THE BLOG
11/21/2014 07:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Know Thyself: Harnessing the Power of Metacognition

2014-11-20-ThinkMicrosoft300.jpgIn his 1734 poem "An Essay on Man," Alexander Pope declared, "The proper study of Mankind is Man." Since the Renaissance, we've taken this motto to heart. We've made radical advances in everything from economics and sociology to engineering and medicine in the handful of centuries since. Our ability to think clearly -- and our willingness to do so -- has led us to cultural and social heights undreamed of by previous cultures.

Even better, we humans possess the remarkable ability -- apparently unique in the rest of the natural world -- to evaluate our own thinking. With a little self-reflection, we can understand how we think...and when we know the "how" of something, we can make efforts to improve upon it.

Know Yourself
Psychologists call thinking about thinking "metacognition," combining the scientific term for "thought" with the reflexive prefix "meta." As an intelligent leader, you can take advantage of metacognition to understand not only how you think, but also how others think.

No one knows you as well as you do. If you find it difficult, for example, to stay off the Internet when you're working on an important writing project, you know you need to disable your wireless before you get to work. If you know that music soothes you, you can listen to some classical music on your noise-reducing earphones when you feel stressed. If you know your mental energy peaks two hours after lunch, you know to block off your calendar for that time, so you can power through your toughest tasks.

The more you think about how you think and act on those thoughts, the more you can use your self-knowledge to improve your productivity.

Know Them, Too
Similarly, metacognition also provides insights into how other people think, which offers you leverage as a leader to help your team succeed. Suppose one of your team members really enjoys working on escalating customer service issues. You could make her the point person for that type of work when your team receives it and take advantage of her strengths. Perhaps one is able to think more clearly and focus on tasks when in complete silence. You might allow him to work from home for several hours each day.

Metacognitive awareness transfers to working with people from other cultures as well. When negotiating or interacting socially with Italians, for example, you may find they use more gestures than Americans do. The Spanish tend to eat later in the day than we do; lunch may not come until 2 PM, for example, with dinner at 10 PM. Germans have a reputation for neatness and punctuality. Admittedly, all these statements are generalizations; they won't match everyone in any culture. But they are helpful to know, because you can work with these social practices if you're aware of them.

Think about how the people around you think, even as you think more about how you think, and you'll be able to more easily build an effective collaboration -- with a workflow process that produces like never before.

How have you used metacognition to improve your productivity or a co-worker's productivity, based on how you think?

*image provided by Microsoft

© 2014 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, is America's Premier Expert in Productivity™. For over 20 years, Laura has worked with business leaders to execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. Laura is the bestselling author of six books, with over 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, Execution IS the Strategy (March 2014). Widely regarded as one of the leading experts in the field of performance and workplace issues, Laura has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.