This is your brain on growth experiences

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One of the things I aim to offer in this blog is access to recent research in the realms of business and applied psychology.  I recently read an article in the Journal of Applied Psychology that has some good nuggets to share. Here is a link to the full article, but I will provide my elevator digest.

The researchers examined leader self-complexity and its impact on adaptive decision making.  Self-complexity concerns the way people characterize themselves, in terms of both breadth of roles they assume (e.g., team leader, coach, mentor, spokesperson) and the breadth of self-aspects that apply within each role (e.g., personality, knowledge and skills, other traits and attributes).  People who characterize themselves as holding a greater number of roles with a greater variety of aspects intrinsic to each have greater self-complexity. Participants, who were recruited from an Army training base, completed leader self-complexity assessments, then completed an adaptive decision-making measure that assessed their performance in a four-part tactical military scenario marked by increasing complexity and ambiguity. Results showed that people with greater self-complexity performed better in terms of adaptive thinking, decisiveness, and positive action orientation, as evaluated by expert raters.

There are many practical implications suggested by this piece. Leaders, especially those who work in rapidly changing, fast-paced industries and organizations, need to be adaptive decision-makers to be successful.  Developing greater self-complexity appears to be one pathway toward honing this skill.  Self-complexity seems to demand self-awareness and self-insight – willingness and ability to examine oneself, one’s roles and qualities, across time and situations.  Thus, fostering self-awareness and metacognitive ability seem like the first order of the day.  Beyond that, specific interventions that individuals and managers can undertake to foster self-complexity include seeking or offering stretch experiences and career variety.  The more roles you take on and develop within, the more you will bring to the table when faced with novel, ambiguous, or challenging situations.  While this may seem like common sense to some people, in our niche-oriented, specialty-focused world, people all too often pigeonhole themselves (or are pigeonholed by others), and one consequence of unduly narrowing one’s focus could be less effective decision-making skills.

Another interesting angle to this research is that the researchers also measured self-complexity at the neurological level using qEEG.  Specifically, people with lower levels of EEG coherence (which reflects greater levels of brain complexity) in areas of the brain associated with self-regulation, attention, and choice demonstrated greater adaptive decision-making.  This reminds me of other research that demonstrates the way the brain changes in response to learning.  Changes at the behavioral level result in neuronal-level change, which prepare us for future experiences, which result in continued learning and change.  We have a great capacity to grow and change if we are willing to take on new challenges.