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Do people learn better alone or in a team?

And do teams make better decisions than lone experts?

In today’s episode of the podcast, I’m joined by two dear friends and colleagues, Gordon Laird and Vajramudita Armstrong as we explore these questions drawing on the latest neuroscience.

Gordon touches on the topic of the changing psychological contract in organisations and what this means for executive leaders.

I think this is something we’re definitely going to be coming back to.


Jacqueline Conway, Vajramudita (Vee) Armstrong, Gordon Laird

Jacqueline Conway  00:00

Do teams make better decisions than individuals? And do we learn better alone or with others? These questions are at the heart of much of what we’re about and more than Croft, working with executive teams. Of course, we find ourselves supporting leaders one to one in coaching. But even more of our work is with the group as a whole, with an executive team as a strategic performance entity in its own right. In today’s episode, I’m joined by two more of Walden Crofts wonderful associates, Vajramudita Armstrong and Gordon Laird who introduced us to a book by Cambridge neuroscience, Hannah Critchlow called Joined Up Thinking: The Science of Collective Intelligence, we explore how we can get the best from groups and what limitations of group processes executive teams have to overcome to get the best from the collective wisdom in the team.

Vee  01:59

I love the synchronicity of this because it literally and you’d probably want to edit this. But when when I’m just getting myself ready for bed, I pop the radio on just whilst I’m faffing about and it was this programme that was about it was about learning a Cambridge academic and neuroscientist who said, the electrical oscillations between people’s brains synchronise when they’re engaged in a communal activity, and this boosts our capacity to learn together to solve problems together. So I was going I was kind of like going, bingo, great! That is, that is the Neuroscience, the the scientific evidence to what we know to be well what I maybe I should confess my bias. So that’s what I see happening. That’s what I love happening, love facilitating and love creating people coming together diverse groups of people coming together and creating something that’s more than the individual, what we call the sum of our individual parts. So I’m familiar with neuroscience research on the mind in terms of the benefits of mindfulness, but not before and the benefits of coaching. But I’ve not before heard or read about the links of people working together and coming together. So she was saying, so she was she was talking about collective intelligence, and particularly focused on embodied to what she called embodied cognition and getting the balance between the well being of the collective versus individual needs and shifting the focus from me to we, which when I’m thinking about it, I’m kind of thinking that’s what we as coaches and facilitators have been working with for some time for years, when we might say, but not really, this is the first time I’ve seen evidence from neuroscientists, and I think she’s saying it’s a relatively new area of research for neuroscientists.

Jacqueline Conway  04:22

And I think the fit, it’s music to my ears is the first thing I would see. Because I do also believe that there’s something that happens at the group level that is different. And to your point, it’s more than the sum of the parts of the individual contributors. So that’s great. And I’d love to hear more or explore more about about that because, of course, we know that the potential for groups to do amazing things is there. But we also know that groups can be also dysfunctional, you know, they can be prone to groupthink. They can be prone to ways of being in which, you know, the dominant person says that we it’s going to be in everybody kind of follows. And so it’s, you know, I guess I would be curious as to what is it? What are the conditions that are necessary to achieve these amazing things that this neuroscientist is talking about? Relative to some of the things that we might see that’s less functional?

Vee  05:22

Yeah. Well, one of the things she said was social connection. So the fundamental condition was, is the social link connection without connect without contact, preferably in the real world, I guess, how do we create that joint? How do we create that? How do we best create that contact now that we’re managing remote remote working?

Jacqueline Conway  05:44

Yeah, yeah. And, Gordon, have you got any insights on that?

