The Slow Brain’s Decisions

Fred Kiel addresses our decision making in his book Return on Character as a way to describe the thoughts, choices, and actions of leaders with strong moral character. Kiel contrasts the idea of a fast brain, or subconscious brain, with a slow brain, or rational brain, and the ways in which we make our decisions.  The fast brain is reactionary and always acting to guide our choices without needing  energy or attention, but it is our slow brain that guides our moral character and our willpower as Kiel explains,

“Our slow brain is where we do all our conscious and analytic work.  It provides us with tools of logic and reflection … Our slow brain can call on a number of beliefs or rules and use them to guide our decisions. It can also override the intuitions of our fast brain, a process we know as willpower.  Our slow brain can also learn to identify and ignore erroneous signals from our fast brane, which is how we demonstrate self-awareness and wisdom.”

I really enjoy this quote because it shows how reflection and self awareness-both result from our slow brain, but help to also develop our slow brain and improve the choices we make. What that means to me is that reflection and self-awareness are conscious decisions and tools that can be used to build and improve our decision making and thought process. When we are more aware of our fast brain and the impulses and desires it creates, we can logically think through our impulsive desires to determine whether we are seeking a need or just looking to fulfill a temporary pleasure. Slowing down and  applying logic through self-awareness can help us understand not just our choices, but our reactions to the world. We can avoid poor judgements about actions, decisions, and how we treat others. Our slow brain can be trained to help us eat better, treat others with more respect, and drive nicer.  Our willpower will grow, our self-awareness will be boosted, and better choices can help us become more productive when we cultivate a strong slow brain and pair it with a well habituated fast brain.

Kiel continues to explain how often we usually engage our slow brain over the course of a day, “Amazingly, most researchers agree that very few of the choices we make in the course of a day — from what to order for lunch to which business alliances we form—are guided by conscious thought or our slow brain.” This means that we are not pausing to reflect and make choices that are as logical and rational as we would like to think. Keeping this in mind can help us understand the importance of using our rational brain at meaningful times so that we in some sense train or set up positive habits for our fast brain. The idea that Kiel lays out about our lack of slow brain thought can also help us understand the importance of how we view others. Judging poor decisions and actions of others can be done in way in which we view which brain, slow brain or fast brain, the other is engaging. This can help us better understand others, and understand that we often do not make decisions that are much better or much more thought out. Thinking about thinking in this way allows us to build more self-awareness to help our slow brain become a better thinking machine which will further drive our self-awareness and understandings of others in a positive feedback cycle.

The Fast Brain’s Habits

Return on Character by Fred Kiel is a business book that argues that individuals with high moral character become better leaders in the business world and create more value for the companies they lead.  Kiel spends time in his book explaining how leaders with strong moral characters improve the workplace, and he also discusses ideas about where those moral character habits come from. He addresses the idea of the fast brain where our subconscious makes decisions and drives our emotions and behavior, and our slow brain where we rationally think through our ideas and actions. Focusing on the fast brain and its role in our behaviors, habits, and character Kiel writes,

“The fast brain is where all of our subconscious intuitions, cravings, habits, and emotions reside.  The fast brain’s primary purpose is to prove the subconscious “spurs” to drive behavior patterns aimed at bringing us safety, security, food, and social connection. … Our Fast brain also spurs behavior through habits — automatic responses such as putting our foot on the brake when we see a stop sign.  Those habits that determine how we relate to others, such as a reflexive response to tell the truth or own up to our mistakes, become our character habits.”

What Kiel’s quote shows me is that we will not be able to control, guide, or shape our character if we are not able to recognize the habits that are formed within our fast brain.  Increasing our level of self-awareness, focusing on our reactions to others, and being cognizant of our interactions with those around us will allow us to begin to form our fast brain into a tool that guides us along a moral path. We can use practices of self-awareness and perspective  to turn our fast brain into a machine that builds our character over time.  By focusing on our relationships with others and becoming comfortable with adopting strong character habits we can reach a level where we treat everyone around us better.

I think that an important component within the idea of shaping our fast brain is accepting the reactions and habits we have formed without realizing it. Often these habits can be quite negative, such as looking the other way when a person from a different ethnic background walks by, and it is important that we accept those habits rather than sweep them under a rug and hide them from ourselves. If we cannot accept that we have negative habits formed by our fast brain, then we never give our slow brain a chance to think through them and tumble through a solution to become a better person.  During the process of shaping our fast brain we must recognize the behaviors we want to change, but we must do so by accepting that we have those habits and behaviors before we tell ourselves how wrong they are, and before we castigate ourselves for having such thoughts and behaviors. An honest inner dialogue of reflection will help us grow, and give us a chance to help others grow by accepting our flaws, as well as the flaws of others, and finding a way to grow in a positive direction as a group.

