Think Your Way to Success? It’s Possible When You Learn to Shift Into Your “Upper Brain”

Guest article By Michael E. Frisina, PhD

As you go through your workday, you strive to maintain a calm, professional demeanor. But what goes on inside your head is sometimes a very different matter.

For instance, you paste a smile on your face and explain a process to a colleague while thinking, What an idiot—this is basic stuff! How can he have worked here for years without knowing it? Or while implementing an employee engagement initiative, you think, This approach is asinine. No way it gets the desired results. Or you thank your boss for her thoughtful feedback, yet inside you’re highly skeptical and thoroughly annoyed.

No big deal. Your thoughts are your own, so it’s okay to mentally vent and gripe to your heart’s content, right? Well—not really. Our “harmless” thoughts actually play a huge role in determining our actions and driving our long-term behavior patterns. And those things have a material impact on our personal and professional success.

Perhaps because our thoughts aren’t something we can see or hear, we tend to think of them as ephemeral and insubstantial. But all of that mental chatter is taking up real estate in the brain and making concrete changes to its structure. Over time, negative attitudes and behaviors become hardwired.

Let’s look at the previous example of an employee explaining a so-called “basic” process to a colleague. If you resent having to coach the other person, you probably won’t put more than a minimum of effort into helping your coworker—so his understanding and performance are unlikely to improve much. What’s more, he will likely sense your disdain, which will sour your future working relationship. Your original negative thoughts about your colleague and the coaching process will be validated…which, in a self-perpetuating cycle, will lead to more begrudging coaching attempts and a further breakdown of trust.

A leader who behaves this way doesn’t consciously intend to trigger employees’ “lower brains”—the part that regulates fear-based behaviors and survival mechanisms. But that’s what happens when there is a discrepancy between our thoughts and our behaviors. Over time, our negative thoughts have the power to derail our attempts to create a positive, productive culture.

Instead, it’s in everyone’s best interests if leaders learn to tap into their “upper brains,” which control creativity, judgment, and critical reasoning. When leaders can regulate their own thoughts instead of giving resentment, irritation, and other negative emotions free reign, they will be in a much better position to truly help employees.

All of your relationships—within your team, your organization, and even at home—have been shaped by the words you say to yourself. Those relationships (and indeed, almost any life circumstance) will only improve when you take firmer control of your mental narrative. And the way to do that is through mindfulness.

Don’t write it off. Mindfulness is simply being aware—fully aware—of what you are thinking, feeling, and observing. This gives you more power to choose constructive thoughts instead of allowing negative ones to run rampant.

Mindfulness has a positive impact on stress levels, sleep, mood, concentration, and your overall sense of wellbeing. It allows you to ‘live in the moment’ more fully instead of moving through interactions on autopilot. It gives you the ability to manage your thoughts so that you can lead from the upper brain. You’ll find that your ability to solve problems, manage relationships, and relate to others with patience and empathy improves.

Shifting out of a reactive state of mind doesn’t have to be time consuming. A few tips:

  • Slow your thinking by stepping away from your work for ten minutes several times throughout the day.
  • Our bodies and our brains are “connected” to our breath. Use breathing techniques to regulate your heartbeat and quiet your mind.
  • Contemplate, write, pray, or meditate about the things you notice your brain fixating on.

Your thoughts are a powerful driving force behind your attitude, your relationships, your leadership, and more. In a very real way, success is all in your head—so leverage your mind in your favor.


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About the Author:

Michael E. Frisina, PhD, is coauthor, along with Robert Frisina, of Leading With Your Upper Brain: How to Create the Behaviors That Unlock Performance Excellence (Health Administration Press, February 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6405532-7-9, $29.95). He has authored more than 50 papers and published articles on leadership and organizational effective­ness. He is a contributing author to the Borden Institute’s highly acclaimed textbook series on military medicine. He is a visiting scholar at the Hastings Center in New York, a visiting fellow in medical humanities at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, and a John C. Maxwell Top 100 Transformational Leader.


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