Two thoughts, one brain, no problem

“Don’t tell me how to think!” I’m sure at some point you’ve heard someone sputtering this in anger.

But you won’t hear it from successful leaders. Why? Because they opened their minds to learn how to think. Specifically, they have learned how to do integrative thinking.

These leaders have trained themselves to hold two opposing views or thoughts in their heads at the same time. They can do this without getting anxious, without panicking. They use this ability to creatively problem solve. They have disciplined their minds to learn how to think.

An interpersonal example of integrative thinking…

You supervise a creative, fun, young professional who you enjoy working with. This young person just did something stupid. She spent 100 hours working on a project for another department, unbeknownst to you. You now must engage her in a “what the hell were you thinking? conversation.”

Your heart says “mentor her, forgive her.” Your mind says do what your boss says “fire her.”

How do you lead in this situation? How do you creatively solve this problem?

Answer …
Integrative thinking allows you to examine this situation, to allow the tension between the heart and the mind, to drive new thinking. The tension between the two opposing solutions forces you to get more data, to seek new information. Because this is actually a complex problem calling for a thoughtful decision.

Perhaps the employee is not the problem at all, maybe the problem is the other department leader. Perhaps the solution may be to transfer her to the other department or maybe you are over delegating and not supervising properly or maybe you should just bill her time to the other department. There’s not one solution. There are many possibilities. “Knee-jerk” decisions to save face or caving-in to your boss is not being a leader. Thoughtful analysis just might save the agency money by not losing a good employee (while providing her with a good lesson), it may help you grow your relationship with your boss, and it may just wake you up to the weaknesses in your management.

Learning to do integrative thinking is actually an ability that benefits everyone, not just leaders. But it is of particular value to leaders, those who must make decisions that impact the lives of others every day.

MBA schools try to teach this skill. It’s not easy to learn. You have to practice it just like any other skill. And, that’s the rub. You have to practice in real time, on real problems, with real people, with real consequences.

So what can you do to build your integrative thinking?

Ask before you act. Always get more data.

You can only have a big heart if you have an open mind. Commit to learning how to think as a leader.

Manage your anxiety. Balance the tension between the heart and mind. That tension is always there when making decisions. Get used to it.

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Stephen Peteritas

This is a great point. One leader who was amazing at seeing different viewpoints was Abe Lincoln. If you haven’t read “team of rivals” it’s all about how honest Abe used opposing viewpoints to make rounded policies.

Mark Hammer

One of the single greatest challenges of adolescence and young adulthood is learning how to manage affective information: essentially learning how to balance heart and mind.

I take the view that young people tend to be both greater risk-takers, and simultaneously more risk-averse, than adults precisely because heart tends to lead and distort what the mind thinks it grasps. In other words, immature people have a tendency to view the “facts” of a situation through the lens of their emotions. The mature individual is able to say “You know, I really really REALLY want that, but it simply wouldn’t be prudent at this point, so I best wait”, or “That guy really rubs me the wrong way, but you know, he has a point there.”. “Relativistic” thinking, and perspective-taking are the hallmarks of adult cognition.

None of this presupposes that the heart should be ignored. Rather, it is a matter of learning when to factor affective information into the equation, and when to leave it out. That’s why I describe it as managing affect.

Salovey and Meyer would probably suggest that this is an important part of “emotional intelligence”. I’ll leave the bigger questions to others to duke out, but would suggest that acting intelligently and thoughtfully, in a general sense, is contingent on understanding how emotions can distort reasoning and impede effective problem-solving, and having some skill in being able to identify the optimum balance of heart and mind in the given situation.

Of course, if what we are really discussing here is “maturity”, and some aspects of personality, then small wonder MBA and MPA programs tend not to teach it, or could not be expected to do a solid job of it, even were they to attempt it. And you can’t stop immature people from choosing a career in management.

David Kuehn

I do not see this as a heart-mind divide. Holding two contradictory ideas is necessary for analysis. Acting on two contracdictory ideas can be part of risk management. Explaining actions that depend on contradictory ideas is good leadership.

For example, suppose you have a project that requires FY 2012 funding to be fully successful. You need to more foward with the project so you direct staff or a contractor to prepare assuming the project will continue to be funded. On the other hand, you may not get FY 2012 funding so you consider what you could consider partial success. Is there an interim report that you could distribute? Could you bring a smaller group together by video conference rather than a larger group for an onsite conference?

To others your actions can appear inconsistent and puzzling. The people who are working towards the FY 2012 objectives are wondering why you are wasting time considering interim reports. Or is makes them uncomfortable about your committment to the effort.

Being able to demonstrate committment and encourage momentuum given acknowledged uncertianty is difficult.