Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Head, heart, gut: Engaging three different brains in the nonprofit boardroom

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

What brain are you using when you engage in boardroom discussions? What brains do your fellow members bring to the table?

You might guess (correctly) that I chose and read Marcia Reynolds' The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs with nonprofit boards in mind. While the book was filled with insights that promise to transform board thinking, one of the most intriguing was Reynolds' description of Grant Soosalu and Marvin Oka's research on three types of brains - neural networks - that we have and use.


Reynolds describes the three brains and their primary functions this way:

Head brain: "reasons, analyzes, synthesizes, and makes meaning of what is perceived." (Curiosity)

Heart brain: "activates based on how the presenting situation relates to your aspirations and desires ranging on the scale from responding to the joy of achieving what you most dsire to sensing what you hoped for is out of reach." (Care or compassion)

Gut brain: "reacts to impulses of self-preservation, including reactions based on fear and the impulse or will to act on courage." (Courage)

Reading those descriptions with nonprofit boards in mind may prompt some us to think, "Hmm. Jane certainly checks her 'heart brain' at the door..." Or "It's obvious that Steve's 'gut brain' rules his thinking..." Or "Our board definitely could stand to kick its collective 'head brain' into gear more often..."

In reality, we all have all three capacities and they are not easily compartmentalized. Certainly, we may have our comfortable modes of thinking and working. If we've taken a broad view of diversity in our recruitment, we come to board work with individuals whose dominant modes of thinking operate in areas different than ours. But the point that must not be lost is that everyone has capacity in all three "heart" areas and they all are equally important in governance work.

"When we listen to one another from all three centers, conflicts are more quickly resolved and people feel more motivated to act," Reynolds says. We also create an environment with more breakthrough potential, because we are seeing problems and opportunities as three-dimensional phenomena.

I certainly can't - and won't - try to describe or justify the science behind the concept. But I will ask that we consider what we might learn if we try to become more conscious of the modes of thinking that we are applying as we discuss the issues raised in our boardrooms. What if we take it a step further and not only become more aware of the dominant modes but consciously attempt to ensure that we're using all three types described in this research in those same discussions?

What governance decisions can't be enriched by approaching them with a combination of curiosity, care/compassion, and courage?

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