Powering performance

Written by Claire Dale on 1 June 2013 in Features

Claire Dale looks at physical intelligence

Most readers will know the term 'physical intelligence' as first used by Howard Gardner in his theory of multiple intelligences. His work broadened the concept of intelligence, and nurtured the thinking that brought us emotional intelligence.

A more current definition of PI, coined by my company Companies in Motion, is "the active knowledge and management of our physiology enabling us to consistently operate at a differentiated level".

Chemicals, neurotransmitters and hormones largely dictate the way we think, feel and behave, and we can influence this chemistry by strategic use of movement and the body.

The body comes low down in the hierarchy of priorities that currently exist at work. However, the human body is vastly more sophisticated and intelligent than the most advanced computer. Most of us focus on our bodies outside work. However, at work we are currently using a tiny percentage of our PI.

Someone with high PI works all day without excess mental, physical or emotional tension. He behaves with easy integration of thought, speech and action and is extremely alert to subtle changes in his environment and other people. He is highly alert and enjoys the positive effects of adrenalin when working to deadlines. He displays self-control, confidence and understanding in negotiations and delivering difficult messages. He sometimes experiences self-doubt and tiredness but, unlike others, doesn't suffer from setbacks or stagnation because he has developed a strategic approach to managing his mind-set using his physiology.

He understands his chemical make-up and what drives his behaviour so he is fully resourced to be highly effective.

Recent research into neuroscience, performance and leadership by leading thinkers like David Rock, John Coates and Amy Cuddy points emphatically to the connection with our bodies as a vital strand in the future of L&D. By using PI, tomorrow's executives will be more resilient. They will be increasingly versatile, astute, courageous, competitive and optimistic by being firmly in the driving seat of their neurochemistry.

Our knowledge of what helps us develop mental and emotional strength has substantially increased in the last five years. We can now minimise cycles of disempowerment or, as John Coates calls it, "learned helplessness". We now know a lot more about chemicals such as oxytocin, dopamine, testosterone, cortisol, serotonin and DHEA, for example. We also know that surges and declines in these chemicals in a variety of circumstances largely influence how we think, feel and behave.

Companies in Motion surveyed 150 professional men and women during March and April of this year and found that, if you proactively manage yourself physically at work, you are four times more likely to say that you can handle any curveball. Respondents were also found to be three times as likely to feel alert and at ease at work.

An unhelpful balance of chemicals can change our perception of reality and our capacity for rational thought. Our survey results indicate that we are beginning to understand how to influence how we think, feel and behave using our bodies yet, in L&D, cognitive solutions can take precedence.

Over the last ten years, PI has been applied to change, team and leadership development in a range of successful programmes. It is becoming a codified curriculum that everyone can learn in the training room. We have a superb opportunity now to leverage the science that we have, and bring the body fully into our development programmes.

The first PI skill is interoception. The opposite of proprioception, it is the awareness and interpretation of data from inside the body. If someone has a basic level of PI, he has developed an alertness to subtle changes inside his body - in his chemistry.

Meet Rob. Rob has been practising PI for a couple of weeks now, having attended the first module of a leadership programme. When a difficult situation is proving tricky to resolve, and a bombshell lands in his inbox, he can now immediately detect the spike of adrenalin and the rise in cortisol in his body. He has learned to pay attention to the physical sensation of overload.

For him it is increased tension in his abdomen and a surge of electrochemical charge that moves through his abdomen, chest and throat. It is a kind of gripping feeling.

He has had a high baseline cortisol level for a while due to uncertainty during a number of restructures in the last two years. This means that he is not yet as efficient and high performing as he will be in a few months.

He uses some basic PI techniques: posture and breathing skills that reverse the tide of cortisol and bring levels of helpful testosterone and dopamine back up. He looks around at his team, and sends out a couple of emails thanking them for efforts on a pitch that morning. He knows that oxytocin, the trust and social bonding chemical, is vital to balance the effects of a threat that could easily transmit to his team. So he astutely bolsters team bonds, strengthening their ability to handle the external challenges to come.

If Rob continues to apply PI in this way, within three to six months his physiology will have significantly changed. He and his team will be moving to high performance. He will feel more in control and confidant, and will be more realistic and accurate in his evaluation of situations.

Within a year of PI practice using advanced techniques, Rob will (like a top athlete) have trained himself to use minimal adrenalin and will rely on a small release of 'the brakes' (acetylcholine) to enable him to step up to challenges. If we are functioning at our peak, there is little drain on our energy even in high challenge. PI helps develop 'vagal tone', the efficiency with which our heart, lung, brain and nervous system function. With vagal tone comes improved cognitive function so the quality of Rob's decision-making will improve as well. PI gives individuals transformative tools, and empowers them to take personal accountability for their own performance.

At Companies in Motion, most of us come from a background in the performing arts and dance. We developed PI skills to enable us to prepare and perform at our best, and sustain excellence in the fast-paced, high-risk environment that is typical on stage in a contemporary dance piece. The physiology of handling risk and pace is very similar whether on a stage or in a boardroom.

We are currently working in partnership with Borg, a company that improves performance primarily in the financial sector, helping young bankers build endurance, flexibility, resilience and strength. By using specific posture, breath, movement, voice, mind-set and mental rehearsal exercises, the bankers are able to create a 'winning cocktail' of chemicals and develop strategies to thrive responsibly in a fast-paced and competitive environment.

