Neuroleadership Lessons: The Science Behind Creative Problem Solving and Making Better Decisions

January 18, 2017

Neuroleadership Lessons: The Science Behind Creative Problem Solving and Making Better Decisions

In today’s hyper fast-paced business world, it is common to experience an ongoing influx of information needing to be reviewed and processed as well as corresponding and often crucial decisions that are screaming for attention. With the never-ending deluge of emails, complex reports, spreadsheets, data analytics, charts, graphs and text messages to name a few, the onslaught of information can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned of business leaders. Add to this mix a societal expectation of instantaneous responses and quick decisions to be made, and the pressure certainly mounts.

Taking all of this into consideration, one might wonder to what extent information overload and potentially unrealistic expectations have when it comes to impacting problem solving and decision making in the workplace. As it turns out, plenty. Brain science research shows that the opportunity for creative problem solving and effective decision making is greatly diminished when one has to sacrifice thoughtfulness and accuracy to immediacy.

Conversely, conditions such as mindfulness, being in a positive mood, and allowing for downtime all have a beneficial impact on the ability to think creatively and make better decisions. More specifically, enabling the brain’s unconscious processing system to switch on and allowing time for thoughts to incubate has been scientifically proven to produce better decisions than in situations where one makes a more immediate decision using conscious, logical reasoning.


Supporting Brain Science

Under the pressure of looming deadlines, demanding objectives, and conflicting priorities, the luxury of having more time for the brain to disconnect from the task at hand and all of the many distractions of the day can often seem like an unobtainable desire in the busy business world. However, from a neurological perspective, doing just that is key to creative problem solving, innovation, and effective decision making.

The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the brain region behind the forehead that is responsible for decision making and control of emotions. When the brain reaches a point of information overload, activity in the dorsolateral PFC suddenly drops off, similar to when a circuit breaker pops. Emotions previously held in check by this same brain region start to run amok and signs of anxiety and frustration greatly increase. A person begins to make careless mistakes and poor choices. At this point, the opportunity for well-informed decision making goes out the door.

While the previous scientific example does not paint the prettiest of pictures, it does highlight the necessity of slowing down enough to prevent the brain from becoming sidelined by a glut of incoming information while also allowing more optimal conditions for other parts of the brain such as those responsible for insight to work their own unique neurological magic.

With regard to insight, there have been various brain studies done in relation to patterns of neuronal activity that correspond with the process of insight compared with that of logical reasoning. When measuring brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), certain areas of the brain are more active when solving problems with insight versus solving the same types of problems analytically. The brain’s anterior temporal lobe located in the right hemisphere is involved in integrating information that is distantly related and seeing new connections amongst data. Other areas of increased brain activity include the anterior and posterior cingulate cortex which are responsible for cognitive control and attention, and the hippocampus which is responsible for memory formation and retrieval.

To allow for the process of insight to take place, it is key to disconnect from intentional or otherwise deliberate linear thinking. By allowing for necessary downtime where the mind can go offline, the brain’s default neuronal network is then able to activate. Doing so enables the sorting and integration of information to naturally unfold. The importance of this process is confirmed through scientific studies that show unconscious thinkers outperform conscious analysts when it comes to making complex decisions.

In addition, people are more likely to solve a problem through the process of insight if they are in a positive mood. By blocking out external distractions, quieting internal chatter, and cultivating a positive atmosphere that encourages mindfulness to stabilize the mind, potentially viable solutions have the opportunity to spontaneously surface.


What Does This Mean for Me and My Organization?

Leadership effectiveness and long-term organizational success are dependent upon not only sound decision making but also creative problem solving and innovative thinking with regard to addressing internal and external business issues, developing new products and services, devising strategies to gain and retain a competitive advantage in the marketplace, and so on. When taking into consideration the speed of technology and the realities of the modern workplace, situations are not always conducive to utilizing the human brain in a way that best supports these types of desired end results.

Oftentimes, taking a break from deeply focused analytical attention toward a problem and switching to less focused and more inward-directed forms of attention can be thought of as mere distraction or frivolous activity. However, doing so is the necessary precursor to achieving insight in complex decision making. When a person stops analyzing and completely detaches from stress producing thoughts by engaging in activities like listening to relaxing music, taking a walk in nature or even taking a shower, so-called eureka or aha moments often result that shed a new light on the problem at hand. Being in the optimal mindset to connect the dots and formulate new insights when tackling an issue helps to ensure better and more informed decision making.

Smart organizations understand that downtime should not be viewed as a luxury but instead a condition necessary for high performance. They build continuous renewal into their cultures and provide work environments that facilitate productive thinking and creative behavior in employees. These types of organizations reap the rewards as better decision making supports more ideal outcomes and in turn, this leads to better business results.


Tips for Enhancing Decision-Making and Problem Solving

In an effort to move beyond standard analytical thinking to that where the brain’s unconscious processing system is triggered, it can be helpful to keep in mind the following:

  • For optimal functioning, the brain requires regular breaks on a daily basis along with some time out on the weekends. Uninterrupted vacation time is good as well. These types of breaks allow for the sorting and integrating of important elements of one’s mind and enable the opportunity for creativity to emerge.
  • While it is important to consider multiple sources of data when making a decision, particularly when one is being intentional in their effort to minimize unconscious bias, there comes a point when intense analytical focus toward a problem can stifle creativity, overload the brain or even result in making no decision at all. It is therefore key to stay attuned to one’s frame of mind and switch away from heavy analytical thinking prior to the brain becoming overwhelmed.
  • Engaging in healthy chill out activities allows the unconscious mind to switch on. Mindfulness activities like meditation or yoga, going outdoors and connecting with nature, visiting a museum, listening to relaxing music, or other similar types of activities are conducive to productively disconnecting. When the mind is able to disconnect in this way, new insights and solutions to problems can then emerge.
  • While it may seem counterintuitive, sometimes the best thing to do when stuck on a problem or feeling conflicted about which decision to make, is to step away from the computer and switch off the cellphone. By giving the brain the time and opportunity to decompress, new and potentially better options can develop than by purely analytical thinking alone.


"Scientific studies show that unconscious thinkers outperform conscious analysts when it comes to making complex decisions."


Bringing It all Together

In today’s world, business leaders are often caught up in what may seem to be a never ending rat race. As such, it is imperative to step off the proverbial hamster wheel and enable the brain to function more optimally. While the necessity of traditional analytical thinking certainly serves its purpose in the workplace, importance should also be placed on the unconscious thought process and allowing time for thoughts to incubate. Taking regular breaks and allowing for required downtime is crucial for the brain to sort and integrate thoughts. Doing so fosters optimal conditions for creative thinking and the generation of new insights which can ultimately lead to better decision making. Organizations that provide a culture that supports innovative thinking, creative problem solving and strong, effective decision making skills are most likely to benefit from a healthy bottom line that results from this type of work environment.


To read the previous article in our Neuroleadership Series, click here.

The Authors: 

Andrea Choate is a professional writer and business executive who specializes in HR leadership. She advises top leaders of organizations on people strategies that facilitate business growth and profitability, as well as the value of a happy and highly productive workplace.