The market for self-help books aimed at those wishing to improve their performance and motivation at work is a crowded one.
Those looking for quick-fix techniques are likely to be disappointed by one of the latest contributions to this genre by UK author Chantal Burns.
Nonetheless, Burns has a clear view on where we are going wrong and makes a passionate case for a new form of thinking that can counter our natural biases and negative thought processes.
The book eschews “content-based learning” for “insight-based learning”.
As she puts it to The Irish Times: "I'm more concerned here about teaching the physics, rather than the engineering."
Fleshed out, that means that rather than treating the symptoms of poor performance and listing some ‘to dos’ that require conscious effort and practice, she suggests that we need to gain a better understanding of how our brain works, which will then lead to some implicit applications.
Burns, who is billed by her publishers as a “state of mind and performance specialist” has worked with a wide variety of global organisations in her 27-year career. The benefits when we put “state of mind” first are unlimited, she says, and include our levels of performance and fulfilment at work, at home and in the wider communities in which we live.
One of the key messages of the book is that we need to swap our “outside in” bias when thinking about how life works and replace it with an “inside out” one.
In other words, we need to realise that our thoughts about external things become manifested in feelings which result in certain behaviours. Dialling down our emotions is important.
“When we realise that nothing outside of us has the power to make us feel a particular way, then we don’t have to manipulate or manage life to regain clarity or feel better.
“At any moment we can realise that how we feel is not caused by anything other than thought in the moment. This realisation will automatically remove a whole bunch of thinking, clearing your mind as it returns you back to the present moment,” she says.
“Thoughts form projections of life” seems to be the observation here. We project our thoughts onto a situation, a person or a past or future event, forgetting all the time that it is merely a thought rather than a fixed reality.
Witness, Burns says, how different people react to potentially stress-inducing situations.
If, for example, a heavy workload causes our stress – as some believe – then a team with the same workload would all find it stressful.
Instead, however, we find that there are a variety of different perceptions and experiences of the same external demands.
Motivation, a key focus of the book, is intrinsically linked to your state of mind, she notes.
It isn't dependent on anything outside of you. Drawing on observations made by author Daniel Pink, she argues that rewards are not the great motivator people think they are in that they "narrow our focus".
As Pink puts it: “There’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.”
While happiness is a naturally desired state, Burns says that healthy thinking is more about clarity than inherent positivity. “Feeling happy isn’t always a measure of success or good productivity. Good feelings don’t always equal good decisions. A person can be happy and deluded,” she says.
The corollary of this is self-limiting thinking. Burns has an interesting analogy in the book about fleas, creatures that have the ability to jump 100 times their own height.
Put a flea in a sealed jar and they will bounce their heads off the lid until they lower their expectations.
Remove the lid and they will continue to jump only up the level of the top of the jar, their reduced ambition foiling their ability to escape.
Thought, she says, is the lid on our understanding of how the human operating system works and when we go beyond the limits of our conditioning, we fall into a realm of “deeper feeling, pure potential and infinite possibility”, as she puts it.
Burns backs up her theory with her own two-year research project which included face-to-face interviews with 40 senior leaders in large organisations and a 600-person online questionnaire. Despite the widespread acceptance that men and women think differently, she says her research revealed no significant differences between the sexes.
The author has produced an interesting work and if nothing else, applying the principles in this book could certainly result in an outbreak of Zen-like calm in the boardroom.
Instant Motivation: The Surprising Truth Behind What Really Drives Top Performance by Chantal Burns is published by Pearson