Leaders and Motivation

In his book Return on Character, author Fred Kiel address ideas of what motivates business leaders, especially during their climb to become CEO, and once they have reached the highest level of a company. He argues  that those who do not display a purely self-interested worldview and can become fully integrated with themselves bring greater success to the companies they work for.

Leaders who operate in a self-interested manner, according to Kiel, are five times less effective, meaning the companies return on the CEO’s salary is five times less, than those who Kiel would describe as virtuoso, or as having strong moral character.  He explains that those who are motivated purely by self-interest are not acknowledging other people and factors that play into their own lives as they pursue greater salaries, clout, and power.  By becoming a fully integrated human, connecting with others, sharing personal passions and drives, understanding and exploring personal motivations outside of salaries and power, and by understanding a full range of human nature, a CEO can bring more to the table and provide more for the company and lives of the employees within the company.

Kiel explains that Adam Smith’s views in The Wealth of Nations are unable to keep up with the complex lives and global economies of the world today. There may be leaders who are able to innovate and create things that better all of humanity, pushing all people forward through their success with an invisible hand, but Kiel believes that the more common result of CEOs and leaders acting in their own self-interest is more often the destruction of the common good as opposed to the elevation of the common good described by Smith.

His explanation as to why we need to be fully connected human beings in the world today lies with the fact that humans are motivated in complex and intertwined ways. CEOs, employees, and consumers are not simply motivated by economic forces. We face a range of emotions that force us to make decisions based on factors beyond price, salary, and the impact our choice will have on our bank account. Kiel’s thesis throughout his book is that leaders who fully accept, explore, and understand not just their own complex set of beliefs and motivations but that of their colleagues, employees, and customers will be more valuable for everyone. Colleagues will benefit from building relationships with an individual they can trust and grow alongside, employees will become more motivated when working for an individual who respects and advocates for them, and consumers will recognize the value of the products, services, and societal position of companies led by globally responsible leadership teams.

A Thought on Leadership

Leadership is one of the ideas that Fred Kiel addresses in his business book Return on Character when he focuses on the importance of strong moral character for the CEOs and leadership teams of companies in todays competitive business world. Kiel employs the term virtuoso to describe those leaders who are able to display strong character while organizing a business and supporting meaningful ethical and responsible goals for their employees, communities, and shareholders.  He chooses the term because maintaining a strong moral character takes practice and focus, and virtuoso, a term normally reserved for talented musicians and athletes, strongly represents the attention and development of high character leadership over time. Kiel writes, “Not only is leadership based on performance, but it is an art that requires disciplined practice as well as ability.”

 

I found this quote to be meaningful because Kiel is explaining that we need practice and development to become great leaders. There are certainly people I know who naturally seem to be great leaders, but what Kiel is explaining is that to be a truly virtuoso and impactful leader, one must focus and practice to hone not just their leadership skills, but also their character skills, and their moral judgement skills. Even those with great leadership talent will not be able to become as successful as possible if they are not able to refine their leadership talent and build it to become applicable in various settings. In the view that Kiel adopts in Return on Character, practice and self-awareness are key for any leader, including those who bring great natural talent to their position, because developing meaningful and trustful relationships is a key component of leading with strong character.  A talented leader who is self focused and does not act with integrity to support those around them may reach business goals, but they likely will not be bringing their team with them in a way that will meet the goals of everyone within their organization.

 

Another powerful idea represented by Kiel and his quote above is the thought of deliberate practice and grit on the way to virtuosity in leadership.  When we begin to think that leaders are not born as great leaders, and when we recognize that those with great character are not born with overflowing character, we can see both to be attainable in our own lives through dedicated focus and effort.  I recently listened to the NPR podcast, Hidden Brain, where the idea of grit, practice, and achievement was directly addressed.   What they find, and what I am sure Kiel would support, is that those who can preserver, or display grit, are the ones who begin to display effortlessness in their areas of focus, and virtuous leadership certainly falls in line with this thought.  Just as incredibly talented individuals such as Kobe Bryant became awe inspiring thanks to practice, we can grow and change to become exceptional with our moral character and leadership. We may not all start our on the same playing field in terms of talent (there may be Kobe Bryants of the leadership and character world out there) but we can certainly put in the focus and deliberate practice to ensure that our nature skill will not be the only thing that matters in our ability to lead and be morally responsible to those in our lives.

Revealing Character

The character of our business leaders is a major factor for driving successful organizations in the world today, and having a strong moral character will continue to be the key difference maker among leadership teams of the top corporations in the world. This is the argument laid out in Return on Character written by Fred Kiel. In his book he advocates that leaders and leadership teams need to be comprised of individuals with strong character if they are to build real value for their shareholders, communities, and for those working for the company. Kiel gives us many examples of how character can help a company thrive and win in today’s business environment, and he starts his book by taking a deep look at just what character is.

