This blog post is part of a two-part series about the link between the brain and coaching for increased performance at work. Read Part 2

Let me start by asking you three questions

  1. Why is it that you continue to do the same things over and over again in your regular work and yet you continue to expect a different result?
  2. Why are you not seeing progress in your delivery and performance at work and in your life?
  3. Why can’t you seem to break the same habits in your everyday decisions and behaviours?

These questions bring me to what I have been researching and reading in recent years on the idea of how our brains can be completely re-wired by partnering with an experienced executive Coach. In my research findings, I discovered that every human brain has the ability to make new neural connections and redefine how we think and behave right up until the day we die. This is a result of recent neurosciences discoveries, using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) brain scanning technology.

Let’s dig a little deeper into this new understanding about our brains. We need to frame this discussion by going back and recognizing that traditionally, as a species we believed that our brains were “wired for life” once they were fully developed by the age of about 22.

However, the new neuroscience concept of neuroplasticity proves that we can decide to physically change the neural connections that guide our decision making, habits and behaviours. (Roberts, 1999). I will be the first to tell you that by having been in a long-standing coaching partnership as a coachee and also on the other end, as an existing certified Executive Coach myself, I have experienced firsthand what it feels like to have my brain re-wired to focus on growth and performance in my work and life.

I have always been curious as to why I was able to dramatically change my habits in behaviours at work through this coaching process. In this discussion, I will share with you what life-changing discoveries I made about the brain and coaching.

We’re at a tipping point in history where science is giving us insight into how we can regain control of our brain’s natural processing that may have been working against us. Coaching in the last decade has proven repeatedly, that as species, we do have a choice. We have the ability to think about our thinking in the moment — this is known as the practice as metacognition.

To further enable us to master metacognition, the profession of coaching has transformed how we can see ourselves in any given moment and what choices we can engage in any situation. Coaching is a formal practice that is about 25 years old and is mainstream with coaches in over 150 countries.

If you’re considering partnering with a coach to grow your performance, habits and behaviours in work and life, there’s scientific research that shows that executive coaching is a game changer for the human brain.

Neuroscience continues to show that transformative lasting change is harder than we could possibly imagine. A commonly shared statistic states that 85% of change initiatives in organizations fail. Why? Because leaders pay attention to the wrong things and don’t understand the neurobiology behind behaviour change. Motivation is simply not enough to inspire people to change.

Transformation, whether on an individual or organizational level, requires ongoing focused attention on new possibilities and new behaviours — not on the problem — and require commitment and effort over time. This continued journey aligns with the basic principles of executive coaching partnerships.

Take a look at how the brain’s plasticity is impacted in both coaching and training as per the data below. Remember our shaped experiences through executive coaching can define the degree to which our brains change.

Your Brain on Coaching table

The nagging question that many leaders across the world still ask is: “Why is behaviour change so hard?”

To answer this question, it helps to understand how your brain processes changes in its environment. When change occurs, your brain sends out strong signals that something’s not right. These signals come from the orbital cortex – which is closely connected to the brain’s fear circuitry in the amygdala (your fight/flight brain and emotional centre). These signals distract us from our focus on making a change and instead reinforce our commitment to holding onto past, well-known behaviours. One of the most important benefits coaching offers is the focus it provides for the Coachee to concentrate on what they truly want and to synthesize the complexity that the brains natural processes create in our automated thinking.

Research completed by neuroscientist and author, Jeffrey Schwartz finds the key to making real change in the brain and in our lives is attention density.  Schwartz describes this as “the amount of attention we pay to something.” When we want to make a transformational shift, we need a high level of attention density focused on the new idea, behaviour or possibility we want to move towards. “Where you focus your attention, you make connections. Focus your attention on something new, and you make new connections.” With enough attention density through the Coaching partnership, our thoughts and habits can shape how we show up in the outside world with others.

Coaches help people increase their attention density through powerful questions, exploring the coachee’s insights, creating opportunities to reflect, asking for commitments and holding coachees accountable.

In Part 2 of this blog series, I’ll get even more geeky with the science and I’ll uncover how coaching activates our brains  to break long-standing neural pathways that don’t serve us well and creates focused connections that lead to desired performance outcomes.

Contact us to learn more.

Written by Matt Summers, M.A Organizational Leadership, specializing in Neuroscience, and Senior Consultant, Coaching and Organizational Leadership.