Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Healthy Brains
Articles focusing on various aspects of healthy brains

Reading time: about 6 minutes

Walking has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to get exercise and when we look at the neurological impacts, they are pretty impressive. Combine this with exposure to nature and we have an even more potent tool for boosting health.

health brain exercise

When I speak at public events there are always guaranteed to be two types of questions that I get. One will be on certain mental disorders, normally from a member of the audience who has a family member with a specific disorder. Two will be something to do with healthy brains. This second one may be guided by current trends which may vary from eating nuts, omega-3 fats, meditation, or any number of other trends or recent news reports. Many of these trends or news stories are based on research and therefore have some element of truth in them. But as many of you know I always like to take a step back and look at the big picture – I think of what the actual biggest impact is on an individual and an individual’s brain.

One of the most striking things is that often simple things have large impacts. Apologies this is sometimes a bit “boring”, no hype here. And the simplest of them all is probably walking. This is probably nothing new to many of you readers, but let’s review the research anyhow just so you understand how powerful and how impactful this is, and the dramatic benefits for your brain. I also claim that by taking a few adjustments and combining a couple of other elements, such as nature, we can boost the positive benefits even more and this has well documented and powerful impacts on your brain.

Shane O’Mara is an Irish neuroscientist who has written book on the power of walking “In Praise of Walking”. Many of the benefits are the benefits we can see from physical exercise in general. The most dramatic of which is an increase in something known as Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). It is a mouthful to say but when neuroscientists talk about BDNF it means brain growth. BDNF is the brain’s growth hormone so when more of this is released it means bits of your brain are growing. Similarly, neurogenesis in the hippocampus is shown to be promoted by exercise. Why is the hippocampus important – well this is often considered our memory centre – or at least a part of the brain that is critically involved in memory consolidation. But more than that the hippocampus and closely related regions are involved in spatial orientation and positioning.

Walking is uniquely coordinated in human beings because of our bipedal gait, walking and balancing on two legs, which we do effortlessly but requires immense brain control and coordination. Another aspect of walking is that it activates theta waves – these are brain waves which are also strongly correlated with learning and memory consolidation – but also creativity. It is no surprise that many people colloquially report having their best ideas when walking the dog (or under the shower). Research has indeed shown that low level activity is indeed best for creativity. Just the right level of stimulus.

walking brain health

There are other obvious benefits such as increased blood circulation but also release of Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor (VEGF), another mouthful, that helps to grow the blood vessels to supply the brain with blood and nutrients. Not to mention the role of exercise in increasing immune responses and strengthening the immune system.

Though a lot of the research into the brain has been with exercise such as running and cycling. There has been a bunch of research that specifically shows the benefits of walking. Not only that but walking has been shown to be an effective form of exercise matching many other forms and it can be as little as six miles a week to have an effect reports Kirk Erickson who has done substantial research into exercise – including into the ageing brain for those of you like me who are pushing along in the years!

More than that, brisk walking is considered, by some, such as Praet, to be one of the most effective fat burning exercises and may be a better prescription for those trying to lose weight because of its ease. And finally, and this is good news, accumulating short bouts e.g. in 3-minute blocks in one study by Miyashita et al., is just as effective as going for a longer walk of 30 mins. In fact, more recent research into fat metabolism showed that getting 8’500 steps a day throughout the day increased fat metabolism on a subsequent 1-hour block of jogging. Maybe no surprise but the real surprise is that those who got 5’000 steps a day or less had muted fat metabolism when doing the 1-hour jog. This is important because it means that exercise itself may not be enough but that constantly getting one’s steps and being active is just as, or more important.

So, the simple tip is walk often, and regularly throughout the day even if as short as 3 minutes at a time.

Now to add an additional twist, we can add coordination. This activates the brain more so than walking on flat and stable surfaces. So, walking in the countryside and on uneven surfaces has also been shown to be more stimulating and has higher health and cognitive benefits.

The benefits of being exposed to nature and green environments is also compelling. Longer times spent in nature is strongly associated with well-being. What may be more surprising is that short walks in environments exposed to more nature vs. more urban environments also stimulated an effect – an additional surprise is that this was not predicted by the study participants themselves, reported by Nisbet and Zelenski in 2011. These benefits can be reaped after as little as five minutes according to a 2018 study. A large-scale study in England by Garrett et al. also showed that living near the sea had large benefits irrespective of wealth or education.

walking brain health

The benefits of nature are more than just elevating mood though. The impacts also include reducing stress (yes, a reduction in cortisol has also been measured) and related hormonal pathways and shouldn’t be underestimated. The benefits also extend to improved cognition, attention, creativity, and problem solving – a short walk in nature therefore has a restorative effect – resetting cognitive function. Other benefits seem to include improved vision in children with constant exposure to outdoor environments, not to mention doing outdoor activity at recess.

