As a person and a leader, there are few things that I appreciate more than hearing someone say “Don’t worry Bernard, I’ve got this.” – knowing that the colleague speaking those words is reliable and will be taking care of things.
When we think of the people we work with, most of us, in my experience, think in terms of 1) the work that they get done – their “output” – and 2) the social and emotional aspects of working with others – the sense of community that is, for many people, closely associated with the workplace. One thing that we don’t tend to think about much is the critical cognitive dimension: People and teams as extensions of our own mental processes.
As cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin writes in The Organized Mind, “Companies can be thought of as transactive memory systems. […] The company as a whole is a large repository of information, with individual humans effectively playing the role of neural networks running specialized programs.” (p. 273) I find this idea absolutely fascinating.
The mandate that I am entrusted with – to run a large, diversified wealth and asset management business – is a task that imposes huge cognitive demands. The amount of information that I’m required to process and keep track of as part of my job is properly astounding. This requires a considerable amount of mental energy, yet our brains can easily get overwhelmed with the amount of information that they have to keep track of.
As Levitin explains, keeping something in mind triggers the brain’s rehearsal loop and keeps it there until we attend to it, taxing our neural circuits and “creating a situation that is inherently stressful and unproductive.” (pp. 68-69) The more things you have to keep in mind, the more mental energy you are expending. It eventually reaches a point where your mental capabilities are overburdened; mental fatigue sets in, your ability to focus melts away, as does your ability to make good decisions. Being mentally overburdened can also trigger many physical and mental ailments.
One way to reduce the cognitive burden is to keep track of things outside of your brain – in lists, notes, agendas, etc. But while keeping a To Do list is extremely effective if you’re trying to get small things out of your working memory – like picking up some milk after work – it doesn’t work that well when it comes to very large and complex accountabilities like “Deliver on our 2018 product development plan”.
We often say in business that as a leader, you can delegate a task but you can never delegate your accountability regarding that task. If something isn’t working out in my area of accountability, it’s rightly “on me” because it’s up to me to ensure that things get done, whether I do them directly or delegate them for others to take care of. But from a purely cognitive standpoint, you can indeed delegate an accountability, which has the effect of lifting a mental burden from your own shoulders. Levitin explains this in the following way:
“Related to the manager/worker distinction is that the prefrontal cortex contains circuits responsible for telling us whether we’re controlling something or someone else is. When we set up a system, this part of the brain marks it as self-generated. When we step into someone else’s system, the brain marks it that way.” (p. 176)
From my standpoint as a leader, that is one of the great benefits of being surrounded by high-performing, reliable people – trusted lieutenants that I can delegate some of my responsibilities to, making those deliverables part of their system and allowing my brain to shift its limited resources towards other matters.
The key here, of course, is trust: The knowledge that I can truly rely on my colleagues to deliver on their commitments. If I delegate something to someone but I’m not confident that the task will get accomplished, my brain will be unable to let go of it. From the standpoint of the person doing the delegating, whether or not the work actually gets done does not lift the cognitive burden if doubt subsists and attentional filters, as a consequence, remain fully engaged. We have all seen this: Some people add to our mental burdens, while others make them lighter.
I’ve always believed that the most important thing I can do as a leader is to foster the people and the culture that are required in order to get the job done — and then to get out of the way as much as possible and let those people do what they were hired to do. As if that was not important and rewarding enough on its own, I now know that being able to lean on a strong team of realiable colleagues is also one of the keys to being able to operate, as a person and as a leader, at peak mental and cognitive efficiency.
It’s all about the people we work with.