Successful leaders know that we can control only 3 things in our life: our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If we can take charge over those, we can lead our organizations, and our lives, to our own vision of success.
That vision may differ for successful leaders: some want to grow their business into a huge company, while some want to stay small and keep a family atmosphere in their company. Regardless of how you view success, to achieve it you need to invest into understanding how your mind works. Then, you need to direct your thinking and feeling patterns, and the behaviors that result, to evaluating reality clearly, making the wisest decisions, and accomplishing your goals.
So how do our minds work? Intuitively, our mind feels like a cohesive whole. We perceive ourselves as intentional and rational thinkers. Yet cognitive science research shows that in reality, the intentional part of our mind is like a little rider on top of a huge elephant of emotions and intuitions.
Roughly speaking, we have two thinking systems. Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for his research on behavioral economics, calls them System 1 and 2. I think autopilot system and intentional system describe these systems more clearly.
The autopilot system corresponds to our emotions and intuitions. Its cognitive processes take place mainly in the amygdala and other parts of the brain that developed early in our evolution. This system guides our daily habits, helps us make snap decisions, and reacts instantly to dangerous life-and-death situations, like saber-toothed tigers, through the freeze, fight, or flight stress response. While helping our survival in the past, the fight-or-flight response is not a great fit for modern life.
We have many small stresses in our work that are not life-threatening, but the autopilot system treats them as saber-toothed tigers. That produces an unnecessarily stressful everyday life experience that undermines our mental and physical well-being. Moreover, while the snap judgments resulting from intuitions and emotions usually feel true because they are fast and powerful, they often lead us wrong in systemic and predictable ways.
For example, we make bad hires if we rely on our autopilot system. The autopilot system leads to us making too-optimistic plans and ignore weaknesses and threats in our businesses and our careers. It leads us into errors in negotiating with others, in mergers and acquisitions, and in assessing company performance. True leaders learn to avoid simply trusting their gut to address autopilot system errors.
By contrast, the intentional system reflects our rational thinking, and centers around the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that evolved more recently. According to recent research, it developed as humans started to live within larger social groups. This thinking system helps us handle more complex mental activities. These include managing individual and group relationships, logical reasoning, probabilistic thinking, and learning new information and patterns of thinking and behavior. Notice how these activities are exactly the kinds of things necessary for leaders to succeed.
While the automatic system requires no conscious effort to function, the intentional system takes deliberate effort to turn on and is mentally tiring. Fortunately, with enough motivation and appropriate training, the intentional system can turn on in situations where the autopilot system is prone to make errors, especially costly ones.
The autopilot system is like an elephant. It’s by far the more powerful and predominant of the two systems. Our emotions can often overwhelm our rational thinking.
Moreover, our intuitions and habits determine the large majority of our life, which we spend in autopilot mode. And that’s not a bad thing at all – it would be mentally exhausting to think intentionally about our every action and decision.
The intentional system is like the elephant rider. It can guide the elephant deliberately to go in a direction that matches our actual goals. It can help you address the systematic and predictable errors that we make due to how our brain is wired, what scholars term cognitive biases. Over 100 cognitive biases exist, and more are found all the time by scholars in behavioral economics and cognitive neuroscience. We make these mistakes not only in work, but also in other life areas, for example in our shopping choices, as revealed by a series of studies done by a shopping comparison website.
Fortunately, recent research in these fields shows how you can use pragmatic strategies to notice and address these dangerous judgment errors. The elephant part of the brain – which is most prone to cognitive biases – is huge and unwieldy, slow to turn and change, and stampedes at threats.
But we can train the elephant. Your rider can be an elephant whisperer. Over time, you can use the intentional system to change your automatic thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns, and reach true success!