In his book The Hour between Dog and Wolf, John Coates talks about bankers being overrun by the chemistry of the winner effect. We know that overpowering levels of testosterone, along with rising cortisol, are not the ideal cocktail in any situation. Even racing drivers and Olympic athletes work hard to balance this chemistry. Maybe PI can play an important part in creating a new generation of bankers.

So PI helps drive individual performance, but how can it help change programmes in organisations? And how can it help teams?

In 2010, in collaboration with Leap Partnership led by psychologist George Karseras, Companies in Motion helped Sage UK's accountants division at the engagement stage of an 18-month culture change programme. Change is all about agility and courage. New competition in a climate of accelerated technological development and recession needed to be faced; entrenched behaviours and processes prevented the organisation from being agile and moving with the times. The organisation needed to be jolted out of its current mind-set and create a new vision and strategy.

PI was used to facilitate profound insights into changes in behaviour and mind-set. It dovetailed with EI to empower a change in attitudes. Diagnosis revealed the need for greater risk-taking, individual responsibility, and keeping the long- and short-term in mind. Strength, courage, flexibility and appreciation of others were all explored, showing how positive contagion is created in teams and organisations. Past, present and future visions were represented in an artist-drawn 'Rich Picture'. Using PI, the metaphors in the pictures were translated into real behaviours and a commitment to implement change.

PI helped people to embody these behaviours. This triggered the right neurochemistry to enable people to take ownership of, and fully embed, the behaviour change. It also made the change more 'contagious' and tacit, so knowledge was more easily transmitted throughout the organisation.

In February 2011, the company achieved double-digit growth and became the highest performing part of Sage UK. The accountants division has become a risk-taking community operating in a robust climate of trust and appreciation.

"PI helped our people to connect with our plans at a personal level and take personal accountability. The results that we are seeing are fantastic. We are ahead of delivery against our initiatives, and are on track for a very successful year in a challenging market," said Jayne Archbold, MD, Sage UK accountants division.

In 2011, Coca Cola used PI to bring together their strategy and insights team for Northwest Europe and Nordics. A new team and a new structure, its role is to provide the rest of the business with relevant insights and thought leadership. A lot was at stake and the commercial pressures were growing day by day. The team needed to get to know each other fast, put the basics in place and align together to form the strategy and goals.

Team spirit and identity were priorities, as was the need to launch with real impact. Powerful PI exercises were used to sculpt team structure and identify blocks to future performance. By reframing a rational thought process and turning it into a physical experience, we helped delegates to think and reflect differently. This approach draws out honest conversations to address real work scenarios and align people with the new strategy. We then used PI metaphors to enable strength, focus and determination for the business challenges ahead.

Commenting on the day, strategy and insights director NWEN Dr Stefanie Teichmann said: "The beginning is an important part of the journey, otherwise people don't believe in what lies ahead. The team was soon willing to open up to new perspectives. PI is the missing piece. Because the learning is physical, it lasts. You can replay the memory and the moment and reuse it. Five months later, the team is well on its way, with 80 per cent of the basics fixed, and is receiving more and more positive feedback from other areas of the business reliant upon its input."

Teams function on trust, and one of the crucial chemicals for well-functioning teams is oxytocin, the chemical for social bonding. Too much oxytocin and team members will 'herd' together, won't call each other to account, or pull their weight. When there is too little oxytocin, fear rises and performance drops as individuals feel criticised, threatened, excluded and devalued. An excellent team leader can read levels of oxytocin and take action to balance them.

L&D has excelled in developing diagnostics that enable teams to understand diversity and work together while respecting each other's strengths and differences. In partnership with Borg, we recently helped a team who wanted to improve their understanding of each other and become a truly high-performing team. We explored the physical aspects of their preferred behaviour through PI. This enabled them to experience style qualities in action and better understand how to flex to each other's style.

Jane Trotman, director at Borg, comments: "This approach enabled the team to develop a higher level of trust and engage in passionate and positive debate, thus avoiding two of the common pitfalls that prevent teams from achieving their full potential."

Many people have now heard about Amy Cuddy's research on Power Posing1. She identified an increase in testosterone (confidence) and a decrease in cortisol (stress/retreat) when subjects used open, expansive body posture. The results for both women and men were significant.

This leads us on to the topic of embodied leadership. In another fascinating piece of research by Huang, Galinsky et al2, simulated tasks showed that effective leadership action was more likely to be taken by someone who used expansive body posture rather than those with assigned leadership role (although assigned leaders reported feeling more powerful!).

Our work with leaders has been wide ranging, and it is a natural application of PI. Back in 2003/4 with National Express, we worked with first-level leaders and were inspired by how much difference simple work on posture made. Postural skills really helped delegates to feel and speak like leaders. When we surveyed a sample of 80 leaders a year later, 40 per cent replied within 24 hours to tell us how they were using their PI.

In change, team development and leadership, chemicals can be our most powerful assets. So, what can we do now as L&D professionals? Well, let's capitalise on this potent area. Let's focus on incorporating a PI curriculum as a fundamental building block in our change, leadership and team interventions.

Let's use PI to power performance.


1 Carney D R, Cuddy A J C, Yap A J “Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance” Psychological Science (21 September 2010)

2 Huang L, Galinsky A D, Gruenfeld D H, Guillory L E “Powerful Postures Versus Powerful Roles: Which is the Proximate Correlate of Thought And Behaviour?” Psychological Science (13 December 2010)

About the author

Claire Dale is director of Companies in Motion. She can be contacted on +44 (0)7932 680224 or at claire@companiesinmotion.com

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