Gordon  05:48

I mean, one of my first thoughts as he was explaining this idea was that there’s no coincidence that we’re seeing a lot of executive teams looking for team coaching, particularly after COVID COVID. Period. So there’s definitely seems to be recognition of the power of coming together and that people really miss that. But what I see in practice, though, then when I’m working with clients at the moment, and it was something that was on my mind coming into today is, I’ve been calling it the kind of fast and slow challenges that leaders are experiencing at the moment. And what I mean by that is the fast kind of running the business and going after the growth opportunities when there’s so much economic uncertainty, so the pressure to do the day to day running of the business, versus the more transformational work, which does require the team to come and to think and imagine the future and to work together on those more adaptive challenges. So the so even though there’s the desire and the recognition of the need to do that, I think a lot of teams are actually struggling to find the time to sit and do that, or to give it time for essentially, then probably a bit of an extreme case, but I was working with a team recently. And they’d only actually collectively come together once in the last two years, everything had been almost subgroups of the main group, dealing with just running their business day to day. So I think whilst those are a recognition of the power of coming together, actually getting them doing at the moment seems like quite a tricky task.

Vee  07:32

Many teams. I’m working with quite a few teams, they’ve never actually met together. People have been recruited in in the last couple of years, and they’ve never ever met together in person. Yeah. So still that Yes. Still, that’s happening. Yeah.

Jacqueline Conway  07:49

I liked what you said as well. I’m curious about what you said about embodied intelligence. Because one of the things that when I was doing the advanced executive fluency research that came up was this idea when executive teams are trying to make decisions together. And the decision is, or the problem that they’re dealing with is kind of gnarly and difficult, is that one of the things I’ve observed when I’ve been at with those teams, is that they kind of move to let’s make a decision very quickly. And it is because the decision or the problem is anxiety provoking. And the and therefore, the making of a decision or closing the subject to down is as much an anxiety management strategy as it is a way to solve the issue. And one of the things I’ve experienced is that we haven’t, as a, as a professional body, we haven’t trained leaders well enough to work with their own lived experience in their body, their somatic experience, as a source of data for themselves as a way to sort of tune into almost like the gut feeling of this feels right? This feels wrong. That is very same people might be able to do really effectively in their private life and their their life outside of work to kind of have a sense that their son or daughter isn’t well, or that there’s a problem in this area that they’re able to tune into that’s beyond the cognitive and yet you take them into the working environment. And actually, they seem to lose the capacity that is inherent within them to do that.

Vee  09:44

I kind of think it’s not that they lose the capacity. But I think is it I wonder if it’s more that we in the business context, we don’t value that that the wisdom that we have this Beyond the rational, that’s our experience. And yeah, I, I think the sorts of complex issues that teams executive teams are dealing with these days, that’s the sort of wisdom they need to, we need to be engaging, we need to be diving deeper,

Gordon  10:21

I often find and workout will create the conditions for that somatic experience thinking. And it can be the result can be really powerful for that leader, and they really notice the shift and how they’re able to engage, particularly with thinking about the future and things like purpose, for example. But it’s, it’s, I think, the challenge is how you bring that into the day to day working of a leadership team, and how can the resource and tap into that themselves without the need to have a coach? Because it really does require dropping a lot of defenses and, and, you know, being comfortable with their own ego strength? I think, as you said, Jacqueline, you need to be able to do that to then be able to engage with the, with complexity and uncertainty and holding conflicting ideas

Vee  11:15

As you’re saying that good. And I’m thinking that that demands quite a level of vulnerability, doesn’t it people being comfortable with being vulnerable with their colleagues on the on the team?

Jacqueline Conway  11:26

And also to your point Vee about, about, you know, where do they get their data from? What are the traditional places that are the acceptable in inverted commas, places of data, and, and we’ve all experienced kind of like, teams who are like, go get me more data, more data, bigger data, when actually the reality is the executive teams have to work with partial data, sometimes that more data doesn’t necessarily help you solve the issue, when there’s actually really, there’s other data there that can have lived experience or values, or the still small voice that saying I don’t agree, this doesn’t feel right, that that doesn’t feel as if it’s acceptable data. So there’s kind of what what is acceptable to work with, and what isn’t acceptable to work with

Vee  12:22

my mind’s gone to, so what happens when the senior teams are grappling with an issue, it’s an important decision to be made, but the data isn’t giving them the information, the data is not telling them what to do, they’re going to have I mean, in a way in that situation, you, you have to then tap into something else, there’s no other option.

