Our Brain Games
by Gary Burnison
Dogs vs. cats. Astronomy vs. astrology. Apples vs. pears. Spider-Man vs. Captain America. It was 11th grade English class, and as soon as the teacher began writing an endless list of topics on the blackboard, I knew what was coming.
The dreaded compare-and-contrast essay.
Nerve-wracking pop quizzes, tough open-book exams, and hefty summer take-home assignments—I’d say, bring it on! But compare-and-contrast essays? Those were my nemeses.
Panicked (the clock was ticking), I’d divide a piece of paper in half and start writing as fast as I could. Similarities on one side and differences on the other. Astronomy and astrology are both about planets—or is one about stars? Spider-Man and Captain America—wait, aren’t they both Avengers? After a while, I had so many cross-outs and arrows, the only thing I could be sure of was my name at the top of the paper.
These days, paradoxes abound—grit vs. grace; perform vs. transform; speed vs. significance; critique vs. create; execute vs. engage; head vs. heart. And one that I’ve seen a lot of lately is self vs. system—which can be expressed simply as “I vs. we.”
It’s astonishing how easy it is to get caught up in any of these, particularly that last one. Just this past week, I interviewed someone who told me, “I’ve already recruited 40 people this year.” Really, was it a singlehanded endeavor? The same applies with the person who told me a few months ago, “I was responsible for developing 1,000 leaders in 2020.” Again—not a solo act. The paradox pendulum should always swing in both directions.
The good news is we don’t have to choose between the opposites. We can find the connections and congruencies between them. That’s where things get interesting—and messy.
“It’s difficult to hold two opposing ideas in our minds because it creates cognitive dissonance, and we humans don’t like that. It’s super-uncomfortable,” Amelia Haynes, a research associate with our Korn Ferry Institute, told me this week. “But when we can find the congruencies between those ideas, the tension resolves, and our brains reward us with a shot of feel-good dopamine.”
In our conversation this week, Kevin Cashman, our global co-leader of CEO & Enterprise Leader Development, peeled back the layers even further. As he explained it, we all have our patterns—too often leaning in one direction toward what’s most comfortable and familiar. But those go-to reactions and knee-jerk behaviors over time can become a rut—and even a derailer. It’s more than just an engrained habit—as Kevin put it, “Even our neurophysiology gets stuck.”
That’s when it’s time to pause, as Kevin told me. “Stepping back, evaluating, and reflecting become our only chance of rewiring new neural pathways and reforming patterns. A pause can happen when we reflect on feedback we’ve received, observe someone we admire, or even when we rest and reflect. That’s why the more we pause for the complex and the important, the better we get at synthesizing the dots across polarities and paradoxes.”
It doesn’t just happen automatically. It starts with becoming more self-aware. Only then can we be intentional about where and how we expand our thinking—mastering the balancing act between what appear to be polar opposites but actually complete us.
The good news is we can change our minds—literally. Here are some thoughts:
· Rewiring our reality. When we get good at something, our brains literally become hard-wired. In fact, if someone were to use brain imaging, they’d see the neural pathways that reflect the well-worn habits of how we think and act. Rather than get stuck in a rut, we need to expand our thinking. In fact, the more open our minds become, the more we can develop and tap the capabilities that allow us to make a positive impact. But it takes more than just will and skill. To get to the other side of paralyzing paradoxes we need to shift our mindsets so we can expand and reframe our reality. Then our possibilities become probabilities.
· Compare, contrast—always connect. When we compare and contrast between two opposites—spreadsheet vs. stories, profit vs. people—we’re using a skill set known as critical thinking. From elementary school onward, it became engrained in us—or so our teachers hoped. While critical thinking is important, there’s another way of processing ideas that can open more possibilities: integrative thinking. It’s the opposing muscle that allows us to build integration and congruencies. In other words, it’s not enough to only see the dots, we also have to connect them. It’s a little like playing 3D chess—and, to be honest, it doesn’t come naturally to most people. As Kevin Cashman said, “Critical thinking is what we usually think of as intelligence. But it represents the discerning part of intelligence—not the synthesizing part. We need integrative thinking to go beyond seeing one thing or the other. It’s all about how they come together.” So, if our heads are buried in spreadsheets, perhaps it’s time to think more about stories. If we’re only focused on profit, now is the time to elevate people. It’s the yin and yang of leadership—seeing the dynamic balance between opposing forces.
· Our tale of two brains. We live largely in a left-brain world—overly focused on our technical skills and caught up in the details. Instead, we need to tap Google Earth and zoom out—and that takes our right brain. Looking at things from 30,000 feet helps us contextualize information. And the bigger the picture we see, the more we can connect and collaborate with others, instead of getting stuck in our own silos. Make no mistake—it’s not that our left brains don’t matter. We need both brains—left and right. By connecting them, we can see farther, wider, and deeper. That’s how we can look up, look out, and leap forward, becoming the best “us”—and bringing others with us.
With all due respect to what we learned in 11th grade, the dreaded compare-and-contrast no longer serves us in these times. The new world is not one or the other—or one versus another—neither for people nor ideas. There’s room for both—and more. Indeed, that’s the real brain game-changer.