C-Suite Lifestyle

Simple strategies to better optimise your brain for change

Ciara Lancaster

As leaders grapple with exponential change, few have time to dust off biology or neuroscience text books.  Let me reassure you, there are much faster and less intensive ways to learn about optimising your brain.

Let’s use the metaphor of sitting around playing cards.  This happens to be a favourite past time for my family when we go on road trips.  There is nothing more joyful than watching children and adults alike, win a round of Snap, Uno or Monopoly Deal.

Imagine that your brain is like a pattern recognition team, leaning in to play a fast-paced game of cards.

Within the team are three players and each of those players are watching closely for a specific pattern to show up.

The brain stem is watching for cues that confirm “Whether you feel safe and secure?”

The limbic system is watching for cues that confirm “Whether you are able to emotionally regulate and feel connected to others?”

And finally, the prefrontal cortex is watching for cues that confirm “Whether you are ready to be intellectual, to form new ideas and to innovate?”

Where most organisations and leaders get it wrong is that they don’t pause to reflect and respond to the question “who should go first?”.  In real life, this often sparks great debate as to whether it is ladies first, the youngest player or the winner of the last game.  In the corporate arena, prioritisation is often determined by importance and urgency.

Right now, every organisation is experiencing a significant shift in prioritisation away from business as usual (BAU), towards change as usual (CAU).   First and foremost, it is critical for organisations to shift from compliance to care by prioritising psychological safety and human connection.  Meanwhile leaders need to shift how they show up for themselves and others.  Adaptive leaders know this is about integrity, energy and neurochemicals.

Why?  When you don’t adhere to the brain’s preferred sequence, you will experience low focus, a lack of engagement, an absence of creative flow and your productivity will tank.

In contrast, when you do optimise your brain, you trigger neurochemicals to release and these play a significant role in improving your ability to thrive at work.

Let’s now explore behaviours you can adopt to naturally trigger five neurochemicals:

Dopamine – Focus/Motivation/Memory

As you sit down at your desk and fire up your laptop, turn away from the screen and reduce sensory overload.  Close your eyes, grab your headphones and gift your brain ten minutes of music that induces the energy you need to do your best work.  This will be different for everyone.  For some, this may be high energy dance hits.  While for others, more Zen-like calming sounds help to induce a preferred peaceful state. Alternatives to music include mindfulness, mediation and maintaining a quality sleep routine at night.

Serotonin – Wellbeing/Digestion/Mood

The theatre of your mind cannot distinguish between real and false mental imagery, so memory retrieval, imagination and visualisation are the secrets to naturally boosting your serotonin levels and mood.  Close your eyes and remember past achievements.  More specifically, tap into the sensory state of how you felt during that time to intentionally encourage serotonin to flow.   Don’t rush this process, allow yourself a good 5-10 minutes to walk through your memory sequence in your mind.  For others, you may prefer to leave the past in the past and visualise your future.  Beyond that remember to include daily exercise and increase your exposure to natural light to absorb Vitamin D.

Endorphins – Anti-Anxiety/Relaxation/Creativity

During work hours welcome back inclusive humour, laughter and storytelling into the team and genuinely support others. Toxic or overly formal work environments are detrimental to your nervous system, regardless of whether you are living through a pandemic.  Remember team members are likely to be battling their own personal demons, often unspoken ones.  Knowing this is crucial to activating empathy and compassion in the workplace.  Allow this to ripple more broadly by either working on projects that make a difference or volunteering.  And when you return home, endorphins can be produced naturally through exercise, sex, dark chocolate and even a glass of red wine.

Oxytocin – Trust/Generosity/Bonding

Can you feel the love?  At work, this all comes down to openly recognising others.  Slow down, genuinely check-in, go for a walking meeting or grab a bite to eat together.  Where possible start each meeting off by recognising recent efforts and contribution.  This is what deepens the sense of belonging and promotes a growth mindset amongst the team.  At home, the most effective method is to hug.  Not any old hug, it has to be one with a close friend or family member and it has to last for a minimum of 20 seconds per hug.  Don’t stop at one either, try aiming for 8 hugs per day and notice the difference! Bonus points for playing with pets and children too.

Noradrenaline – Perception/Mobilisation/Action Taking

Not all stress is bad.  However, most of us forget about the conscious efforts required to self-regulate our emotions and find our own personal sweet spot in relation to stress.  Leaders do their best work when they feel ‘slightly’ overchallenged.  When you are underchallenged you will lack motivation, when you are overchallenged you will become stressed and anxious.  However, when you are only ‘slightly’ overchallenged this will awaken your desire to perform and take action.  Keep the lines of communication open with your boss about how you coping with the volume and challenge level of your workload.

The payoff feeling of naturally welcoming these five neurochemicals into your daily routine will be immediate.  Easily repeatable too!

Mindset for adaptive leadership begins by optimising your brain for performance, possibilities and potential fulfillment.   


Written by Ciara Lancaster. Have you read?
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Ciara Lancaster
Ciara Lancaster is a change fatigue and resilience specialist at Reimagine Change. Her focus is to help leaders at all levels to manage uncertainty, mitigate stress and modernise their mindset. She is also the author of the new book Reimagine Change: Escape change fatigue, build resilience and awaken your creative brilliance (Grammar Factory Pty. Ltd. August 16, 2020). Ciara Lancaster is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on LinkedIn.