives are already working 17 hour days – they just don’t have time to be inclusive.”
Well that really depends on how we view inclusion. Seen as a way to BE rather than a thing to DO appears to be a trite statement to make – but the behavioural change that comes about when we grasp that creating an inclusive environment will drive strategic advantage in someone with the brain-space to make the connection, will be immediately obvious and sustainable in the long term.
Yet in truth, the majority of our execs are already suffering from cognitive overload at the point this “additional focus point” comes onto their agenda.
It is a total contradiction that in order to strategically drive an organisation towards its goal in the 21st century, we need to become aware of creating intentional inclusion and be mindful of reducing our biases, at the same time that we are bombarded with ever more enabling technology driving us to aim for more audacious targets. And here may come the straw that finally not only breaks our already stressed backs, but actively prevents us from gathering the right people in the right roles that will make a difference to our talent decisions, business development opportunities and even our regulatory application and risk assessment.
Here’s where we need to take a breath and actively choose to use our System 2 thinking – the thinking that Daniel Kahneman expertly explains in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow,’ as the mode that ‘allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations…and is often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.’
And yet we continue to actively praise and promote those with an intrinsic preference to System 1 thinking – quick, associative, unchecked, automatic responses – often delivered in a spoken, loud and ‘alpha’ manner. So who is doing the deeper thinking in our enterprises? Perhaps not our highly rewarded executives who keep long presentism led hours and still jump in on a global call at 2am with bold statements and action led demands.
Their brains are simply not able to truly create inclusive environments while they are exhausted and experiencing cognitive overload. Environmentally, both at home and work, we have so many more decisions to make and take each day. The ability and space to think deeply in System 2 mode is practiced less and less; couple this with a growing addiction to being ‘needed’ and ‘communicated to’ via technology, checking into our emails dozens of times per day, the instantaneous demands made by our teams – all feeding our need to be wanted and touched – all give us a good feeling, and the release of endorphins brings us back to this behaviour time and again.
So in the midst of this, a possibly painful truth begins to dawn at the top of our organisations. A truth that states that the way to excel, to beat the competition, is to not only attract and retain those with different thinking styles – but actually create an environment where they can excel and be heard. Where our risk assessments become more robust, where we are more creative, where we steal strategic and market advantage – and where we stand apart from our competitors.
The painful truth is, however, that tired, unfocussed minds – even the most brilliant ones, won’t make this happen. When we are operating in overload, the inner workings of our reptilian brains are effectively hi-jacked. Our unconscious bias drives our conscious mind to take decisions that are ill-thought through and to hire endlessly in our own image, repeating the cycle of cognitive overload for the future generations of our leadership.