A further benefit is improved immune system functioning. There are a number of mechanisms at play here. One study of Japanese forest bathing reported increased activity in Human Natural Killer Cells, key cells in immune function but also notably in combatting cancer. An additional factor is that of the microbiome of soil and the beneficial impacts of this – most research has singled out children and the benefits they gain from exposure to nature’s microbiome. Admittedly, being in nature and rolling around in the soil are not one and the same thing and we adults may be less inclined to do that – come on oldies, let yourself go and have a good roll in the dirt. New Scientist also reported in 2015 that the country air might be good for us because it is slightly poisonous!

This all points to walking in nature given you a double whammy in terms, of health, wellbeing, and cognitive function. Now for those with office jobs in the city, long walks in the countryside during the day are not an option (but maybe from the home office). But just getting some exposure to green environments such as a local park has surprising benefits not to be underestimated. The other big take away is that small bouts of walking regularly through the day have surprisingly large benefits irrespective of environment.

So, to summarise:

  • Walk regularly and often (really regularly, and really often)
  • Walking can easily replace other forms of more strenuous exercise such as running or cycling (but keep doing them if you enjoy them!)
  • Small bouts, as much as feasibly possible
  • Aim to get at least 8’000 steps a day but preferably upwards of 12’000
  • Walk on uneven surfaces if possible
  • Get exposure to nature and green environments (or waterscapes)

It must be noted that walking is the easiest and cheapest form of exercise. You can do it almost anywhere, almost anytime, dressed in almost any clothes, and still reap the benefits.

Hopefully this has convinced you to take a walk on the wild side. Your brain and health will thank you

Andy Habermacher

Andy Habermacher

Andy is author of leading brains Review, Neuroleadership, and multiple other books. He has been intensively involved in writing and research into neuroleadership and is considered one of Europe’s leading experts. He is also a well-known public speaker speaking on the brain and human behaviour.

Andy is also a masters athlete (middle distance running) and competes regularly at international competitions (and holds a few national records in his age category).

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Walking and exercise

Burton, H. M., and Coyle, E. F. (2021). Daily Step Count and Postprandial Fat Metabolism. Med. Sci. Sport. Exerc. 53, 333–340. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000002486.

Erickson, K. I., Leckie, R. L., and Weinstein, A. M. (2014). Physical activity, fitness, and gray matter volume. Neurobiol. Aging 35.

Erickson, K. I., Gildengers, A. G., and Butters, M. A. (2013). Physical activity and brain plasticity in late adulthood. Dialogues Clin. Neurosci. 15, 99–108.

Guardian article on Shane O’Mara:

Griffin, É. W., Mullally, S., Foley, C., Warmington, S. A., O’Mara, S. M., and Kelly, Á. M. (2011). Aerobic exercise improves hippocampal function and increases BDNF in the serum of young adult males. Physiol. Behav. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2011.06.005.

Kramer, A. F., Erickson, K. I., and Colcombe, S. J. (2006). Exercise, cognition, and the aging brain. J Appl Physiol 101, 1237–1242.

Praet, S. F. E., Van Rooij, E. S. J., Wijtvliet, A., Boonman-De Winter, L. J. M., Enneking, T., Kuipers, H., et al. (2008). Brisk walking compared with an individualised medical fitness programme for patients with type 2 diabetes: A randomised controlled trial. Diabetologia 51, 736–746.

Miyashita, M., Burns, S. F., and Stensel, D. J. (2008). Accumulating short bouts of brisk walking reduces postprandial plasma triacylglycerol concentrations and resting blood pressure in healthy young men. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 88, 1225–1231.

Sellers, C. E., Grant, P. M., Ryan, C. G., O’Kane, C., Raw, K., and Conn, D. (2012). Take a walk in the park? A cross-over pilot trial comparing brisk walking in two different environments: Park and urban. Prev. Med. (Baltim). 55, 438–443.



Bragg, R. (2014). Nature-based interventions for mental wellbeing and sustainable behaviour: the potential for green care in the UK. Nature-based Interv. Ment. wellbeing Sustain. Behav. potential green care UK.

Garrett, J. K., Clitherow, T. J., White, M. P., Wheeler, B. W., and Fleming, L. E. (2019). Coastal proximity and mental health among urban adults in England: The moderating effect of household income. Health Place. doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2019.102200.

