We talked with cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Charpentier, a postdoc studying learning and decision making at the California Institute of Technology. In particular, Dr. Charpentier studies the social aspects of decision making, or how the actions and knowledge of others affects our own actions and knowledge.
Dr. Charpentier gave us the low-down on the latest neurological discoveries, including how adaptation works in the brain, and what we can do to help our teams better adapt to client and market needs.
Dr. Charpentier says she wouldn’t necessarily use the word “adaptability” in her research.
“The closest word is ‘adaptive.’ When we look at the way our decisions might change with the environment or the social context, are those changes adaptive? Do they help us make better decisions? After all, change is not always good. You could adapt and change your behavior, but if it’s not going to serve you well, it’s actually maladaptive.”
This adaptiveness or flexible thinking is not only about the choices we make, but the strategies we use to make those choices, which is the focus of Dr. Charpentier’s research.
Put simply, truly “adaptive” choices, or positive adaptability, is whatever helps the decision-maker achieve their goals. But before your brain can make a choice, it has to decide on the process it will use for weighing your options, or its decision-making strategy.
With this definition of adaptivity in mind, this tells us an “adaptable” person would be able to decide on the optimal decision-making strategy for success in a given situation. The more quickly a brain can change strategies based on context, the more adaptive its choices will be.
“Success” is a huge word in our working definition of “adaptability.” After all, what is success in any given situation? Like anything else about the human condition, it varies, although neuroscientists have defined a few regularly recurring contenders.
Often, neuroscientists will use monetary reward to measure optimal decision-making in their experiments, and for our purposes as marketers, this works well. After all, the most important number in marketing reporting is often ROI.
However, humans can define a number of other things as success at any given time. These “success” metrics include, but aren’t limited to:
The definition of success can change, but in order for the brain to pick an optimal strategy, it has to be clear on what success is for the current problem.
Your brain conducts an arbitration between the different available strategies, and research suggests the two factors that weigh most heavily are: efficacy and processing power.
Your brain calculates the solution with the highest efficacy, or progress toward your goal, with the lowest expenditure of cognitive processing power. This in itself is a highly adaptive process, since it allows us to pick the optimal strategy for our goals.
However, this process does consume mental energy, as your brain has to be aware of all possible strategies at all times, and select between them when the situation changes.
We’ve all seen the job ad: “fast-paced team looking for new member who can excel in rapidly changing environment.” Nine times out of ten, this translates to “we have six fire alarm meetings a day and expect you to have your work done yesterday.”
This “fast-paced environment” thinking has been common for decades. After all, if you keep your team on their toes with rapid timelines, emergency check-ins, and constantly erupting problems, you know you’re getting your money’s worth. Right?
In reality, science suggests that these unstable, ever-changing environments are shooting themselves in the proverbial foot.
Decision-making activity generally takes place in the prefrontal cortex, where your brain calculates how much it values the possible choices and then compares those values. However, once you add a social element, more areas of the brain come into play.
If a decision involves other people or interactions with others, more areas of the brain are activated. This network is commonly called “the social brain,” although this isn’t entirely accurate, since these areas do more than handle social interactions.
These networks within the brain activate when you need to process the motives of others, imagine their own decision making, and plan around them.
Your brain is looking for an optimal solution, but social concerns could change what “success” means. This process could change the “optimal solution” from what works best for your clients to what looks best in an internal meeting. What’s adaptive in one context can be maladaptive in another.
Do you want your team’s brains focused on your clients, or on office politics?
Funnily enough, these networks in the brain activate when we work with non-human objects as well. If you are trying to get the office printer to work, you may activate the same processes as you are trying to learn from the printer’s erratic behavior and how to fix it.
This means your office technology processes matter, too. Inefficient, old, or non-user friendly tech will not only waste time, but precious brain power as well.
Earlier, we talked about the “social brain,” which allows us to imagine others’ motives, beliefs, and plans, and then make our own decisions and plan accordingly. This process is called “mentalizing,” where we imagine representations of others’ choices to help us make our own.
There is another brain network used in social decision making, called the “mirror neuron system.” This allows you to watch another’s actions and perform the same actions yourself. Young children use this often to mimic and learn from their parents. (For more on mentalizing vs. mirror neurons, read this.)
This is a powerful network in the brain in terms of learning, because the same neurons are active when you watch someone perform an action and when you perform the action yourself. For example, whether you’re watching someone drink from a glass, or you’re doing the drinking, your brain processes it the same way.
This allows us to be extremely adept at mimicry without thinking about it. Because imitation can occur so quickly and without much cognitive effort, it is often the simpler strategy when compared to mentalizing.
In stressful, uncertain, or emotionally arousing situations, your brain may default to “simpler” solutions like this, even if in a calmer context another strategy would have been more optimal.
Ever wonder how so many leaders seem to cultivate a herd of “yes men”? A manager’s response will greatly influence what strategy an employee uses in the future.
If mentalizing, or coming up with your own solution based on what you perceive as the group’s goals, is met with negative feedback, an individual may then switch to mimicry as their primary strategy. Because we like those who are like ourselves, it can be hard not to promote mimicry in your subordinates, but there’s a big benefit to keeping other strategies open.
Want your team to think for themselves? Praise them when they think of something you hadn’t thought of already. This positive response will encourage more of the same.
Alternatively, if you are unreliable, or your definition of “success” is unclear or changes constantly, mimicry is no longer enough, and your team will spend a great deal of time and mental energy “mentalizing” your positions before making their own decisions.
Balance sharing your goals clearly with encouraging independent thinking, and your team will use the optimal strategy to adapt to every new challenge.
Research has yet to show how innate traits affect adaptive decision making. There are likely differences caused by anxiety levels, the autism spectrum, or empathy, but this is an area for future research, and one that Dr. Charpentier is interested in exploring herself in the future.
“I’m sure there are differences. The truth is, people are different, and the strategies they deploy are different as well… but we haven’t characterized those differences yet or what drives them.”
But if we’re not sure how what’s going on inside of a person affects their adaptability, we know a lot about how their social environment affects it. This is the area where you can truly lead your team into adaptive greatness.
Dr. Charpentier put it simply and efficiently: “It’s easier if things don’t change all the time. That complicates the learning process.”
In marketing, we want to spend our time learning about our clients and markets, not trying to out-think peers or work around unpredictable management teams. You need stability in your internal environment to be adaptable to what happens externally.
To that end, focus on providing the following for your employees:
The priority is building trust. If you build trust within your team, Dr. Charpentier says, “You will have the flexibility to deploy the optimal strategy depending on the context.”
If you can provide a stable work environment for your team internally, then their mental energy can focus on problem solving for your clients and your projects. This will provide more value than inter-office politics, insecure relationships with management, and rapid and poorly communicated changes in expectations.
In this month’s episode of REACH, we talked to a mountain climber who summited Everest by staying adaptable in such extreme conditions. Practice with his team before the climb was a huge part of it, allowing him to have automatic responses to some situations as they occurred. This left his cognitive processing power open for the most challenging and life threatening problems.
At the end of our conversation on adapting, we asked Dr. Charpentier to tell us about her next big goal. What is her “Everest”?
Have your own knowledge to share about adaptability? Want to ask some questions or discuss theories with like-minded marketers and topic experts?
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Moderated by UviaUs, the ABM agency for aspirational B2B Growth and Enterprise Brands.