For great leaders, agility may be more valuable than intelligence, education, skills and even social graces. But high levels of mental agility are not that common. However, there are techniques people can learn to improve mental and behavioral agility.
Agility, or the ability to change mental approaches and behaviors to meet particular objectives, allows people to switch between seemingly incompatible behavioral frameworks, disbelieve what they have been taught, believe in formerly unbelievable concepts and accept formerly incompatible values.
Most people don’t have high mental agility, but they can “trick” their brains into becoming more agile by using certain behaviors.
These techniques are kind of like exercising, only mentally. But like all behavioral change, it’s not easy, as people often see with attempts to lose weight or exercise more.
Agility Targets and Outcomes
Agility is useful in that by increasing it people are better equipped to achieve particular targets or outcomes. But those targets must be defined; otherwise leaders can’t expect learning interventions to do much for an employee’s performance on the job.
Let’s say an employee named Steve is naturally extroverted and sales-oriented. Thanks to a recent promotion, he needs to be more introverted and behave less effusively. Unfortunately, this style is foreign to him.
Employees need agility to make that kind of change effectively. Steve was an excellent salesperson and was thrilled to be promoted to manager, a position he coveted for many years. But once in the new position, his natural exuberance and extroversion took over, and he started to overwhelm his staff with unreasonable demands. He was also a poor listener and was not open to constructive criticism. After a short while he was demoted, a major blow to his image and self-esteem.
Because he was so good at his job the company kept him, but his effectiveness at the lower level declined markedly. Steve did not have the mental agility to meet the demands of the new role, which also required that he listen carefully and not talk too much. Even when he was told this, he couldn’t make the switch.
This situation is not uncommon. Many people don’t have enough agility to make a switch in their natural working and managerial style before they run into problems. At best they’ll try to do a rough approximation, assuming they are even aware of the issue, or understand how to make the change.
Fortunately, modern neuroscience has uncovered ways to prepare the brain to think in different ways than those normally used. It’s called “behavioral priming.” Essentially, people have to “think” themselves into the role they want to play.
One must understand this role as a target or state of mind before thinking oneself into it. In a sense, it’s like acting. A successful actor has to routinely immerse him or herself in different roles. That means understanding not only how characters think, but also how they behave and their basic psychological motivations.
Steve needed to think himself into the leadership style of manager, to target the role of introvert, talking little and listening a lot. He needed to go from boisterous and exuberant to reserved and cautious. But as an exuberant individual with fast repartee and a need to be the center of attention, this proved difficult, even though he likely understood at an intellectual level what he needed to do.
This raises another issue. What should someone who has particular vulnerabilities do to change, beyond listening to constructive criticism and trying to make the necessary adjustments?
The secret is called “embodied cognition.” People don’t just think with the brain. Movement and a sense of the relative position of the body, or proprioception, also drive cognition. In other words, the body drives the mental state rather than the other way around. In embodied cognition any part of the body can act as part of a driver for a mental state. People just have to know what parts to use and how to use them to drive particular mental states and increase their level of mental agility.
Let’s go back to Steve. After demotion, he received coaching. He learned his body language was boisterous, he smiled a lot and he used gestures expansively. The coach showed him how, whether he was in a standing or seated stance, he used a loud talking style. His body style drove a mental state of dominance. The coach then showed him how to use other stances to lead him to a new mental state of introspection, listening and caution.
One of the major implications for learning embodied cognition is that learning leaders can show employees — particularly high-potential leaders like Steve — how to change the way they affect others by understanding how to move and act in different ways. This changes learning strategy fundamentally by changing the focus of learning from content to the ways learners use their bodies when they apply content in their daily work.
That sounds a lot like acting, right? Actors are famous for being able to use facial expressions and body postures to make others believe they really are the character they portray. But employees can learn similar facial expressions and postures to achieve a higher level of behavioral and mental agility.
For instance, after Steve was demoted, his organization was not considering promoting him again. But the coaching he received in embodied cognition changed the way he was perceived at work.
Steve followed his lessons to the letter. He changed his facial styles to smile less. He talked less. His seated and standing stances changed from being expansive to limiting. He displayed reserve and gravitas.
At first the change shocked his managers and peers. Then they realized he had made a huge behavioral change. Leaders reconsidered his role and considered not only promoting him to a management role, but also to a role beyond what they promoted him to before.
Authentic vs. Highly Agile
The concept of embodied cognition is so new it hasn’t had much time to attract skeptics, though it’s not uncommon for people to see acting as an activity that can be used to deceive others. But increasingly even more traditional coaches are considering acting lessons as a way to promote personal and professional changes. It’s part of an ever-widening realization that the way we act is important in driving the ways we think.
For these coaches, it’s not about a theoretical concept; it’s about learning effectiveness. Cognition and movement are intrinsically entwined, and learning leaders can harness this to make their learning efforts more effective.
In any model of leadership or management there will be some sort of categorization open to the learner. For many of these categories there will be a set of body and facial expressions, or postures, that can impact the mental state so that people can behave more effectively when implementing these categories.
Learning leaders need to consider how they can make learning content more effective by presenting it as part of a postural framework. This might only mean offering the basic postures for specific learning content, and agile, perceptive people will be able to add others based on their own study and understanding of the content.
This may seem like a strategy to craft a leadership style like paint by the numbers. But if high-potential employees adapt well to behavioral agility techniques, their brains will take the cues, adopt and use those characteristics to bring about a variety of leadership outcomes, and generally become more effective.
For many people, this kind of practice raises an important issue. If people can move to any leadership style, or portray any type of learning content through postures, does that mean they lose authenticity as a leader?
It’s an important question. Agility is like power. It can be used or abused. If someone uses the aforementioned techniques to deceive people or to achieve an end that is not ethical or values-based, that is a misuse of agility.
Agility could be abused to achieve political ends not aligned with the organization or team’s needs. But if leaders use agility for legitimate ends, such as organizational success, that is fair and legitimate.
Ultimately, like any other leadership capability, agility must be used responsibly and ethically. With that approach, it can open up new horizons for most employees to enjoy a more productive and satisfying work life.
Read the sidebar to this feature, "Four Tips to Facilitate Tough Conversations."