Li, Q., Kobayashi, M., Wakayama, Y., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Hirata, Y., et al. (2009). Effect of phytoncide from trees on human natural killer cell function. Int. J. Immunopathol. Pharmacol. doi:10.1177/039463200902200410.

MacKerron, G., and Mourato, S. (2013). Happiness is greater in natural environments. Glob. Environ. Chang. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2013.03.010.

Neill, C., Gerard, J., and Arbuthnott, K. D. (2018). Nature contact and mood benefits: contact duration and mood type. J. Posit. Psychol. doi:10.1080/17439760.2018.1557242.

New scientist article:

Nisbet, E. K., and Zelenski, J. M. (2011). Underestimating nearby nature: Affective forecasting errors obscure the happy path to sustainability. Psychol. Sci. doi:10.1177/0956797611418527.

Olszak, T., An, D., Zeissig, S., Vera, M. P., Richter, J., Franke, A., et al. (2012). Microbial exposure during early life has persistent effects on natural killer T cell function. Science (80-. ). doi:10.1126/science.1219328.

Rose, K. A., Morgan, I. G., Ip, J., Kifley, A., Huynh, S., Smith, W., et al. (2008). Outdoor Activity Reduces the Prevalence of Myopia in Children. Ophthalmology. doi:10.1016/j.ophtha.2007.12.019.

Wu, P. C., Tsai, C. L., Wu, H. L., Yang, Y. H., and Kuo, H. K. (2013). Outdoor activity during class recess reduces myopia onset and progression in school children. Ophthalmology. doi:10.1016/j.ophtha.2012.11.009.

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The Two Sides of Self-Reflection

The Two Sides of Self-Reflection

Reading time: about 6 minutes

Self-reflection has currently been going through a revival and is seen as a gateway to all things good and great. But beware the distinction between cognitive reflection, self-reflection, and rumination.

self-reflection awareness brain

Self-reflection has been promoted as a means to increasing personal performance and constant improvement. Though some may associate this with the current wave of mindfulness, this has been in the leadership literature for a long time. In 1987 Gene Hall reported that reflective practices were more predictive of more effective School Principals, correlating with strategic sense and initiation, these descriptions relate to still current buzzwords in leadership literature.

Indeed, in the HBF model of the evolution of human behaviour, self-reflection can be considered one of the latest additions to our arsenal of cognitive skills. Self-reflection falls inot the group of cognitive abilites that can be called mentalizing: boradly the ability to think about thinking and/or think about how others are thinking. And this is much more advanced than we may assume and a huge cognitive leap – it is therfore a particularly human ability. This ability is also tha bility that should also enable us to improve competence and skills – by thinking and rfelcting about these skills and how to improve them – and this is likely how it developed in human beings as a cognitive ability to improve abilities be that in fighting, strategizing, gathering food, or making flint for hunting.

So, all in, it sounds like a good thing and good thing to promote in business and for individuals looking to get the best out of themselves. The only problem is that the research paints a muddled picture and I’d also like to focus on the downsides – so that we can get more of the upsides.

I started proposing reflection as a method for continuous improvement from the mid 1990s, more related to concepts of sports performance which are constantly analysing and reflecting on ways and methods of improvement. In 2005 the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) was developed by Fredericks (see box below). Research from this show promising results and show that cognitive reflection could be more instructive than general intelligence. We noted in an earlier article that those who scored higher on the test were less susceptible to falling into classic thinking fallacies and traps, and better able to deal with bias. In fact, there are a bunch of benefits to cognitive reflection. However, cognitive reflection is not the same as self-reflection because it is not just thinking about oneself but cognitively engaging with problem solving and self.

What is happening in the brain?

brain self reflectionWhen we turn to the brain, we can see that the research points to the medial prefrontal cortex and posterior anterior cingulate cortex as being heavily involved in self-reflection. Research also points to the insula being involved which we discuss in the next issue – the insula is a region that integrates bodily feelings. This is in line with the well-known functions of the brain’s regions: prefrontal regions activating thought processes, the cingulate cortex, which is involved in attention and error detection, complemented by the insula for integrating bodily feelings.

So far so good – an interesting digression is that of political viewpoints with some research in the USA showing that conservatives are more intuitive, following instinctive gut feelings, particularly in social contexts, and liberals are more reflective. What was more worrying about one study documenting this, is that they commented that these are more resistant to manipulation, i.e. change, than previously assumed.