Gordon  12:46

I go back to this thing, or I think often this gets really challenging when you’ve got two conflicting ideas or forces in place. So, you know, started to client recently, but the challenge of almost the purpose in terms of longer term aims of, of what they were trying to create as a belt as a business with the driving ambition to have to generate profit, given the last few years that they’ve had and the team is struggling to have a conversation about that. And it’s about stepping into not having, not having the answer, not having all the data, and being prepared to kind of riff ideas and be be a bit be a bit vulnerable, and also a bit challenging with one another.

Vee  13:32

It’s also let letting go letting go of an idea that there is a right answer isn’t isn’t it in that situation? It’s like yeah, not letting go of maybe standing on one side of those two conflicting ways forward, and coming up with something that’s that that’s better for the whole organisation,

Gordon  13:53

Vee, interest, the idea of collective intelligence out aloud and it reminded me of some of the good work and ideas around how we lay Kolb’s sort of learning cycle, you know, where you’re, you have an experience, you reflect on it, you, you kind of get under the surface of why I’ve got a possession I’ve got, you’ve got the possession you’ve got, or why you behave in a certain way and why I behave in a certain way, but then leads to kind of experimenting. So you go back around that circle, and I think, sometimes see a hesitancy to really experiment and go go with an idea that’s not fully formed and see what happens. And that bravery, I think, can be can be lacking, sometimes because of the pressure to be, to be right to be to know everything and to be able to lead from that place.

Vee  14:49

And is, as you say, that Gordon and I’m thinking is that in a way it’s it is I’m thinking that’s vulnerability again, isn’t it vulnerable, being able to be open to the idea of getting something wrong and seeing, seeing, seeing things as a learning process rather than a, this is the right thing to do that if you’re seeing it as a learning process, you’re taking the mistakes and the errors is all part of the useful information along the journey rather than getting it wrong.

Gordon  15:22

Of course, I have to, I have to trust you to do that. That’s the Yeah. For me. Yeah. To see something and the belief that, yeah, the power dynamics going to be full of good intention rather than ill intention.

Jacqueline Conway  15:38

Yeah. And yet, it is often full of ill intention, isn’t it? I mean, I remember when I, when I did my PhD research, when I was analysing it and the dialogue, what they were saying was, there was all of this language about violence. And they would say, if you, if you don’t, if you don’t, if you’re not able to backup your decision, they will save you off at the knees, or there will be blood on the carpet, or you get crucified for that here. And the way that people in this executive team were describing the level of threat that came with the role that they were exercising was absolutely enormous. And when I, when I fed that back to them, they were saying no, surely no, and, you know, here’s a transcript under the almost couldn’t, it was completely out of that awareness, that that was that that was the language they were using, and that that spoke to the lived reality of the threat that they feel under, around making decisions and being strong in those kinds of things. So in that kind of environment, and I don’t think that that was unique to that organisation by any stretch of the imagination. So in that kind of environment, where is the space to be vulnerable? Where’s the space? There’s another chief executive that I know very well, and, and he said, you know, you just can’t know, not be clear in what your decision is returned to you. You just can’t not know. And so where is the space to kind of explore things make sense of things in a in a kind of collective act of not knowing and learning together, when the culture is set up in such a way that people feel genuine threat?

Gordon  17:30

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, the language does matter doesn’t turn. Yeah, I can recall an organisation I worked in and one of the phrases you’d hear a lot is when something went wrong, there would be a beer drains up. And you know, it was quite a visceral experience. You smell the sewers, and you left the drain. And it didn’t exactly foster an environment where there was learning from mistakes, it was more about covering yourself so that you aren’t the one to blame. So the language is super important around these things. Yeah.

Vee  18:06

So I’m just looking at what this neuroscientist was talking about as the conditions for collective intelligence. And she’s listed communication, trust, empathy, persuasion, negotiation, imagination, wit, emotion and language. So I love the fact that she’d got wit in there as is. Yeah. Well, yeah. I’m biassed towards joy and humour in my work personally. Yeah.

