The bright side of disruption: Cognitive flexibility and you

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The professional landscape of the future is unpredictable, but it doesn’t have to be unnerving. Cognitive flexibility is a key skill that helps prepare you for what comes next, with confidence. Here we explain what it is, and how you can develop it to encourage your personal and professional growth.

It’s not disruptive if you’re accustomed to change

‘I’m often introduced as someone who likes to disrupt, [but] I certainly don’t believe in disrupting things for the sake of it. I’m much more inclined to say, “How can we make things better?”’ Elon Musk, CEO and Chairman Tesla Motors

Disruption seems to be the fly in the ointment for business these days. In a working world that’s increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), you never know when the rules of the game are going to change again.

Yet change can inspire progress. While the future of work may seem uncertain, it holds a host of exciting opportunities for people – like you – looking to develop and succeed.

Cognitive flexibility is our ability to simultaneously work with multiple concepts or tasks, and to efficiently adapt our behaviour to these, as we switch from one to another.

For individuals, re-evaluating your skills and being open to adapting them in a variety of ways is key to professional growth. One Forbes Insights survey found today’s most important leadership characteristics include flexibility, open-mindedness and curiosity. These are all key components of cognitive flexibility.

It’s part of the brain’s executive functioning and requires you to access a host of reasoning, working memory, problem-solving skills, and planning functions, as you change tasks. Cognitive flexibility also extends to your belief system; enabling you to change your mind when assumptions and attitudes you consider true at one point, may not apply in the near future.

We use this function daily, and in a workplace that’s changing at accelerating speeds, it couldn’t be more valuable. For example, technology has enabled greater workspace flexibility so working remotely or across time zones isn’t a unique arrangement, but rather a new norm. We’ve learned to adapt to working alone (remotely) while in teams, and communicating with innovative technology, but what will come next? Having greater cognitive flexibility sets you up to adapt quickly, and with confidence.

We can’t control change, but we can control our response to it

Improving cognitive flexibility requires focus, persistence and an openness to learning. Here are some techniques that can help you develop yours:

Highlight your range of talents

It’s often the case that while we’re busy training for one role, we tend to channel our energy into developing the skills necessary to meet that task alone. But what about the spectrum of talents and skills you might have overlooked? Are there ways you can utilise them to respond to, and evolve with change?

Challenge your beliefs and assumptions

You don’t have to change them, but honestly reviewing your beliefs and assumptions against reality can give you useful insights. You may find some assumptions haven’t evolved with changes in the workplace, and these could be limiting your potential to adapt and move forward.

Define what you can control

How much of your current role and your future is determined by you, and how much by others? Consider how involved you are with your career progression. Are there mentors you can approach or training you can undertake? Perhaps you can streamline a work process? There are many ways you are in control of how, and where you work.

Take time to reflect

Often, ‘busy’ doesn’t come close to describing the lives we lead. But studies by Harvard Business School, among others, have shown that people who spend 15 minutes reflecting on lessons learned in a day, perform significantly better over time, than those who don’t. By giving the brain time to untangle the chaos of a day through careful consideration, you can learn a lot about your patterns, and construct new, adaptive ways of approaching situations.

Become an avid reader

Knowing what you don’t know is only so useful. Subscribing to relevant publications and staying ‘in the loop’ is not only helpful for following business advancements, but reading is a great way to keep your brain stimulated. Heightened neural function is essential for cognitive flexibility, and reading helpfully employs several regions at the same time.

Get plenty of sleep

This one is almost self-explanatory, but a lack of sleep significantly impacts cognitive function. From disrupting working memory, to multi-tasking and decision-making abilities, sleep deficiencies can severely limit your cognitive flexibility. In fact, even as little as two hours’ lost sleep can have a significant impact.

It might seem that disruption is the one constant we can rely on in the future, but it doesn’t need to imply a negative outcome. Greater cognitive flexibility aims to give you the assurance that whatever does come, you’ll have the open-minded approach and ability to handle it with confidence. Hopefully, you now feel you have some useful ways of applying yours, in practice.