This also falls in line with our proposal that self-reflection is as much a personality trait as an ability, with some people having more propensity or natural reflective abilities than others. Obviously, this can be worked on, an dimproved as any skills can – we can also build reflective practices built into your workday to reap the benefits.

This concept of self-refection being as much a personality trait as an ability to be developed is supported by other factors and the downsides to self-reflection. We spoke about the medial prefrontal cortex as being involved in self-reflection, but this area is also strongly associated with depression. The medial prefrontal cortex was shown to exert more influence on other parts of the brain in those with depressive symptoms by researchers in 2017. This in turn is related to self-appraisal and also rumination that can be considered the negative sibling of self-reflection. The same circuits therefore that enable insight and self-improvement also activate self-critical thoughts and rumination – sitting with negative thoughts and playing them over again and again.

This in turn brings us back to the more recent movement of self-reflection, positive psychology and strategies such as gratitude. Notable is also that though many positive effects have been documented with mediation. But less reported on is that precisely these negative responses, such as an increaase in rumination,  has also been recorded in research into mediation. This cantherefore lead to an increase in depressive symptoms (this depends on the context and mediation methods used). This downside to mediation is rarely reported in the popular literature. But the concept of gratitude, often a comon meditation theme, and writing gratitude diaries, things we are thankful for, has been shown to be effective for those who are susceptible to negative self-rumination.

It should be noted that these processes are interrelated, but that self-reflection and cognitive reflection are slightly different beasts. Self-reflection is the natural self-reflective process of analysing ourselves, whereas cognitive reflection is a conscious activity to reflect on what has happened, and to manage intuitive and reflexive cognitive responses which improves decision making and business processes. There are strong overlaps and those who are high on self-reflection will be able to engage easily in cognitive reflection but may drift into critical self-appraisal and rumination.

So, to summarise the differences because these are important

  • Self-reflection, also called metacognitive reflection, ability to reflect on oneself and introspect
  • Cognitive reflection, ability to manage and inhibit impulsive intuitive thought processes
  • Reflective leadership, practice of reflecting on leadership practices and keep focused on how practices are effective or not and particularly of larger strategic initiatives
  • Rumination, the act of dwelling on negative self-referential thoughts

So where does this leave us? Cognitive reflection and reflective leadership have a bunch of research to back them up showing generally positive outcomes and therefore are of interest to anyone looking to improve their effectiveness and performance on the job (and in all areas of life).

So top tips are:

  • Take time each day to reflect on what has happened and what you need to do to achieve your big goals
  • Make sure you align your actions to your bigger strategic goals
  • Practice unbiased self-reflection
  • Note when you are ruminating and revert to unbiased reasoning
  • If you are susceptible to self-criticism, consider a gratitude diary

We do know that these will in part be guided by natural propensity, personality, to engage in self-reflection and cognitive reflection. But we do all have a prefrontal cortex and can exert control over our behaviours and thought processes. The prefrontal cortex is fresh first thing in the morning before the day’s activities have tired you out, so the final tip is to engage in strategic reflection first thing in the morning before you roll your sleeves up and get stuck into your day’s work

The Cognitive Reflection Test

The first cognitive reflection test is a short three-item test.

cognitive reflection brain

These items have quick intuitive response that are incorrect. Therefore, to get the right answer one must first be able to identify and reject the intuitive response. What’s more, confidence in having given the correct response was similar between those answering correctly and incorrectly. By the way, less that 20% of participants get all responses correct – this testing is often done with university students in the US. Note also that increased time pressure and disturbances dramatically reduced correct responses.

A longer version of the CRT has been developed by Toplak et al. (2014)

Overconfidently underthinking: narcissism negatively predicts cognitive reflection

This is the title of a 2020 paper relating cognitive reflection to other personality traits. This is well worth a read, but they measure multiple forms of cognition, reflection, various forms of narcissism, impulsiveness, and overconfidence. The big take away though was that those high in grandiose narcissism, claim to enjoy engaging in cognitive tasks, but are massively high on overconfidence, and show lower reflective abilities and insight.

So those arrogant individuals who have a high regard for themselves and their superiority will tend to fall into thinking traps more often but be overconfident in their abilities to avoid them and be unable to acknowledge and think through how they could have made a better decision. Many people in business reading this will be slowly nodding their heads having come across many people like this…

Littrell, S., Fugelsang, J., and Risko, E. F. (2020). Overconfidently underthinking: narcissism negatively predicts cognitive reflection. Think. Reason. doi:10.1080/13546783.2019.1633404.



Hall, G. E. (1987). Strategic Sense: The Key to Reflective Leadership in School Principals. ERIC.

