Executives need bandwidth and discipline

May 13, 2013 | By | Add a Comment

Executives today face a virtual smorgasbord of information.  Our 24/7 globally connected world provides infinite options for action yet it can also contribute to poor executive decisions and dysfunctional behaviour.  This paradox can be explained in part by recent neuroscientific evidence that relates executive success to cognitive bandwidth and self-discipline.

When tackling unexpected, complex or ill-defined problems ‘bottom-up’ emotional circuits (e.g., amygdala, hippocampus) can overpower ‘top-down’ control circuits (e.g., dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex) causing a breakdown of information processing.  The effect is more pronounced for leaders who are highly sensitive to reward (e.g., financial or status) or threat (e.g., personal criticism or rejection) as strong sensitivities reinforce this neural imbalance and intensify dysfunctional behaviours (e.g., impulsivity, aggression or procrastination) and emotions (e.g., anxiety, fear, frustration or anger).

Information processing relies on working memory (or ‘bandwidth’).  However, this system has limited-capacity and conflicts occur when brain systems processing problem-related activities compete with those processing emotions.  In this situation working memory becomes overloaded causing an escalation of emotions which further overloads working memory leading to an increasing spiral of dysfunctional behaviours and emotions (also common in narcissists and psychopaths).  The effect of limited bandwidth is intensified under prolonged periods of high-intensity work-load.

High potential executives restrict unnecessary emotional processing and focus relevant brain networks on processing problem-related activities.  This requires the efficient utilisation of their limited-capacity working memory system.  Such attentional control (or ‘discipline’) can be developed through a variety of techniques targeting emotional and cognitive self-regulation (e.g., cognitive-behavioural therapy, mindfulness).  It is this combination of high bandwidth and disciplined attention that predicts the potential for leaders to undertake more complex and challenging executive-level work.

Michael Collins (Managing Director, Hipotential) will be presenting his latest research on how bandwidth and discipline contribute to high potential leadership at the Women in Leadership Summit 2013.  This will be held at the InterContinental Hotel, Wellington, New Zealand on the 29th of May 2013.  Please access the following link for further details.

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