• Paying attention to new ways of thinking, however uncomfortable at first, can rewire people’s thinking habits. The name given by neuroscience to this phenomenon is “attention density.” When a person repeatedly pays conscious attention to desired thoughts and related goals, the processing of these thoughts and goals stabilizes and moves to the part of the basal ganglia called the caudate nucleus, which lies deep beneath the prefrontal cortex and processes a massive number of neural signals from it. MIT neuroscientist Ann Graybiel has referred to the basal ganglia–caudate nucleus complex as the habit center of the brain. It shifts circuits into place so that ways of thinking and acting that at first seemed unfamiliar soon become habitual. The power of focused attention is enhanced further by the “quantum Zeno effect”: just as quantum particles become more stable when observed, neuronal patterns solidify more rapidly when repetitive attention is paid to them.
• In focusing attention, don’t tell people what they’re doing wrong. Instead, accentuate what they’re doing right. Most brain activities don’t systematically distinguish between an activity and the avoidance of that activity. When someone repeatedly thinks, “I should not break this rule,” they are activating and strengthening neural patterns related to breaking the rule.
Therefore, to engender change among people in an organization, it’s important to keep attention focused on the desired end state, not on avoiding problems. This goal-directed positive reinforcement must take place over and over. The most effective way to achieve this is to set up practices and processes that make it easy for people to do the right thing until it becomes not only second nature, but an ethic taken to heart (and to the brain) by the entire company.
• Cultivate cognitive “veto power.” Veto power is the ability (among both individuals and groups) to rapidly consider outside provocations and choose to stop dysfunctional impulses before they lead to action. In one of the most discussed experiments in the history of neuroscience, preeminent researcher Benjamin Libet used electroencephalographic equipment to measure the brain functions underlying simple finger movements. He discovered that three-tenths of a second before people are aware of the will to move their finger, there is a brain signal related to a desire for finger movement. A person may have the desire to move, but then choose not to move; these two thoughts — the desire and the choice — are separate.
Many people believe that their control over their impulses is limited, particularly in the face of such strong emotions as anger, frustration, enthusiasm, or grief. To an extent, that is true, but Libet’s work shows that people can always constrain (or choose not to follow) a particular impulse. People may have only limited free will, but they have powerful “free won’t.” In organizations, when a strong impulse reflects “the way we do things around here,” there is always the option to veto the action, especially if people have practiced this ability. Even as simple a response as counting to 10 when stressed opens up possibilities for responding in more functional ways.
• The capability for focusing attention needs to be built over time. Few companies have established a strong capability for focused attention. For that reason, we suggest a path for getting there. The six steps that follow are a synthesis of work the authors conducted separately: Schwartz in helping OCD patients and then organizations, Gaito in leadership development work at Cargill, and Lennick at Ameriprise and other companies. These steps, which we have seen applied in practice, allow you to build a company’s capacity to refocus its attention on its most desired goals. They also create a virtuous cycle. (See the exhibit below.)