Osterman, K. F. (1990). Reflective Practice: A New Agenda for Education. Educ. Urban Soc. doi:10.1177/0013124590022002002.

Cognitive Reflection

Biaaek, M. (2016). What Color are the Lilies? Forced Reflection Boosts Performance in the Cognitive Reflection Test. SSRN Electron. J. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2832142.

Deppe, K. D., Gonzalez, F. J., Neiman, J. L., Jacobs, C., Pahlke, J., Smith, K. B., et al. (2015). Reflective liberals and intuitive conservatives: A look at the cognitive reflection test and ideology. Judgm. Decis. Mak.

Frederick, S. (2005). Cognitive Reflection and Decision Making. J. Econ. Perspect. 19, 25–42.

Hoppe, E. I., and Kusterer, D. J. (2011). Behavioral biases and cognitive reflection. Econ. Lett. doi:10.1016/j.econlet.2010.11.015.

Salgado, Otero, and Moscoso (2019). Cognitive Reflection and General Mental Ability as Predictors of Job Performance. Sustainability 11, 6498. doi:10.3390/su11226498.

Primi, C., Morsanyi, K., Chiesi, F., Donati, M. A., and Hamilton, J. (2016). The Development and Testing of a New Version of the Cognitive Reflection Test Applying Item Response Theory (IRT). J. Behav. Decis. Mak. doi:10.1002/bdm.1883.

Szaszi, B., Szollosi, A., Palfi, B., and Aczel, B. (2017). The cognitive reflection test revisited: exploring the ways individuals solve the test. Think. Reason. doi:10.1080/13546783.2017.1292954.

Toplak, M. E., West, R. F., and Stanovich, K. E. (2011). The Cognitive Reflection Test as a predictor of performance on heuristics-and-biases tasks. Mem. Cogn. doi:10.3758/s13421-011-0104-1.

Toplak, M. E., West, R. F., and Stanovich, K. E. (2014). Assessing miserly information processing: An expansion of the Cognitive Reflection Test. Think. Reason. doi:10.1080/13546783.2013.844729.

Neural correlates of reflection

Herwig, U., Kaffenberger, T., Schell, C., Jäncke, L., and Brühl, A. B. (2012). Neural activity associated with self-reflection. BMC Neurosci. 13, 52.

Johnson, S. C., Baxter, L. C., Wilder, L. S., Pipe, J. G., Heiserman, J. E., and Prigatano, G. P. (2002). Neural correlates of self-reflection. Brain. doi:10.1093/brain/awf181.

Modinos, G., Ormel, J., and Aleman, A. (2009). Activation of anterior insula during self-reflection. PLoS One. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004618.

Zelazo, P. D. (2015). Executive function: Reflection, iterative reprocessing, complexity, and the developing brain. Dev. Rev. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2015.07.001.

Rumination / depression

Cooney, R. E., Joormann, J., Eugène, F., Dennis, E. L., and Gotlib, I. H. (2010). Neural correlates of rumination in depression. Cogn. Affect. Behav. Neurosci. doi:10.3758/CABN.10.4.470.

Johnson, M. K., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Mitchell, K. J., and Levin, Y. (2009). Medial cortex activity, self-reflection and depression. Soc. Cogn. Affect. Neurosci. 4, 313–327.

Modinos, G., Renken, R., Ormel, J., and Aleman, A. (2011). Self-reflection and the psychosis-prone brain: an fMRI study. Neuropsychology 25, 295–305.

And again: Overconfidently underthinking: narcissism negatively predicts cognitive reflection

This is the title of a 2020 paper relating cognitive reflection to other personality traits. This is well worth a read, but they measure multiple forms of cognition, reflection, various forms of narcissism, impulsiveness, and overconfidence. The big take away though was that those high in grandiose narcissism, claim to enjoy engaging in cognitive tasks, but are massively high on overconfidence, and show lower reflective abilities and insight.

So those arrogant individuals who have a high regard for themselves and their superiority will tend to fall into thinking traps more often but be overconfident in their abilities to avoid them and be unable to acknowledge and think through how they could have made a better decision. Many people in business reading this will be slowly nodding their heads having come across many people like this…

Littrell, S., Fugelsang, J., and Risko, E. F. (2020). Overconfidently underthinking: narcissism negatively predicts cognitive reflection. Think. Reason. doi:10.1080/13546783.2019.1633404.

The Average Performers Who Enable High Performance

The Average Performers Who Enable High Performance

Reading time: about 12 minutes

Many sports coaches know it – there are some team members, who may be unspectacular, but the whole team just functions better with them. But no one knows how to measure it and big data is not helping – or is it?

high performance brain

The standard logic in business and sports is that to get high-performing teams you should hire a bunch of high-performing individuals or even stars. In the sports world we are fascinated by this with fantasy teams of the best-ever teams of the best-ever players.

But the problem is that team performance is more than just the sum of the parts. For those who are familiar with rugby, which may not be many of you, every four years there is what is known as the British and Irish Lions tour. This is an old tradition and is considered one of the pinnacles of a rugby career – to play for and win with the Lions or play against and beat the Lions. In some ways more important and illustrious than the more recently introduced World Cup.

The fascinating thing is that logically the British and Irish Lions should thrash any team they come across. The players are selected from four of the biggest and most talented rugby nations on the planet (England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland). So, picking the most talented players from a talent pool four times the size for any national team should provide an extremely talented team. And yet, despite this, the Lions winning against another national team is a big thing and far from a foregone conclusion.

They selectively tour one of the southern hemisphere countries: South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand. On balance their chance of winning is only about 50/50 probability similar to if any one of the national teams were to independently tour. What’s more, as part of the Lions tour, they also play club or provincial teams – teams a step down on the pecking order of a national team and yet, surprisingly, maybe, they do not win all the time, or rather, they lose regularly.

This shows that despite having rich pickings of talent from four elite national teams they do not necessarily perform better than any one national team and still fail to beat lowly club teams.

The question is why not, and what is the difference?

Another question is that of the unspectacular person on the team who somehow enables high team performance. In his insightful article ‘The No-Stats All-Star’ in The New York Times Magazine in 2009, Michael Lewis captured the essence of the problem. Writing about the US National Basketball Association (NBA) player Shane Battier, he notes:

Here we have a basketball mystery: a player is widely regarded inside the NBA as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars. And yet every team he has ever played on has acquired some magical ability to win.

The above story of Battier is fascinating because he was consistently classed as an underperformer, and quoted as “at best a marginal N.B.A. player”. His stats on the things that N.B.A. teams measure such as points and rebounds, were terrible. On paper he was a massive underperformer, but somehow when he was on the field everyone else performed better. The article that the above quote is taken from goes into a lot more depth on the refinement of statistical approaches and under some of these characteristics, or rather, better forms of statistical analysis, Battier does show up. For example, the greatest players all under perform when guarded by Battier. This may makes good reading for another article on statistical analysis or what we quoted in the previous article of “you don’t get answers to questions you don’t ask” or my concept of non-information.

There are now a number of issues to approach in the above examples.

    • Groups of higher performers do not necessarily (and often don’t) make high performing teams.
    • And that unspectacular performers, to the external eye, and to most statistical analysis, can enable teams to perform much better.

The question now in business, is how can we identify these, and can we reward them also? Or simpler how can we put together high-performing teams. And more than that how do we define “talent”?

team performanceSome of the clues may come in series of experiments on creativity. Tom Wujec is well known for his Ted talk on creativity using spaghetti and a marshmallow (a fun activity by the way) – the short video is well worth watching. The insights from these tasks are worth paying attention to. Notable is that kindergarten children were very effective but took a completely different approach to problem solving – worth saving for future articles on creativity – MBA graduates were terrible, and CEOs were also unspectacular.

Now let’s assume for the sake of argument, and there could be a lot of argument, that CEO’s and MBA graduates represent “talent”. Now not strictly true as Tom noted, thankfully, architects and engineers performed best and so were the most “talented”, giving thankful support, for the concept of being “an expert”. The CEOs and MBAs were ineffective because of using the wrong strategies – this is simply the problem of throwing a bunch of talented people together without thinking of team composition or what is known as complementarity. The insightful observation from Tom was that when he added an executive assistant to the teams of CEOs, their performance increased dramatically. Why?

He noted that communication and moderation increased. So, having a coordinator and communicator helped complementarity, and improved synchrony, another important facet of team performance. The assistants effectively functioned as enablers – similar to what Battier was doing – not worrying about their statistical performance but enabling others to perform better through managing communication and presumably also conflict effectively.

This is also neatly complemented by research into intelligence and collective problem solving by Woolley and colleagues: in a set of structured experiments teams were given collective problems solving tasks – tasks that required the team to solve a problem collectively. The outcome was that the team with the average highest IQ i.e. team packed with “talent” did not perform best, nor did the team with the person with the highest IQ, the top performer condition. So, who came out on top? The team with the best communication abilities, ability to listen and complement and interact with other people’s ideas. This again supports the concept of communication and enabling as being key factors to team performance. Women are more than interested to know that also simply having women in the team improved performance (of course you women knew that all along, didn’t you)!

