Of all the resources managers have, their people are clearly the most important to their success. While hard assets, technology, and money are critical, it is people that determine how they're employed.
It just stands to reason that when people make better decisions, the return on these assets will be higher, and smarter people make better decisions.
Much effort goes into selecting smart people through interviews and even in some companies, formal tests. There are also training courses designed to develop critical thinking and decision-making skills. In both cases, the results are often hit or miss.
But now some intriguing research from neuroscience offers a powerful new approach. Patricia A. Boyle, a neuropsychologist and researcher for the Rush Memory and Aging Project at the University of Chicago, has found that when people have a purpose, their rate of cognitive decline slows dramatically, even when they have the beginning signs of Alzheimer’s.
In an interview with Diane Cole published in the Wall Street Journal Dr. Boyle speculates that work, which is motivational and has meaning beyond the individual, causes us to engage in behaviors that make us healthier and smarter. Given the plasticity of the brain, it's as if we're building mental muscle.
By extension, those of us that are engaged in work with a higher purpose will have more fully developed and functioning cognitive skills. This dovetails nicely with the research that transformational leaders, those that hold out an enticing vision of the future, produce higher performance.
In my work with business organizations over three decades, I've found that having an aspirational vision is critical for success. Such visions are relatively quick and easy for a management team to create. In fact, the process can be as simple as answering questions about what the organization does, what it gives to its stakeholders, and why it's work is important.
Simple as it sounds, even the hardest-nosed business men and women become more engaged in pursuing an aspirational future. The vision also serves double duty, by focusing everyone's efforts on what's critically important for the business to succeed.
Man (and woman) does not live by bread alone, nor as numerous studies have shown, by a fair day's wage for a fair day's work. We crave purpose and meaning. Now we have scientific data to support what we've long intuited, and a simple, practical way to improve the performance of our organizations.