1994 - Thinking styles
If you are thinking about a completely
new job or taking a fresh look at your career
prospects, some might suggest you should have
your head examined. Not phrenology, the pseudo
science of reading your bumps, but an assessment
of which part of the brain dominates your thinking.
A group of information and technology
managers and directors from large British employers,
including Barclays, Tesco, the BBC and the Department
of Employment did just that last week at a one-day
leadership course organised by CSC Index, the
The course was set up in response
to a belief, outlined recently by Peter Breen,
managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles,
the headhunting company, that information technology
directors of chief executive officer calibre are
beginning to emerge in the UK.
Each of the course members had
completed assessments beforehand, which measured
their thinking styles. The measures were based
on definitions outlined by Ned Herrmann, a sometime
physicist, sculptor and later general manager
in the US who developed the split-brain theories
that emerged in the 1970s.
While many scientists working
in the field were distinguishing between the different
qualities of the left and right sides of the brain,
Herrmann combined them with perceived qualities
in the upper (cerebral) and lower (limbic) brain.
Thus he defined four discernible styles of thinking.
The popularity of team-working
in many companies has attracted renewed attention
to his ideas as organisations attempt to create
the most effective teams, comprising people with
differing but ideally complimentary approaches
to the way they tackle their work.
What do we mean by left-brained
and right-brained thinking? Susaan Straus, a Herrmann
disciple and former vice-president of CSC Index,
before forming her own company, Performance Resources,
explains that the left and right hemispheres produce
different patterns of thinking and one side tends
The left side uses sequential
processing: it looks at detail, splits the world
into identifiable bits and pieces, has the power
of syntax and uses logic and the grammatical stringing
together of words. The right uses simultaneous
processing, deals with the whole thing, can remember
complex images, thinks in pictures and also open-endedly.
Straus illustrates the differences
with this story of two fathers, Bob (left-brained)
and Harry (right-brained) who decide to buy their
sons tricycles for their birthdays. Bob tours
cycle dealers, scours catalogues, compares prices
and checks consumer reports. A mail order model
seems cheapest and best so he orders it well in
advance. Harry makes a mental note that he liked
the blue bike he saw somewhere.
When the package arrives, Bob
puts it to one side in a space he has prepared
and only gets it out two days before his boy's
birthday. On the same evening Harry is asking
himself: 'Did I order it, and, if I did, where
did I put it?'
Bob clears a space on the garage
floor, gets a bag for the rubbish, takes out his
Swiss Army pen-knife, scores the plastic wrapper
and carefully removes the instructions. He reads
them, top to bottom. Each of the components are
counted out and placed in neat piles on the floor.
Within half an hour, the tricycle is assembled
and ready for use.
Harry doesn't have a pen-knife.
He clenches his fist and punches a hole through
the package, tearing off the plastic wrapper and
cardboard and emptying the contents over the lounge
floor. A few pieces have fallen under the sofa
with the instructions.
Harry's search is short lived.
He has found a little bell, just like the one
he had on his own bike as a youngster. He likes
the way it rings and finds that it's easy to fit
onto the handle bars. Discovering the instructions,
he consults the picture of the completed tricycle
and adopts the traditional right-brained assembly
method: if it doesn't fit, force it. In half an
hour he, too, has a fully assembled tricycle .
. . alongside a small pile of 'spares'.
We probably all have a bit of
Bob and Harry in us when we approach our work.
What Straus was doing with her IT group was to
discover the extent to which either style might
dominate our thinking.
Splitting the brain further in
the Herrmann model, those whose thinking is dominated
by the upper left brain tend to be logicians most
concerned with the question 'What?' Lower left-brained
people are implementers or organisers who address
the question 'How?' Lower right-sided thinkers
deal with the question 'Why?' and are perhaps
best defined as collaborators. Upper-right sided
thinkers are the visionaries who ask 'What if?'
The team-combination of such
individuals can be found in fiction if not in
fact. The star ship Enterprise in Star Trek, the
television series creation of Gene Roddenberry,
is led by Captain Kirk, the upper right-sided
visionary who relies heavily on Spock, his upper
left-sided second in command. Scotty, the lower
left-sided chief engineer, keeps the space craft
going and McCoy is the lower right-sided, understanding
doctor who finds himself at odds with Spock.
Herrmann found certain thinking
profiles dominating in different kinds of jobs.
Entrepreneurs were exceptionally upper-right minded.
So were strategic planners but with an added inclination
to the upper left brain. Sales managers had strong
pulls to the upper right and lower left. Administrators
were strongly lower left minded, engineering managers
strongly upper left. Research and development
managers had almost equal tendencies towards the
upper right and left sides. Chief executives had
some of the most even thinking patterns, slightly
stronger towards the upper right, slightly weaker
to the lower left.
Listing the business qualities
evident in these different thinking modes, Herrmann
suggests that the upper left-sided leader is good
at gathering facts, arguing rationally, logical
problem solving, understanding technical elements
and considering financial aspects. A common criticism
might be that he or she is 'too critical and cold'.
Lower left-sided managers are good at finding
flaws, approaching problems practically, demonstrating
consistency, stability, working on time and paying
attention to detail. They might be dismissed as
'boring or unimaginative'.
Lower right-sided managers can
recognise interpersonal difficulties, understand
how others feel, can integrate, teach and engender
enthusiasm. Critics might call them a 'soft touch'.
Upper right-sided people can read signs of coming
change, recognise new possibilities, inspire and
problem solve intuitively, can see the big picture.
Detractors might think they have their heads in
Straus picked two groups of people
seemingly at random, from the course participants
and asked them to go to separate rooms and draw
up a brief report listing what sort of work they
liked best and common characteristics. In fact
the groups had been chosen for their right and
left-sided tendencies from their assessment scores.
Predictably the left-sided group
returned punctually, while the right-sided group
was late. Not only did the various attributes
fit expectations, so did the way they were presented.
The left-sided people produced a neat, numbered
list. The right-sided had jumbled lists on two
sheets of paper with crossings out.
The difficult part for organisations
seeking to harness these different thinking styles
is to create their own 'Enterprise'. Straus says:
'The best quality decisions or solutions will
come from perspectives that draw on all four thinking
styles to produce the whole brain solution.' The
mistake of some managers, she says, is to write
people off because they think differently. 'The
challenge is to cover all the bases.'
© 1994 Financial Times Ltd.
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