There is more to team performance, the above is in collective problem-solving scenarios, which is not necessarily what every team is mandated to do, though arguably will always be a part of any team’s performance. Some of the other factors are not the focus of this article (see box at end). In summary team performance is very strongly influenced by other factors such as having a clear team, having clear roles, and clear goals. When I review teams in organisations, normally, this is the first thing I look at, and more often than not, the first thing that is wrong.

team high performanceBut in the case of Battier and the marshmallow exercise these were already given: the team was clear and the team goals also. But an important aspect of the research, often glossed over, is that individual competence was a predictor of individual productivity, but inter-team support was a better predictor of team productivity. Simply put, helping others in the team enables the team to perform better. This also points to a word of warning to those arrogant high performers. Though they may individually perform well, the question is how much do they diminish the performance of others? In sales teams, which are often loosely bundled teams, arrogant high performers may do little damage and create a lot of profit, but for interdisciplinary teams looking to create new solutions, the team damage is likely to override their individual ability.

This, however, doesn’t lead us into any insights of how to actually identify these people or team dynamics – obviously the intuitive amongst us will already have identified this and may make better decisions on team fit and include this in hiring decisions. But some research (unpublished) we did on successful and failed teams in the startup space gives us some intriguing theories of team performance. This could also give us better analytics such as in the example of Battier that showed with standard analytics he was an underperformer but when using more refined methods he was an exceptional performer.

We only measured personality with a view in our first mandate to give some ideas of how well-matched startup teams were. The reason for our first piece of research into this was the acknowledged importance of the team in enabling startups to succeed but an inability or unwillingness to measure this. So, what did our research show?

First off, we looked at the concept of homophily. This is the concept that similar personalities get on well with each other. We set some cut-off points and first off, we could see that areas of conflict that we predicted with high variation in personality, was well-supported.

team high performanceHowever, there is a problem with this because of the two concepts I mentioned previously. Namely synchrony can be seen as how similar in personality, or mindset, individuals are, but complementarity is the concept of having differing but complementary skills or personality traits. These are seemingly contrasting aspects. Though many leaders proudly claim they have diverse teams, our research shows they are not as diverse as they like to think, because they may be similar in multiple aspects of personality. Before I digress too far, I am sure you are keen to learn of what else we discovered in personality and effective teams.

Well, we found that:

    • Similarity in personality predicted cohesion
    • Differences in personality were well accepted best when only in limited areas. So, the larger the differences, and the larger the number of traits that differed, the worse the team cohesion.
    • Extreme differences can cause conflict particularly when in multiple areas.
    • Polarisation was an important aspect of team conflict i.e. when two members were high in a trait and another very low.
    • Individualisation of polarisation – when a single person is an outlier it can lead to this person being left out, when it is multiple this person can be totally polarised.
    • Large variations, if evenly distributed, can lead to cohesion but slow decision making. So, the opposite of homophily when there is wide but nicely distributed spread there may be some underlying conflict, but everyone balances each other out. Complementarity in short
    • Mindset caused large disruptions. For example, we mapped team members to corporate mindset, based on traits that support classic corporate thinking, and startup mindset, and this was very predictive of conflict and team breakup in the startup scenarios.
    • Some traits seemed more predictive than others e.g. multiple personalities high on dominance was a recipe for conflict
    • Typing” (such as classic personality assessment humanistic vs. cognitive types) is too general and much less effective than including multiple different single traits

From this we developed a coherence figure including the above multiple inputs – but this can only be understood as a rough guide to team cohesion because a team has many moving parts. Roles, as we said, play a key importance and being effective in roles is critical for cohesion and conflict minimisation – we don’t measure this. Similarly, leadership and reporting structures will also guide potential for conflict.

What we also found, however, is that there are also moderating traits that minimise the risk of conflict. These includes, openness, and humour and those individuals who are high in intuition and high in cognition, helping to mitigate between these two contrasting viewpoints.

With the question of how to identify those average performers who enable high performance, let me show you what happens when we remove one person from a team.

