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Donkin on Work - Psychometrics

June 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 management consultancy.

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 to dominate.

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 the clouds.

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. All rights reserved

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©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved