Executive Education

Executive illusion of effectiveness

From strategic concerns to operational and commercial factors, there is a constant flow of information and decision making facing the Executive. Add technological disruption, changing work practices and a desire for life balance, the modern executive is dealing with a unique set of challenges never seen before.

While each of us are doing our best to adapt, in order to survive and thrive, be agile, inspiring and creative, there is a hidden barrier holding us back. Few executive are even aware that this barrier exists. However, the latest advancements of neuroscience have shed new light into how the executive brain works and more specifically, what we need to do differently to be at our best.

Understanding this concept centres on the amygdala in the limbic system of your brain. The limbic system is the emotional centre and your amygdala is responsible for your fight or flight response. This ancient mechanism is very powerful and has kept us alive for millennia. Unfortunately, modern life has created a flaw in the system that is having a deleterious impact on executive performance.

When you compare us to other mammals, humans have a highly evolved imagination. This is a vital business tool as it allows us to forecast and contingency plan as well as learn from past experiences. However, when this teams up with our fight or flight response, we have a tendency to over think and over stress.

The reason for this is while our mammalian counterparts have an amygdala that switches on and off, our imagination tends to lock our amygdala in the ON position. We don’t let go, we continue to worry about work or life issues on a loop. This is having an impact on our workplace effectiveness and it’s also having an acute impact on our physical and mental health.

To illustrate this, David Creswell PhD has conducted functional MRIs on people who are constantly ‘on the go’, just like our modern executive. This scan showed that the amygdala was fused in the ON position which is like constantly running from a threat.

In the office, an illusion of effectiveness is the outcome. We think that we’re productive because we’re having lots of meetings and getting things done. The reality however is that the quality of our thinking and creativity is below capacity because in neurological terms, we are running in flight mode not thinking at a high level.

At best this limits performance, at worst it presents and immediate risk of burn out. So what can we do to address this balance and reclaim the full capacity of the executive brain? Here are 3 practical steps that we can all take that have a demonstrable impact on cognitive function and overall wellness.


An outlet is an activity that engages your mind and body so completely that you lose track of time. Running, yoga and surfing are good examples as well as golf, gardening, cooking and reading. These activities allow you to switch that amygdala off and experience cognitive flow.

These flow experiences promote performance enhancement [i], high concentration, high self-esteem and improved health [ii]. Activities such as mindfulness meditation also significantly improve working memory and executive functioning [iii] while reducing stress and anxiety [iv].

If you have an outlet, do it regularly. If you don’t, then find an activity individually or in a group that allows you to unplug and gets the brain back to neutral.


Muliti-tasking is not a human concept. It’s a software engineering term from the 1980’s that describes when a computer is working on multiple applications concurrently. The human brain, regardless of experience or intelligence, has not evolved to the point where this is possible. While some of us are better ‘shift taskers’ this is still a highly inefficient way to complete tasks.

We are designed to complete one task with laser beam focus and then move on to the next task. When we operate in this way, the human brain has an impressive capacity. This is not the way we work however. As an example, you’ll be writing an email and get a call. You’re not 100% focused on the call because you’re still looking at the email. John then walks into your office to check if you’re okay for the 3pm meet. You excuse yourself before returning to the call. Sounding familiar? This is all too common example of attempting multiple tasks but not doing anything particularly well.

Research on this topic and our own exercises show that by attempting to multi task, each task actually takes longer to complete [i.e. that 20 sec email will take you 1 minute]. In addition, the quality of your output goes down and you add an unnecessary level of pressure and stress into your environment.

Open plan offices and open door policies create a challenge, however if you have a high level task that requires you to be at your best, don’t do it in the traffic. Block the time out, find a meeting room, shut the door and turn the phone off. We’ve found that not only will this task be completed faster and with no stress; the quality of your output is substantially higher.


I agree with Tom Peters and Dov Feldman in that we all need to daydream for at least 10minutes a day. While I get initial push back from executives here, the logic is sound. If we are constantly running from one meeting to the next email to the next report; when do we ever have the opportunity for higher order thinking to come up with that creative idea or that elegant business solution.

Regardless of where you are in your career, this cognitive illusion of effectiveness binds the modern executive experience. For those who acknowledge this and take practical steps to reclaim their brain and switch off flight mode, the impact on life and career success is powerful and immediate.

What you missed?

1. Are Your Employees Stuck at the “Kids’ Table”?
2. Distance Training, Video Conferencing, and Other Ways to Simplify Your On-Boarding Process
4. Jugaad Leadership in the Age of Executive Uncertainty or How to Implement Frugal Thinking across the Spectrum
5. Ways To Improve And Secure Your Smartphone-Browsing Experience

By Christopher Paterson, managing director at ALCHEMY Career Management.

[i]   Csíkszentmihályi et al., 1993; Perry, 1999; Sawyer, 1992
[ii]   Hektner, 1996
[iii]   Zeidan et al, 2010
[iv] Science Daily 2012

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Christopher Paterson
Christopher Paterson is the managing director of ALCHEMY Career Management, a firm of coaches and organizational psychologists who support individuals and organizations around the world with executive coaching, career transition, Wellness@Work™ and change management programs.