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December 10, 2007

New Perspectives

Cognitive Fitness for Direct Selling Executives

by Professors Larry Chonko and Buddy LaForge

Roderick Gilkey and Clint Kilts translate the results from recent neuroscience research into practical ways to exercise your brain and increase your cognitive fitness. We were interested in the article for ideas to help us remain mentally healthy as we grow older. But most of the recommendations apply to any age group and are especially relevant to business executives in our complex and rapidly changing world. We encourage all direct selling executives to read the complete article: Roderick Gilkey and Clint Kilts, “Cognitive Fitness,” Harvard Business Review, November 2007, pp. 53-66. Our objective is to highlight some key points and discuss how the basic ideas apply to direct selling executives.

One of the encouraging findings is that our brains do not necessarily diminish with age. Some areas of the brain actually expand as we grow older and mental capacity can be retained and expanded if certain activities are performed regularly. Cognitive fitness is defined “as a state of optimized ability to reason, remember, learn, plan and adapt that is enhanced by certain attitudes, lifestyle choices and exercises.” The basic idea is to increase your cognitive fitness by engaging in a variety of activities, experiences and interactions with your environment on a regular basis. Four specific steps are suggested.

Step 1. Understand How Experience Makes the Brain Grow

Our experiences have a physiological impact on our brains. Neuroscience research has improved our understanding of how the brain processes experiences to build mental capacity. One interesting finding is that both physical and social skills can be learned through observation and indirect experience. You can benefit from the direct experiences of others through your indirect experiences. Examples include improving your golf swing through the mental imagery learned by watching and recreating the golf swing of a professional or improving your selling skills by viewing role plays of effective sales presentations. The research also supports the value of case studies, simulations and other modes of mental imagery. Obviously, direct experience is better than indirect experience, so getting out of the office and observing people in all areas of your business is an excellent cognitive exercise. The “management by walking around” dictum is good management practice, but also an excellent cognitive exercise. And we think that playing golf is always better than watching golf.

Step 2. Work Hard at Play

Research indicates that play activities increase our capacity to imagine and invent. Engaging in play has both psychological and physiological benefits. Play is a primary human drive and a source of joy. It improves our ability to reason and understand the world. Albert Einstein engaged in playful activities and concluded, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” We think this is increasingly true in today’s business world. But, as we get older, we tend to play less. So, direct selling executives need to create an environment that encourages play. Many companies, such as Google, Apple, Chick-fil-A and others, have done so through the use of Zen dens, play spaces, chat chambers and other dedicated play areas. The research suggests that environments that stifle play can actually decrease the brain power of employees. One of the keys is to find the right balance between risk and security in play activities. There must be some risk to engage employees, but not so much risk that it could lead to stress. In other words, play must challenge if people are to continue to engage in it. Otherwise, play is reduced to mindless activity. Play that includes humor can be especially beneficial, as humor has been found to promote insight and enhance our health.

Step 3. Search for Patterns

Most of us are probably familiar with the left- and right-brain designations, with the left brain being the more analytical part and the right brain associated with creativity. The latest research indicates that these two brain hemispheres are actually integrated. Businesspeople tend to be more left-brain oriented, so efforts are usually directed at stimulating the right brain. But the research indicates that developing the left hemisphere can also benefit the right brain. The right brain discovers new knowledge, but is then encoded in the left side for retrieval and use. The implication is that you should continuously challenge your existing mindset by listening to different viewpoints and reading articles and books that go beyond business subjects. These types of activities can increase pattern recognition, which is the ability to scan the environment, process lots of data and information, and create meaning from it. Gilkey and Kilts suggest, “For executives trying to make sense of a rapidly changing business environment, superiority in pattern recognition is perhaps the greatest competitive advantage that can be developed.”

Step 4. Seek Novelty and Innovation

The research also found that the right brain deteriorates more with age than the left side. This deterioration can be reduced and even reversed by engaging in new and challenging activities. The more new things you and your employees learn, the better you become at learning and the better you’re likely to respond to a crisis. People who are open to novelty and innovation are more likely to identify opportunities from any situation. For example, mentoring programs have been found to be a valuable way to provide executives with new experiences. Interestingly, the research shows that the mentor may get more out of the relationship than the “mentee,” because the mentor is exposed to more new situations far removed from normal activities.

We’re convinced that a focus on cognitive-fitness development can be valuable to direct selling executives and employees in their companies. Efforts to improve employee health and wellness are important and should be continued. And there is a close interrelationship between physical health and cognitive fitness. Regular exercise benefits both the mind and the body. Improving cognitive fitness requires going beyond physical exercise and engaging in a variety of cognitive exercises on a regular basis.

Some specific activities suggested by the article that you should consider doing and encourage your employees to do are:

  1. Read funny books and encourage humor in your company environment.
  2. Walk around your office, plant and out in the field and observe carefully.
  3. Play bridge, chess, Sudoku and other challenging but fun games.
  4. Engage in role-playing exercises.
  5. Try out different ways of interacting with your colleagues.
  6. Visit new places on your business trips.
  7. Take notes about new things each day and go back and read them.
  8. Try new technologies.
  9. Learn a foreign language or to play a musical instrument.
  10. Continue to exercise regularly.

Engaging in these types of cognitive fitness activities on a regular basis can produce many benefits to you, your employees and your company. We are implementing some of these ideas in our lives and incorporating them into our classes. We hope you do so as well.

Raymond (Buddy) LaForge is the Brown-Forman Professor of Marketing at the University of Louisville. Larry Chonko is the Thomas McMahon Professor in Business ethics at the University of Texas at Arlington. E-mail your questions and comments to