Here you can see two teams along two separate personality traits (note that we measure up to 72 personality traits with our HBF tool – but normally only 28 for team cohesion). What you can see is a distribution of personalities along a scale. This team is therefore, based on this one trait, likely to differ significantly in how they approach problems and see the world but there are a range of personalities so there are those in the middle who will moderate others and act as communicators between the two. Decision-making may be slow but could be effective.

personality team performance

Team with balanced personality distribution

However, if we move one person out of the team, in each case the middle person, we now suddenly have a polarized team with two groupings and high and low ends of the scale. Polarisation was one of the biggest predictors in our data for team conflict. So, by removing one person from the team we have now created the potential for more conflict. This could therefore be the unspectacular performer who unbeknownst to others helps moderate conflict.

team high performance

Team with moderating personality removed and with increased polarisation

The level of polarisation in the above is not extreme, here another example from the real world with very high polarisation:

team high performance

A highly polarised team


So where does this leave us? Let me summarise

    1. A collection of talent or high performers does not make a high performing team
    2. Synchrony and complementarity are critical to team performance
    3. These can be measured and mapped but never are
    4. Communication skills are critical
    5. The team leader is responsible for managing this complementarity and synchrony
    6. Personality awareness can improve synchrony and complementarity
    7. Level of inter-team support is predictive of team performance
    8. Don’t forget the other obvious factors such as clear roles and clear goals

In short, when looking to build high-performing teams look to high synchrony and high complementarity (over, and with, “high talent”), measure this, build awareness, encourage open communication. And, food for another article another day,  you need a team leader who can manage and lead this effectively.

The corporate problem is that many organisations seem unaware of these team performance issues, still focusing on getting “talent” and measuring individual performance. A question to ask, is how to measure, and value team performers, and how do you reward those individuals who may be unspectacular but somehow keep the team rolling? A good start is to measure team cohesion but also to identify those who are the enablers in the team and have high inter-team behaviours – they may be worth a lot more than you think

Research into team performance

Research into team performance is long but notoriously difficult to research with so many moving parts in the real world. The military has provided the basis for a bunch of research because of their clear structure of teams and clear goals.

Some of the interesting and often underrated factors that come out of this research is: first off do you actually have a team? A team must be a coherent unit, stable overtime, have interdependences and have collective goals. Everyone agrees on that, but different researchers define them differently.

Similarly, the boring stuff is very important – clear roles and clear goals and the skills to perform the tasks. Nothing spectacular there but in modern matrixed global organisations, roles and responsibilities can become diffuse and large, with people wearing many hats.

Other more recent work that has become a main stock of team workshops has been the well-known work done by Google internally finding, to their surprise, but not to any psychologist or sociologist, that psychological safety was a key factor, as was leadership and particularly coaching by the team leader.

Context plays a role and the synchrony effect we speak about in the article is highest when teams have less well-defined roles and high interdependencies, but with less interdependencies and very structured roles, is less important. Similarly, synchrony has been shown to predict short-term success in entrepreneurial settings but complementarity, diversity, has been shown to be better for long-term success.

Using HBF to measure team cohesion

We specifically developed the HBF to measure team cohesion. Our report shows cohesion factors, blindspot risks where synchrony is high, but also friction risk where personality diversity is high. These are only potential risks, and managing them is up to the team. The report therefore provides a valuable way to frame this information and provide a basis to build awareness and discussions around how to improve team efficacy.

team cohesion

Detailed Mapping: Overview of how all team members map on each personality trait. You can identify moderators and enablers here.

And again: Overconfidently underthinking: narcissism negatively predicts cognitive reflection

This is the title of a 2020 paper relating cognitive reflection to other personality traits. This is well worth a read, but they measure multiple forms of cognition, reflection, various forms of narcissism, impulsiveness, and overconfidence. The big take away though was that those high in grandiose narcissism, claim to enjoy engaging in cognitive tasks, but are massively high on overconfidence, and show lower reflective abilities and insight.

So those arrogant individuals who have a high regard for themselves and their superiority will tend to fall into thinking traps more often but be overconfident in their abilities to avoid them and be unable to acknowledge and think through how they could have made a better decision. Many people in business reading this will be slowly nodding their heads having come across many people like this…

Littrell, S., Fugelsang, J., and Risko, E. F. (2020). Overconfidently underthinking: narcissism negatively predicts cognitive reflection. Think. Reason. doi:10.1080/13546783.2019.1633404.

Andy Habermacher

Andy Habermacher

Andy is author of leading brains Review, Neuroleadership, and multiple other books. He has been intensively involved in writing and research into neuroleadership and is considered one of Europe’s leading experts. He is also a well-known public speaker speaking on the brain and human behaviour.

Andy is also a masters athlete (middle distance running) and competes regularly at international competitions (and holds a few national records in his age category).

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Homophily, Synchrony, and Complementarity

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