The Power of Patterns

As we know, The Almond Effect® is when our amygdala recognises a pattern in its most rudimentary form, instantly assesses that it might pose a threat to our ‘survival’ and causes us to react inappropriately to the ‘danger’.

Of course, everyday our brain relies on patterns that don’t trigger The Almond Effect so we can get on with our lives. That’s why we are ‘creatures of habit’. We get into ways of behaving, patterns, because then we don’t have to think about it, we just ‘do’. It’s less stressful and takes up less brain energy.

Yet anyone who has ever tried to change their diet or give up cigarettes, gone to live in a new city, taken on a new work role, tried to learn a new language, worked with different software, studied a new subject or changed a 45 year old swimming style as I am trying to do now, and a myriad of other examples – you know how demanding and tiring making those changes can be. Your brain finds it draining.

Even good changes, eg getting a great new boss or work colleague can be difficult as your brain has already laid down patterns of behaviour attached to working with the previous person. And that’s why it’s hard to get people to change at work and indeed, at home.

Unless we are highly motivated and determinedly ‘think’ our way to persist and be resilient during the challenges of laying down new patterns, our brain will always prefer to rely on existing patterns rather than have to learn and lay down new ones. Again that’s why if we don’t maintain the determination to keep trying, we (and our people) just slip back into the old ways. It’s simply easier – and, automatic!

For example, we lay down multiple new brain patterns when we are learning to drive, but once we have mastered the skills, it’s easier and becomes almost a ‘non active thinking’ skill. How many times have you driven somewhere and didn’t even notice the journey as your mind was pre-occupied with something else. Scary at times! But if you were driving in another country where they drive on the other side of the road, I suspect you’d be concentrating on every metre – until your brain had ‘got’ the new pattern!

Same thing happens at work – we get into ways of working and behaviours that make work life easier for us and then rarely think about them – especially if the patterns deliver results.

Shrieking Sharapova

I saw a great sporting example of this at the 2007 Womens Australian Open Tennis Final. Serena Williams defeated Maria Sharapova in an emotionally unengaging match from a spectator’s point of view. But what was interesting was the pattern that Sharapova went through before every single serve and I mean every one.

She selected the tennis ball she was going to use to serve, and then approached the base line. She bounced on her feet a couple of times from side to side while tapping the ball on the court with her racket. Then she stopped, tucked her hair behind her ears, took a breath, looked at the part of the court she was serving to, slowly bounced the ball on the court twice, and then served.

Every time! It was fascinating. Clearly she uses this pattern to get focussed, get her nerves and adrenaline under control and make winning shots. Even as she was losing, as she did quite emphatically, she never broke the routine.

Isn’t that interesting? This was a conscious use of a brain pattern that she knew usually works, even when it wasn’t actually delivering the results at that time, to make sure that she didn’t lose her cool, fall prey to The Almond Effect® and do something rash, impulsive, without thinking and contrary to her years of training.

Patterns aren’t always helpful

The challenge with patterns is that because they happen without thinking, sometimes we don’t realise the impact of our behaviours (patterns) on others.

For example, the manager who never looks up when someone comes into their office – what message does that pattern send to the staff member? The CEO who never makes any announcements that have any good news – what signal does that pattern send to staff? What do you think is their state of mind, their expectation, whenever the CEO indicates their intention to make an announcement or visit?

Other examples: managers who won’t work as a team to formulate new organisational strategies because “what’s the point, the CEO will do it his way anyway.” And he does. Why would you be surprised when these managers complain that the CEO is an autocrat and he complains that they don’t co-operate. Both parties are set in their own patterns of behaviour, both reinforcing each others.

What about trying to improve safety by changing uniforms in a manufacturing environment? What if the employees are used to uniforms with long sleeves and you want them to wear short sleeves. Or vice versa? Seems on the face of it like a small thing. Yet because of the change required in mental patterns (try listing them from the employees point of view), such a request can present real challenges for managers implementing change.

And outside work. Have you ever said something like: I don’t like sour cream on potatoes – but in fact have never tasted it? Or “I’ve always vote Liberal” or “Labor” as the case may be – why? Because your parents always did.

Where do those choices/patterns come from and what makes us stop, or not stop, and review them? You know you have a pattern that you’ve never reviewed when you say or think to yourself: “I’ve never really thought about it”. Or someone says to you: you are so predictable and you’re staggered that you are!

So how predictable are you?

In fact, have you ever thought or said to someone else: “you’re so predictable”. How often has anyone ever said that to you? Do you just ‘know’ how someone is going to react to a certain situation, what they are going to say? Would they say the same about you?

It’s hard work to lay down new patterns especially if the old ones seem to have worked well enough so far. The first step to overcoming the negative and stressful impacts of The Almond Effect is to stop and reflect on what’s going on for you at that moment. It’s about developing self-awareness. It’s about looking at what automatic behaviours you engage in, or what automatic assumptions you make, without thinking, just on reflex.

Try this

Ask a trusted work colleague if they can predict how you would react (behave) if: a new IT system was introduced, a new manager was hired from outside over internal competition, your boss got a new expensive car, you were asked to stay back late for the third night in a row. You know the kind of examples I’m thinking of.

And what about at home: what’s predictable? About you? About someone you share your home with?

Not that there is anything wrong with predictability. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, patterns help us live our lives less stressfully, usually.

However in order to change and to build leadership skills, we must develop and hone the ability to reflect on our patterns, good and bad, and assess their impact on others and how much they contribute towards our goals. Sometimes understanding this can be the most important step we can take towards becoming a great manager.