Today i brushed my teeth with my other hand....my non-preferred hand, in my case, my left hand. If you've ever tried to do this, perhaps because you might have injured your preferred hand or you just wanted to do something quirky, you'll know that it felt awkward, uncomfortable and difficult. Of course it does; you don't typically use your non-preferred hand for most things!
However, when you brush your teeth with your opposite hand, it strengthens the neural connections in your brain, possibly even grows new ones. It's similar to how physical exercise improves the body's functioning and grows muscles.
It won't change your 'handedness' nor will it alter your brain orientation nor will it make you smarter, as some have claimed. What it will do is make you better at brushing your teeth with your other hand! So why is that important?
A University of Greifswald study from April 2017 found that repeated exercises with the non preferred hand corresponded with increased communication among cells in the brain's primary motor cortex, which means that the brain got better at controlling that hand with increased practice. Other studies have shown similar findings. A research team from the University of Missouri published research in the journal Neuropsychologia in 2016 that found that people who draw with their non dominant hand for ten days improved their drawing speed and accuracy. MRI brain scans demonstrated corresponding improvements in their brains' connectivity. Those strengthened neural connections allowed for greater performance with the non dominant hand and the improvements lasted for another six months after the participants stopped practicing.
So what does this mean for business and leadership? Just as we have a preference for using one hand over the other, we have preferences for where we draw our energy and how we recharge that energy; how we prefer receive information (how we perceive the world), and how we judge that information. This is commonly demonstrated through completing instruments such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator and the Pearman Personality Integrator.
For example if someone prefers to draw their energy primarily from their inner world and recharge by being by themselves, they would be described as having a preference for Introversion over Extraversion. Someone who is more comfortable focusing on details and step-by-step sequences as opposed to the big picture might be described as having a preference for Sensing over Intuition. When making a decision, someone who focuses primarily on values and by stepping into another's shoes might be described as having a preference for Feeling over Thinking. These preferences are theorised to be inborn or natural but we are not meant to be constrained by these preferences. That's we call them preferences. We don't lock in our behaviours solely based on these preferences.
Imagine living in a house where you have a favourite room; your sanctum sanctorum. It would be a room where you feel most relaxed or where you to to re-energise. For some it might be their bedroom, for others, the kitchen where you energise by cooking up a gourmet meal. Still for others it might be the den where you relax and watch a movie or play a game. It might even be the shower, where you get your best ideas!! I remember a participant in one of my programmes some years ago telling me that his favourite room was his car!!
Whatever that comfortable space might be, you wouldn't, or at least I hope you wouldn't lock yourself into that room 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In any normal scenario that would be viewed as somewhat dysfunctional. So why would we imagine ourselves only using the same mental preferences that we are comfortable with? Well we don't. We are constantly using all of these preferences, some of which we may be more comfortable with. A leader might focus on the details in the form of quarterly earnings laid out in spreadsheets but also look to the big picture of where to take the company in five years. A trainer with a preference for Introversion would still need to effectively engage a large audience of participants in a 2 day workshop.
What we really want to do is practice those skills that we have less comfort in, just like training our non preferred hand to brush our teeth! The more we practice our non preferred perceiving and judging preferences, the more adept we become at them and the more skilful we become as managers and leaders.
I remember facilitating a performance management workshop many years ago where we had several senior members of the organisation as participants. The exercise was built around delivering performance feedback in an effective manner. We engaged professional actors to play the role of the individuals being managed. One scenario had a member of staff who had been underperforming that year engage with their manager for a performance conversation. The employee sat and suddenly broke down into tears describing a personal setback that he had suffered at home which had involved his father kicking him out of the house. One of the managers in the exercise, someone who had very clear preferences for Thinking found himself hamstrung by this revelation and unable to deal with the situation aside from barking at the employee "Pull yourself together man!! This is NOT how we behave in this office!"
By only focusing on the dispassionate, objective means of making a decision on performance, this manager was unable to access his preference for Feeling which presumably would have helped him to empathise with the employee. This also required a decent about of emotional intelligence, obviously!!
Yet another manager, who also had preferences for Thinking, realised that pure logic probably wasn't the only way to deal with the situation and engaged empathy and compassion to calm the employee down and re-schedule the discussion.
This is a simple example of how engaging both preferences for Thinking AND Feeling could be used to diffuse a potentially explosive situation.
Leaders need to engage and practice their less comfortable preferences to deal with the increasingly complex workplaces they now lead. Having a well stocked toolbox of appropriate people skills will take a leader a lot further than one who only relies on his or her own natural styles. The ability to flex then is key to extraordinary leadership.
So why not start by identifying your natural preferences and then learning how to flex into the less comfortable ones?
Maybe you can start by brushing your teeth ... with your other hand.