 

Early on Kiel establishes that character is defined by our belief system and our daily actions and behaviors. “Character has to be expressed through behavior. Integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion don’t live inside us.  Our behavior, especially as demonstrated through our relationships with others, is where our character comes to life. Which means that, despite the common wisdom, character isn’t some hidden quality that no one can really know or assess.”

 

I like Kiel’s quote because it shows just how prominent our character truly is in our lives, and how important it is that our behaviors and interactions represent our true character.  It does not mean that we must go out of our way to be showy and ostentatious, but it does mean that our character should manifests itself in all of our actions, be they grand charitable acts, or small actions barely perceptible within a conversation.  In order to build this character we must develop a level of self-awareness which allows us to consider others and our actions toward others as much as we consider ourselves and our desires.  To foster the character needed to succeed in today’s business world we must be able to take our drive, passion, and focus for success, and recognize that we depend on others to reach the levels we desire.  By creating more value for others, as Bob Berg would suggest, we can begin to increase the strength of our relationships and develop a strong moral character that is based on being a great person towards others.

Interactions

Fred Kiel lays out his ideas and definitions of morality in his book Return on Character, his business book where he lays out the idea that in order to be truly successful in todays world companies must find leaders with strong moral character.  Much of his book focuses on relationships and the types of benefits that a leader and leadership team with strong moral character can bring to the relationships of everyone working within an organization, and the benefits that brings to a company as a whole. As part of this idea, Kiel dives into morality, and what it means to develop morality within a corporation or company today.

 

One of Kiel’s interpretations on morality relates to the way we see other people and interact with them, “Each of us constantly makes decisions about how to interact with other people, and each of those decisions has the potential to either harm or enhance the other person’s well-being.” This is a simple idea about how we can interpret and see the world and Kiel explains that what we are more moral when our actions help the well-being of others, and we are immoral when our behaviors detract from the well-being of others. This is a good starting point for describing the importance of character in relationships and business, because on an individual level it is easy to asses whether or not we are acting with the motivation of helping ourselves at the expense of others, or if we are acting in a way that is meant to help everyone as much as ourselves.

 

I recently listened to a podcast from the Transistor Podcast from PRX in which they discussed Theory of Mind which states that we are constantly interpreting what others are thinking and feeling, and we are able to recognize that others outside of ourselves have their own emotions and thoughts about any given situation.  I think that Kiel would argue that it is important for us to work on our Theory of Mind to build our ability to recognize the thoughts and feelings of others so that we can have better interactions with those around us.  The idea laid out by both the Transistor podcast and by Fred Kiel aligns with Colin Wright’s ideas presented in his book Considerations. In Considerations Wright posits the idea that we move through the world without being present in the moment as much as we should be, and he writes that we do not take the time to truly be considerate of other people, our good fortune, and of the world around us which shapes our interactions with people and our environment.  By being aware of our Theory of Mind and working to be more considerate of those around us, we can improve our character.  With our improved character and better relationships and interactions  we can begin to be a more rewarding person to be around, and in a business sense, our character generates a return that can be felt and measured within a company.

Character

Fred Kiel’s book Return on Character focuses on the importance of strong moral character traits in the leaders of today. Kiel’s book is about business, but many of the ideas he expresses go well beyond business and can manifest in our every day life.  The central idea to Kiel’s book is that those who are truly successful in life are individuals with high moral character. He continues with a business focus to say that those companies who are the most successful and provide the most value to their customers, employees, communities, and societies are lead by truly virtuous leaders with strong moral characters.

In looking at character and what it means to have a strong character Kiel quotes E. O. Wilson from his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge:

“True character rises from a deeper well than religion.  It is the internalization of the moral principles of a society, augmented by those tenets personally chosen by the individual, strong enough to endure through trials of solitude and diversity.  The principles are fitted together into what we call … the integrated self, wherein personal decisions feel good and true.  Character is in turn the enduring source of virtue.  It stands by itself and excites admiration in others.  It is not obedience to authority, and while it is often consistent with and reinforced by religious belief, it is not piety.”

Kiel explains this quote by examining the way that an individual with high character is able to recognize the behaviors expected and accepted as morally correct in a society. The quote also shows that the individual has a choice to accept these behaviors, and then choose how to incorporate those behaviors into their life.  Kiel shows that those with the strongest moral character are able to do this in a way that will best amplify those positive traits beyond what is simply expected.

I like this quote because it shows the dynamic nature of morals and character, and it reflects on the ways in which we can use self awareness and reflection to boost our character. Through our power of reason we are able to recognize the behaviors and characteristics we find to be helpful or harmful to ourselves, those around us, or those in society who are affected by our decisions. Through reason, we are able to consider our actions and reactions, and develop a practice that allows us to move toward developing a better character.

