Avoid Deadly Automatic Thinking at Work

I want to tell you about a syndrome known as mindless acceptance syndrome (MAS) which is a direct result of our brains automatic thinking process.

As humans we go about our daily business in the office for the most part on automatic pilot. I mean this quite literally. Neurosciences research has taught us that our brains are built to keep us alive, which means that our brain’s primary function beyond survival is mental energy conservation.

Think about it for a minute – if we need the energy to prime our major muscles and entire nervous system when we perceive an event as being life threatening, then our brain needs a certain amount of mental energy to engage our primal fight or flight response system during that moment of threat. But I know what you are thinking – ok Matt, but what does all this neurosciences mumbo jumbo actually mean?

Here’s a real-life example. Imagine you receive an e-mail on Friday afternoon from your boss that says: “Joe, come see me in my office immediately”. What is the first thing you think that Joe believes when reading this e-mail? That he is about to get fired, right?

Now the irony is that as humans, we are very intelligent in some ways and in others our non-conscious brain cannot even distinguish the difference between receiving such an e-mail from your boss or from seeing a lion walk into your campground. In this example neuroscience reveals that Joe’s brain will react in the exact same way as if a lion just walked into his campground, with the exact same stress chemicals being released. But remember, it takes a great deal of mental energy to activate our stress and threat response systems.

In order to guarantee that our brains have enough energy to respond under threat, our brain (over thousands of years) has created a non-conscious neural processing network that allows us all to complete a number of daily activities without really thinking about them; they occur as part of our automatic thinking. This way of thinking requires less energy to process thoughts and most often shows up in our routines, like when we drive or brush our teeth. But science is showing us that more and more of our office duties are becoming automated. And, the more we repeat those work tasks the more likely they are to be wired into our brains as being automated. You and I engage in automatic thinking at the office all the time – every day in fact and we are not even aware of this mental processing and decision making as it is not a part of our conscious thinking.

Override automatic thinking, develop analytical thinking

Here is the challenge: if I am not aware of this automatic thinking, what can I do about it? Well the answer is not that simple but there is hope for us all. The more we remind ourselves that automatic thinking is dominating a lot of our daily work, we need to mitigate automatic thinking in times where we need to engage in more analytical or critical thinking. To be able to do this we need to be open to the fact that our instinctive decision making will want to override our critical thinking. There are three steps to developing our analytical thinking:

  1. Start by writing down more than one possible solution/strategy or decision for our work project.
  2. Step away from your solutions to create distance and ask someone else to review and provide their perspectives and ideas on our decision making.
  3. The final step is for us to ask ourselves, “What option is going to give us the greatest amount of value and how can we measure that over time?”

These steps can be applied in a very practical example such as this: The next time you receive a calendar invite for a meeting, rather than mindlessly accepting, pause and ask yourself whether the meeting adds value to your work or what value you bring to the meeting by attending? If the meeting doesn’t benefit you or the meeting attendees, hit decline and follow up with the invitee.

I look forward to the words “No more MAS in our organization!” ringing through the halls of businesses across the world. Remember, as Einstein so famously said: “The definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different result.” MAS is no different. I dare you to be bold and challenge your brain’s status quo – starting right now!

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About the author

We are a team of Mindset and Culture specialists whose main focus is to develop leaders, teams, and entire organizations to thrive and achieve excellence. We use an integrated approach to create high-performance cultures by developing the right mindset, and the leadership, sales and service skills necessary to deliver superior and sustainable results

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