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This is what leaders can do to fight cognitive gridlock

by Tunae

This is what leaders can do to fight cognitive gridlock

How would you describe a successful culture? The kind that thrives and endures and benefits all its people over an extended period?  If you were to point to one society or community that meets every standard of success, which would you choose?

If you were a student of history, your choice might be the ancient Mayan Empire.

For over two millennia, from 1800 BCE until the beginning of the tenth century, the Mayans created an extraordinary civilization that extended through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.  Mayan culture demonstrated extraordinary sophistication in architecture and engineering, built a remarkably advanced water supply infrastructure, and developed complex linguistic, numerical, and calendrical systems. Their population grew as high as 10 million or more, and their culture endured longer than almost any other in history.

Then, for reasons we can only imagine, their civilization collapsed and became extinct.  After such remarkable and extended prosperity, what could possibly have gone wrong?

In her book, The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction, sociobiologist Rebecca Costa offers a compelling hypothesis.  She suggests that Mayan civilization became a victim of its own success, growing increasingly complex in proportion to its prosperity.  That complexity carried with it new problems and new complications, which multiplied faster and faster until people simply could not keep up.

When that happened, Mayan culture experienced this week’s addition to the Ethical Lexicon:

Cognitive gridlock

The point at which the mind can no longer keep pace with the demands of innovation and shuts down completely.

We can only speculate about the challenges of Mayan society. But we can readily identify those facing our own society today.

  • Is economic growth sustainable or is our economy ready to implode?
  • Is climate change man-made and, if so, can we reverse it?
  • How long do we have before the next pandemic, and will we respond better than we did the last time?
  • Do we have more to fear from population growth or population collapse?
  • How can we stop terrorism if we can’t agree on who the terrorists are or how to deal with them?

Does this list of questions make you want to jump up and take action or sink deeper into the couch and start binge-watching old episodes of Friends?  Contemplating one looming calamity after another, it’s a lot easier to default to Netflix than to write to your congressman or run for office.


Even if we do choose to take action, our countermeasures are more likely to be reactive than prescriptive.  And if we’re always playing defense, there’s a good chance we’ll end up treating the symptoms rather than addressing the core issues and root causes from which they sprang forth.

Rebecca Costa explains that the Mayans responded to intellectual overload by dramatically increasing the number of temple offerings.  Although the psychological and spiritual benefits of sacrificial rituals are not fully appreciated in modern times, religious service is intended to go hand-in-hand with practical strategies, not take their place.  By ignoring their problems and beseeching the gods to solve them, the Mayans may well have sealed their own fate.

In the workplace, we don’t have to face the pressure of climate change, economic uncertainty, and the next dreaded presidential election. But we will likely replace one set of stressors with another:  Deadlines, budget cuts, earnings reports, and internecine squabbles can create overwhelm to rival the cognitive gridlock that crippled the Mayan empire.  When bosses or managers contemplate how to relieve employee stress, they need a coherent strategy to avoid treating the symptoms while overlooking the source of their problems.

We know the standard list:  Regular check-ins, prioritizing tasks, employee recognition, and allowing flexibility in work hours. These are all valuable tools. But they should already be in place. If they’re not—and even more so if they are—that indicates a systemic, cultural problem that cannot be ignored.

To identify the root causes of an unhealthy culture, look beyond the symptoms:

  • If employees are stressed out, is it because they aren’t adequately trained to meet their responsibilities?
  • If employees feel overworked, is it because unrealistic expectations have been placed on them?
  • If employees feel unaligned with company goals, is it because they’re confused about the company’s core values (or because the company itself doesn’t know what its values are)?

Even the best strategies work only when they are in harmony with core values that are the bedrock of a healthy culture.  Providing necessary training, articulating clear expectations, identifying achievable goals, acknowledging sincere effort, and celebrating victories are foundational to cultural well-being.  So is treating every member of the team with dignity and respect.

No less important is an authentic mission statement that expresses an aspirational vision of purpose and is reflected in company policy and managerial style. Culture flows downhill like water. And, like water, it is the source of life that allows a company ecosystem to thrive and a business community to flourish and endure.

If you don’t know your core values, then you at least know where to start. Once you can articulate those values, then the job becomes living and communicating them so that they take root and blossom. When that happens, most of the symptoms you worry about will take care of themselves.

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