Cultivating motivation before minding the details

Today as we reviewed the agenda for a half day visioning retreat my client asked a very interesting question “When we do introductions, should we have people talk about their passion and desired community impact at the same time they talk about their research?” My inner voice responded at lightning speed, “No way! We have to keep these things separate.” As I unpacked what was in my head to considerately articulate why, I recognized some golden facilitation guidelines worth sharing.

Why is it better to have a group separate their passion from the details of what they are actually working on?

First, let’s start with context. This is a group in the early stage of forming. Some of them know each other, some of them do not. Building relationships is just as important to meeting objectives as coming away with a sense of why and how they will collaborate. When people don’t know each other well, it’s helpful if they interact more often in smaller exchanges so they can become comfortable with stepping up and stepping back. It’s a thoughtful way of practicing equitable contribution.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Below the surface, lie the deeper realms of group dynamics that connect heart and head. The primary reason to separate declarations of passion from a recitation of your CV is that passion lives in the realm of the heart and your professional background is processed by the head.

Start with why.

Why is a about values and motivation. These are the realm of the heart. Declarations of passion contain the seeds of possibility. They are the raw ingredients the group needs to create meaning and construct collective intention. When we talk about what we love, why we love it, and how we want our work to create change in the world, we’re sharing a fundamental truth about ourselves. That takes courage and a little vulnerability.  And, vulnerability is what creates the opportunity for others to connect with us. In this space, the group is typically receptive and hopeful as individual offerings of inspiration fill a pool of potential.

When we share how we go about actualizing that passion and what we do, we’re shift to the realm of the mind. We’re providing data for people to inventory, categorize and analyze. People around the table begin discerning, comparing, and calculating the feasibility of various scenarios. They’ve gone mental.

There’s nothing wrong with going mental.

People are well trained and very comfortable in the mindset of planning and optimization known as executive functioning. And, similar to the mode-switching costs of multitasking up individual productivity, the brain-switching costs of moving back and forth between the heart and the head have distinct costs for group productivity.

For a group to be optimally productive, coherent, and high-functioning, they need to occupy the same brain space collectively as much as possible and shift brains together. Ideally they also follow a specific order starting in the heart brain with values-driven content that touches on purpose and sparks motivation. Then moving from their hearts, with the answer to ‘why’, into the head to figure out what to do and how to do it.

Coming full circle...

If my client’s group of participants were to introduce themselves articulating their passion and their recent work history in a single vocalization, the group as a whole could find themselves switching from listening with their hearts to listening with their minds 12 or more times. This doesn’t account for people who deliver on the prompt in reverse order or intermix their responses among the prompts as participants naturally do to mix up the long answers and differentiate themselves. In the end, with both prompts live in one discussion it’s possible to brain-switch 20 times in 30 minutes.

No amount of coffee will make up for the brain fuel spent trying to track this kind of flip-flopping in the nervous system!

Why not switch brain function 20 times in half an hour?

In addition to simply being mentally taxing there are other clear disadvantages in this approach that may not be obvious. The group loses the benefit of hearing the passion and intent of each member as a single content stream and is subsequently expected to re-assemble each person’s passion from their own memory order to discuss common threads. Given that people listen with different levels of accuracy, the collective capacity of the group to identify common motivations is significantly diminished. Since people feel more comfortable in their cognitive functioning, particularly when the don’t know one another well, some folks will likely optimize their brain-switching by listening to the passion statements from their analytical minds rather than their hearts. This diminishes the group’s capacity to build trust and rapport because the neurotransmitters of the heart differ from those in the brain. The wiring we’re using when we listen to each other matters.

The golden nugget

You can maximize collaboration productivity by thoughtfully identifying group activities by brain type and keeping your group in the same brain space together with minimal switching from heart to brain and back again.