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The Courage to Understand


Leading the collective towards thriving amidst accelerating change is proving to be more challenging than ever. Today’s leaders are expected to take on more social responsibilities, promote cross-functional collaboration, and navigate greater ambiguity.

The 21st-century leader stands as connector and translator at the complex intersection between the traditional and the new. Technological advances enable widely dispersed individuals to become more interconnected and interdependent. Yet, it is our individualism that is being increasingly promoted and celebrated. From a business perspective, especially in the West, the consideration of our individualism is critical to retaining top talent and countering turnover cost. However, accommodating the needs of as many as five different generations working side by side has its challenges and can lead to many uncomfortable perspective confrontations.

We make sense of the world through the lens of our own perspectives, and we have spent years perfecting our preferred interpretations. But the time has come to re-evaluate our relationship with them. What will contribute most to our collective thriving, our collective resilience, is the quality of our relationships – and the key to enhancing relationships is understanding.

The courage to understand: picture of people talking

 The Psychology of ‘Feeling’ Understood

Our experience of being understood determines how connected to and inspired by leadership we are to put in the necessary work. Researchers (Morelli et al., 2014; Reis et al., 2017) indicate the ‘feeling’ of being understood as key to the success of a relationship, even more so than actually being understood. The ‘feeling’ is that you accept and care for me authentically, and so I don’t have to waste any energy on constantly explaining myself or worrying about how I am perceived (more psychological safety, less ‘imposter syndrome’). Our unconscious need to survive as part of the group is deeply dependent on our sense of belonging, which is facilitated by feeling understood. This social safety contributes significantly to driving a baseline relaxed physiological state, a state of resilience, psychological calm, and ‘High-Performance Readiness’ (Neurozone®). In contrast, not feeling understood by your peers and leaders lowers social safety, moves you out of the baseline relaxed physiological state, and so over time can lead you to burnout.

Social cohesion used to be so much simpler back when the world was smaller. But global connectedness and celebrated individuality makes identifying a core base of understanding uniquely challenging – with technology being both an enabler and a barrier. How do you read the room when you’re not in the room? Understanding and accommodating the needs and wants of different generations in the workplace can be very taxing on leadership. Perhaps a good starting point is to promote the unique cognitive abilities of each age group.

Understanding Cognitive Contributions of Different Age Groups

While we are still dissecting the disparities of cognitive abilities across the life span, we can at least accept that it is not as simple as indicating a peak ‘Einstein’ point in time followed by ongoing decline as we age. As we grow older, we get better at performing certain tasks, and we also get worse at other things. Studies show that there is this asynchronous rise and fall of cognitive abilities over time (Hartshorne & Germine, 2015).

In our 20s to 40s, there is a peak in our ability to learn, think quickly, and recall information. The pruning of the (unconscious) problem-solving brain towards the end of adolescence means there is more strategic sifting of information to be stored. This point in time also sees more openness to reason and think flexibly. Generation Z and the majority of Millennials are tech-comfortable and should actively contribute to keeping everyone up to date on the latest ‘everything’. They are the keepers and distributors of new information. Leaders should invest in their continuous development and social and psychological safety and provide mentorship without dampening their enthusiastic spirits.

As we approach our 40s and 50s, we start displaying enhanced pattern recognition skills. Still in learning mode, we have now expanded our resource library with significant experience to start showing off our mindreading capabilities. An important characteristic critical to pattern recognition is that people in Generation X (and older Millennials) are more able to appropriately evaluate the emotional states of others. Comfortable with both technology and personal interactions, they are the mediators and translators between Generation Z and the Boomers.

With age comes wisdom. The accumulation of facts and knowledge combined with higher emotional intelligence and vocabulary skills peak later in life. Boomers and beyond are our storytellers. Leaders should encourage them to share their ‘stories’ within the context of company values and goals. Younger generations should prioritise listening to learn and understand.

The collective intelligence of the group will always trump the highest level of individual intelligence. Diversity in the workplace – including gender, cultural, or age diversity – is the most important asset to innovation. Pairing these two evidenced insights can make many generations working side by side towards unified goals actually quite exciting.

The courage to understand: young people together supporting each other

A Neurobehavioral Blueprint for Understanding

It comes as no surprise that the neurobehavioral prerequisites for understanding relate directly to the necessary skills for coaching: active listening; promoting curiosity; and developing cognitive and effective empathy.

What it comes down to is cultivating a mindful workforce (Swart, 2021). Mindfulness allows us to pay closer attention, bring curiosity to everything, and to do so in a nonjudgmental way. It activates brain regions linked to empathy, emotional integration, and creativity; facilitating a sort of hybrid mental state of combined relaxation and mental alertness that allows us to connect deeper and respond in more meaningful ways while conserving energy for high performance. Mindfulness will therefore help us overcome the biggest barrier to understand: our unconscious misreading of the intentions of others.

It Takes Courage to Understand

The path to understanding requires significant effort from both sides, uniting skilled communicators with excellent empaths. Leadership should encourage their employees to be more open in expressing what is important to them, while simultaneously being more courageous in expressing their own emotions to drive team empathy. It takes courage to tell you who I really am and courage to listen to who you really are. Leaders should pay close attention to what is being said. Listen to learn. And then respond in a way that makes each generation feel deeply understood.

Article by Dr Chrisna Swart, PhD, Contributor, Møller Institute
Dr Swart is a Neuroscientist, Facilitator & Business Coach and Head of Neurozone® Coaching

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