An understanding of left-brain/right-brain research can be a useful tool for anyone who manages staff, particularly project managers who often need to get the best out of virtual teams.
Left-brain/right-brain theory has frequently been oversimplified since the late 1960s, when elements of Nobel-Prize-winning split-brain research found their way into popular consciousness. But in the last 10 years, research has continued to shed more light on the area. And it’s easy to see the applicability to managing in general and project management in particular.
But a word of warning – over the last 40 years numerous management consultants have conducted training and implemented workplace changes, based on this research. But they often have not fully considered the consequences nor measured the benefits. If someone is telling you that you just need to “use your right-brain more” or complete a “left-brain/right-brain test”, it should be ringing alarm bells.
What the research does show is that when people are performing particular tasks, we consistently show greater activity in one side of the brain than the other. Some people also seem to have a clear preference for one approach. But brain hemisphere specialisation is not ‘all or none’. If you scan brain activity, any higher brain functions, such as those used in conversation or problem solving, engage both sides of the brain, to a degree.
This body of research highlights our two very different approaches to the world and how they relate to how our brains have evolved. A variety of concepts are obviously crucial for determining whether people have the competencies needed to succeed in roles. But by understanding which mental functions use one side of the brain to a greater extent than the other, project and program managers have another way to view role tasks, as well as the staff that may be working on them.
In simplified terms, the left-brain is used more for:
- language – grammar and vocabulary, literal meanings;
- linear, sequential processing and calculation;
- dealing with pieces of information in isolation, and deconstructing issues (these bullet points, for example); and
- use and manipulation of objects such as tools.
The left side of the brain is absolutely critical for our ability to communicate through written or spoken language. But different language disorders are related to different areas on the left side – it’s not just one big language area. Left-brain functioning also tends to emphasise the uses of things and this can even apply to other people, who may be seen as a means to an end or someone to compete with, when thinking in this way.
A heavily left-brain approach can sometimes lead to deconstructing something to such an extent that its holistic meaning or context is lost – resulting in a ‘Can’t see the forest for the trees’ situation. An example of this would be a senior manager reprimanding individual staff for turning up late and then implementing a clock-card system, but failing to see the broader pattern of those people all being from one unit where management is poor and staff morale is low.
The right-brain is used more for:
- complex visuo-spatial tasks – like imagining a drive route or designing a house;
- language also – but in relation to tone, metaphor and humour;
- context – pattern recognition and understanding part-whole relations;
- emotional processing and affiliation (still not completely settled in the research);
- flexibility and openness to novel tasks; and
- the element of creativity that connects disparate ideas and multiple meanings of objects.
Without right-brain function, you would not be able to interpret metaphors such as, “Victory has a thousand fathers; defeat is an orphan” and understand them in relation to your organisation; you would only understand language in very literal terms. This is what happens to some people with right hemisphere damage.
Role Suitability and Development
Because different work tasks require different types of thinking, some are more closely related to activity on one side of the brain than the other. By understanding the difference, it is easier to appreciate how well a person may match a particular role and possibly help them if they are struggling to adapt their style. When moving to a new role they may be completely unaware that their typical approach is now ineffective. Project managers, and even program managers, can use this insight to help their team members understand that there are alternative approaches to work problems, that might be more effective. To quote an oft-used metaphor, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.
What follows are some scenarios that illustrate how understanding left- and right-brain approaches may help. These are issues that a manager might consider anyway, but understanding left-brain/right-brain research can add extra perspective.
1. A manager is very competent at listing process steps and rationalising them, searching balance sheets for small cost reductions and monitoring staff adherence to KPIs. These are fairly ‘left brain’ approaches that she has taken to management and they have been very useful. They’ve saved money and improved call centre efficiency greatly.
Some of the changes that reduced customer call times led to cost savings by reducing staff, but they also led to longer term problems with staff turnover and customer satisfaction. The manager also wants to move into a less tightly defined senior management position, where she needs to consider long-term implications of business decisions.
In this scenario the organisation could consider:
- How she may need to adapt her approach to look at broader contextual factors (a more ‘right-brain approach’)
- What sort of mentoring or other assistance might help her either in her current role or in making a transition to a more senior role
2. A particular program requires a program manager with the ability to quickly build rapport with key contacts and stakeholders. They also need to consider where the market is heading over the next few years and think in overall business terms about what projects to green-light. A senior project manager with seemingly the right experience is being considered for the role – he is intelligent, logical and precise, but is also highly task and schedule focused, tending not to see the broader context of situations.
Will this person be the one most suited to the program manager role? What changes in thinking may he need to be successful in the role? Can he be given guidance to change his approach? By understanding the great skills that he has, but also realising his limitations, it may be easier to understand whether he is right for the higher level role, and if not, on which type of project he can provide the most value.
3. A scenario planner who is used to seeing the bigger picture, planning ahead and thinking creatively about potential problems and solutions (quite ‘righ-brain’ perspectives) is being considered for the role of a project scheduler, which requires much more linear, sequential reasoning. Are they the right person for the role? Would they struggle with the new role, both in their motivation and their ability to think in such a manner?
The two sides of the brain perceive the world in very different ways – when performing certain tasks there is a clear difference in activity between the two halves. With an awareness of these different approaches, project managers can help staff to view role tasks through a new set of eyes.
Left Brain Right Brain: Perspectives from Cognitive Neuroscience – Springer and Deutsch
The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World – Iain McGilchrist (2009)First published in HR Daily 19th April 2011