Jacqueline Conway  18:40

Yeah, absolutely. And they’re, they’re hard to cultivate and hard to know, when you’ve got them or not got them. I think there are also quite practical things that we can do with teams to help them on that journey towards those things. So for example, the use of decision making tools, like some sort of software that allows the group to rather than the dominant voice in the group saying, I believe X and then everyone else falls behind X before the grips had a chance to really explored it, that you open, you know, the kind of top of the funnel is left deliberately open so that people can anonymously put their views,

Gordon  19:26

intentionality. I think it’s important here, isn’t it in terms of, you know, we intend to get on the balcony and look at some of these issues. And we create time and space to do that. Because I’ll often hear executives talk about or we can have, we try and bring a conversation on strategy and to a meeting where there’s been a lot of maybe operational decisions to be made. And you can say, well, how do you make that mental switch from being very task focused to then having a much more open ended conversation? So it’s it’s attending, I think, to the environment that you create to have those conversations and what and being really clear about what your intention is.

Jacqueline Conway  20:11

And on that, the team then have to, there’s something about kind of being purposeful then about them talking about their own group process. And doing that, you know, that, that, that that is even enough space for them to talk about How are we doing? Not just what are we doing, not just getting into the, the gubbins of the of the subject matter of the task at hand, but to provide enough space to talk about how are we going to tackle this particularly gnarly issue? And is this 20 minute meeting that we’ve got, you know, with people with a nose pressed up against the glass outside because they’ve waiting and coming in, you know, and at the top of the hour, is that really the best environment for us to have this conversation? Or do we want to, do we want to create conditions, different conditions for us to have that kind of conversation? And that that’s, that’s not just allowed, but it is good practice?

Gordon  21:07

Yeah, I was just reflecting there Jacqueline, on an experience that I heard about with one of my clients, where they very successful have been growing very quickly, and kind of had to experience the first major setback as a business. And I found it really interesting that there was this tension between stopping or pausing at least to cultivate lessons learned from the situation, versus let’s just keep calm and carry on. And I thought, Well, does that have to be that binary? Is that a duality and being able to have the lessons learned and continue to pursue the business that you need? Now, given that you’ve, you’ve lost this other piece of business, yet? I found it fascinating that it was cast in that binary way. And I wonder if there’s gain, there’s something in that exact seems having that agility of thought to be able to hold both? Both tensions? Because they’re not necessarily contradictory? And oh,

Vee  22:12

yeah. Yeah. That’s often where exec teams and other teams get into a pickle, isn’t it when they kind of seeing things as binary decisions as binary, we either have that or that. And there’s something about holding those tensions and then seeing what the way forward is, like holding both of the options and finding a way that gives it’s not exactly the best of both worlds, but give something that there’s not so compromised in a way.

Jacqueline Conway  22:45

And what you’re both speaking to there, I guess is, is the working with kind of polarities and paradox, isn’t it? It’s how, how two things can simultaneously be true, and how that works with those things. And when we see teams elegantly working with polarity, that able to hold both simultaneously. And, you know, I mean, I think the, I think that the work of Barry Johnson on polarity management and things is, is a beautifully elegant way to think about how you can how you can kind of work effectively with these sorts of dualities Gordon to use your language where it’s not about choosing one or the other. But how can you how can you bring the best of both? And how can you accept that when you choose the upside of one approach, you potentially get the downside of the other. And that’s exactly what a polarity is. And so therefore, you need to kind of hold them both.

Gordon  23:46

There, so I came across and just then research Boston Consulting Group had done, let’s it’s not recent, but I think it was done a bit, certainly done before COVID. But it talked about exec teams have about six times as many performance requirements now than they did 50 years ago. And then kind of then said, in terms of CEOs at 50 years ago, they may be committed to four or seven key performance requirements. So if it’s six times you’re talking about commiting to 25 to 40. So I think that that that puts a granularity in what we’ve just been talking about that.

