ISSUE 2 – MARCH 2013
Roger Maitland & Brett Anderson-Terry
They used to say knowledge is power. The tremendous accessibility of information through the internet should be increasing the quality of a leader’s thinking and decision making, but the wealth of information at our fingertips, warns Carr (2010), seems however to be making us into shallow thinkers, and changing the structure of our brains.
The typical office worker checks his or her email 30-40 times per hour (Carr, 2010.) The convenience and speed of communication geared towards immediate response associated with the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and laptops has a stark downside. Neuroscientific research suggests that whilst internet usage is enhancing visual-spacial skills, it is weakening our capacity for deep processing of information through analysis, critical thinking, imagination and reflection (Greenfield in Carr, 2010.) The notion of neuroplasticity suggests that the brain continuously changes as demands from the environment change. Merzenich (in Carr, 2010) cautions that internet surfing habits mean that we are exercising neural circuits responsible for skimming and multi-tasking at the expense of those which enable sustained attention and analysis.
Long term success demands a depth to intelligence, which only develops when information moves from our immediate attention and thought to our long term memory, this requires sustained attention. This continuous interruption has become endemic as the accessibility of the internet increased through mobile communication. Every time a person switches their attention, the brain has to re-orientate, which takes mental resources. This increases the chance of overlooking or misinterpreting important information (Carr, 2010.)
Complexity theory gives us another useful perspective. Seen through complexity theory, a leader or organisation continuously scans the environment using memory to distinguish between noise and significant information. A complex system, such as a leader or organisation, therefore needs to be slower than its environment, as it can only determine what is significance through reflection. Reflection can be seen as a process in which the past is allowed to play itself out in interaction with the present (Cilliers, 2006.) Seen from this perspective, the faster the system is, the less likely it is to effectively determine what aspects of its environment are significant to its development.
Several trends in the environment such as globalisation, international commerce, rapid technological change , changing cultural values, outsourcing and social networking result in leaders needing to be more flexible, adaptive and innovative (Yukl & Mahsud, 2010.) This behavioural flexibility needs to be responsive to a variety of tasks and employees, and be able to deal with sudden, unusual and complex events and a widening range of value systems. As the requirement for flexible and adaptive leadership increases, so does the need for depth of intelligence. In a fast changing environment it becomes increasingly difficult to discern between information and noise, as a changing context has implications for what is significant, thereby emphasising the need for reflection. Reflection requires a leader to slow down in order to achieve speed.
Learning to use technology in way that enables focus and manages interruptions is necessary to create the conditions in which the depth of a leader’s intelligence can be increased, thereby increasing adaptive expertise. In this regard, mastering methods of reflection are critical for ongoing success in a changing environment.
- Carr, N. 2010. The web shatters focus, rewires brains. Wired, June.
- Cilliers, P. 2006. On the importance of a certain slowness. Emergence, 8(3):106-113.
- Yukl, G. & Mahsud, R. 2012. Why flexible and adaptive leadership is essential. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(2):81-93.