Peace and Creativity

In his book 59 Seconds psychologist Richard Wiseman evaluated research on how to maximize our time to bring about the desired results that we want in our lives.  He examined everything from creativity, to success, and happiness.  When researching creativity Wiseman found that our environment and emotional feelings toward our environment played a large role in our creativity.  Wiseman writes, “When people feel worried, they become very focused, concentrate on the task at hand, become risk-averse, rely on well-established habits and routines, and see the world through less-creative eyes.  In contrast when people feel at ease in a situation, they’re more likely to explore new and unusual ways of thinking and behaving, see the bigger picture, take risks, and think and act more creatively.”

 

I think this is a powerful section from Wiseman and one that I wish I could share with every business leader. Encouraging employees to be more creative and push for new ideas can help a company grow and succeed, but many employers don’t give their employees a chance to be creative, and they expect them to be in simple boxes where their routine is set and their actions are limited.  Focusing on your employees environment and attitude can help an employer create a place where employees are more at ease and able to think more creatively to build better habits and produce better results. I am currently reading Return on Character by Fred Kiel, and the thesis of his work is that leaders and CEO’s who focus on building an organization focused around integrity, honesty, and forgiveness provide greater returns for their companies, employees, and stakeholders.  When we consider Wiseman’s quote about people becoming more creative in relaxed environments, we can see how Kiel’s CEO’s who create those environments become more successful.  By maintaining a strong moral character a CEO can create a space where employees feel welcomed to perform their best and are not restricted in their actions and approaches to greatness.

 

However, I am afraid that sharing this quote with every business leader could backfire.  Those employers who do not see their employees as being in creative positions may read that quote and think that they can put their employees under pressure to have them focus better on the single task at hand as opposed to being distracted by the people and environment around them.  The quote could be read to suggest that developing well established habits and putting employees into risk-averse mindsets may be useful for employees who work specific and routine jobs.  This idea falls flat when you think about wanting to be a company that excels, with employees that excel at every position, especially if that employee performs any sort of customer service function.  Encouraging the creativity of employees by helping them fee comfortable and relaxed at work will lead to better results when employees are free to be creative and break away from ordinary habits.  When they are worried they will not risk trying something new in their daily routine and will never develop a habit that could drastically improve the quality of the work they produce.

 

In the end, I think we need to try and understand creativity as being something that we all have access to.  Wiseman’s quote shows that building supportive environments and bing at ease helps people become more creative. Those who deal with a high amount of anxiety tend to display a less creative vision and provide less innovation.

Self-Centeredness

Self-centeredness and materialism are two of the topics Richard Wiseman touches on in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot.  Wiseman looks at how making purchases affects our happiness, and compares spending money on items versus spending money on experiences.  As he explains, research suggests that spending money on experiences leads to greater and more sustained happiness by creating social interactions leading to positive memories and stories for the future.

Wiseman continues to dive into the world of shopping and happiness and explains a study by Elizabeth Dunn which evaluated peoples scores on a questionnaire meant to measure their level of materialism. The study asked what the individuals would do if they had $40,000 to spend. “Materialists spend, on average, three times as much on things for themselves as they do on things for others,” Wiseman writes, “Also, when they are asked to rate statements about the degree to which they care for others (“i enjoy having guests stay in my house,” “I often lend things to my friends”), they end up giving far more self-centered responses.”  Wiseman’s section on materialism is not surprising.  Our culture pushes us to want to be impressive and to make purchases that will display our success and high status.  The research shows that people who are more materialistic tend to also act in more self-centered ways.  Wiseman continues to explain Dunn’s research, “from the perspective of happiness, this self-centeredness can have a detrimental effect on people’s happiness.”

What Wiseman explains is that our brains are wired to make us social creatures.  We depend on and rely on others, and when it comes to spending money to make us happy, purchasing experiences that can bring us closer to others is more effective than purchasing items for ourselves.

I am currently working on a book called Return on Character by Fred Kiel, in which he examines leaders in the business world, their character, and the performance of their enterprise.  What Kiel’s research shows is that those CEO’s who tend to be more self-focused don’t produce the same results as CEO’s who are more caring, empathetic, and operate with a strong character.  This is in line with Wiseman’s findings about happiness and self-centeredness. Those CEO’s who are self-focused are more likely to be materialistic, less likely to be happy, and don’t stick to the same values and morals that drive the (as Kiel puts them) virtuoso CEO’s.  When your company is run by people who are less happy and act in self-centered ways, the leadership team is likely to be less interactive with employees, and they are less likely to create a work environment based on integrity and positivity.  This in turn can bring the entire company apart, as apposed to creating an organization that pulls all of its members together.