Jacqueline Conway  24:26

So the cognitive capacity of the individual hasn’t increased in the last loose, yeah, but the environment and the complexity and disruption in the environment that the leaders are confronted with has. So for me, I mean, you know, for me that that then says, well, one, we need to help leaders develop their cognitive capacities. This is you know, in the advanced executive fluency research, this is the cognitive fluency. So know what kind of problem they’re solving and be able to apply the right methodologies to those problems. That’s one side of it. But another side of it is that that leaders are, then it’s a kind of eyes to your own plate to sort of thing. So instead of them trying to be all things to all people, and all of this day to day, functional work, you know, and I know I keep coming back to this, but that the see their primary responsibility, as in the, the adaptation of the organisation into those kind of transformational spaces. Gordon, to your point earlier on, you know, what is? How do we help this organisation adapt and evolve. So the enterprise leadership, rather than the functional leadership, because there just simply isn’t either enough hours in a day or cognitive capacity to be managing all all of those things simultaneously. And what we know is that when we get into the overload, then actually reduce our capacity to deal effectively with those challenges rather than improve it.

Vee  26:09

My mind goes back to noticing the last few months. I mean, this is never not a problem for leaders prioritising and saying, noticings, but it feels like it’s been ratcheted up a lot. So he’s like, everybody, that’s their number one. It’s not everybody, but almost everybody. That’s their number one issue at the moment,

Gordon  26:31

I’m hearing a lot about leaders struggling with the change in psychological contract with employees, and having to work extra hard to engage and communicate, and this very different work, workforce and workplace. And a lot of them aren’t getting anywhere close to those issues, because they’re often dragged in to enter the doing and the the operational, quite sometimes quite a surprising level of detail. And I think unless that that is resolved in some way. It’s in the short term, perhaps can be excused in terms of our response to everything we’ve been going through and the economic instability that we face. But for the medium to long term it does, it does concern me,

Jacqueline Conway  27:18

Gordon, when you talk about the changing psychological contract, what what do you understand those changes in the psychological contract about work to be?

Gordon  27:29

I think there’s quite a bit of head scratching going on to start above a funny story. I was working with someone recently, and I wouldn’t I wouldn’t say he was senior in years at all. But he said, he said to me, Gordon, I find myself coming out with these statements that my dad used to come up out with, like, like the youth of today. So we kind of project around with that. And it’s a struggle to understand what people are expecting from work. So it’s really, I think, a really interesting paradox that even though unemployment isn’t particularly high, but there is concern and that the economy is unstable. So you would expect maybe that people would feel that job security would be the first priority and the way that people as old as me can remember in the 1980s, particular, but that’s just not doesn’t seem to be the case and a lot of a lot of places. And I think people are still figuring out for themselves what they want from work. What am I signing up for not signing up for I want to be managed and engaged and communicated with in different ways. And of course, that comes through very practically, and things like hybrid working, and I hear time and time again, senior executives, essentially saying I’m having to work doubly hard to communicate and engage with my people, because I’ve got some work in the office, I’ve got some at home, hybrid nature, geographically, we’re much more spread out. And it’s not that they’re not communicating, they’re just having to work really hard and find new ways to do it.

Vee  29:06

Also, the quantity of messages is hugely increased. And I’m not sure that the quality of the connection is has increased

Gordon  29:21

I particularly empathise with, I guess, new execs. So execs coming from my younger generation, and how they, how they manage that transition, and how are they being? How have they been? How are they finding the experiences and the skills to move into this very highly demanding environment that execs are operating at the moment? And I think I think you know that the should be some perhaps more attention paid to that in terms of how do we prepare our execs, where do we source that talent from to come in so that we were better equipped. So again thinking thinking about being future proofed. And I think again, that’s another area that’s under severe pressure at the moment together to give it some concentrated time.

Jacqueline Conway  30:22

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What’s required from Executive Leaders has changed. Find out how executive leaders and executive teams can survive and thrive in our disrupted world. Interviews with CEOs and insights from Waldencroft’s Dr Jacqueline Conway.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Dr Jacqueline Conway works with CEOs and executive teams as they fully step into their collective enterprise-wide leadership, helping them transform their impact and effectiveness.

Jacqueline is Waldencroft’s Managing Director. Based in Edinburgh, she works globally with organisations facing disruption in the new world of work.