Imagination is a gift we all possess from infancy.  Powerful and pervasive, it influences every action of the human mind:

•  It changes how we remember the past.  Two eyewitnesses to the same event will recall it differently because their perceptions were different and what they imagined happened colours their memory of what actually happened.

•  It changes how we act in the present. Everything we experience is perceived through our unique “world view”. This is why one traveller’s tale of lost luggage could be a tale of woe while another having a similar experience could entertain family and friends with a comedy of errors. 

•  It affects how we view the future. While some of us imagine a future full of good things, others have trouble stopping themselves from focusing on everything that could go wrong.

The imagination that we come into the world with is that which allows some people to visualise a cardboard packing case as a castle or spaceship.

However, it is also that which causes some to imagine monsters under their beds.

The problem is, as we mature, we tend to lose the first part — the positive part — and emphasise the second – that which imagines the most negative possible outcome. 

Then, we rationalise these thoughts until they become our reality.

Don’t limit yourself

Research has shown how easily our rational thoughts and imaginative thoughts cross over each other, resulting in what scientists call “counterfactual alternatives to reality”.

Prof Ruth Byrne — professor of cognitive science in the Institute of Neuroscience & School of Psychology, Trinity College Dublin — has shown that imaginative thoughts are guided by the same principles as rational thoughts.

When this happens, we are limiting ourselves in so many ways. 

Sales people often fall into this trap by imagining rejection, so they put off asking for the order — even when the client is ready to say “yes”.

Negotiators imagine the worst possible outcome, so they give way or stall when they could be pushing for a better deal.

Employees imagine their manager’s look of disapproval if they seek promotion; whereas their manager is looking for just such a show of ambition from them.

It even applies in the area of romance.

Recently, two friends of mine became engaged — finally.

Their relationship had its fifth anniversary recently, and some of us thought that he would never ask her. 

She was keen to get married but started to have some doubts about their future because he had never spoken about marriage. 

He, on the other hand, resisted all the urgings from his friends because he was convinced that she would say no.

Imagine yourself there

My former colleague Terrance and I started as account managers on the same day in my first job.

It was my first day at the company as I had been selected as part of a graduate recruitment programme.

On the other hand, Terrance had been promoted internally. Previously working in dispatch, this was his first day “upstairs”.

Now, despite the title, “account manager” was a lowly, desk-bound support role to the “relationship managers”, who were the high flyers with the company vehicle and the expense accounts.

I had taken a lot of trouble to dress at the same level as my fellow account managers. I had checked this out carefully at my selection interview, and I thought I got it right with everyone — except Terrance.

I was almost relieved when he was teased about being “over-dressed” or trying to dress like a relationship manager.

Terrance was quite open about his motive. He said: “I want to be a relationship manager, so I thought I might as well start dressing like one.”

Nine months later, an opening for a relationship manager appeared and — even though Terrance was the least experienced account manager — it was offered to him.

He imagined himself there, he started acting like he was there, management saw him there — it’s a logical progression.

Influence your staff’s imagination

Imagination is now recognised as a powerful (positive or negative) influencer of staff perceptions and attitudes.

Because of this, leaders are challenged with trying to influence their staff’s imagination:

•   In how they see their current role — and what they imagine is possible within that; and

•   In how they imagine their future in a positive way.

Often, this relies on the leader’s ability to frame the current or future situation in a way that will positively influence the way that they imagine it.

Leaders who want to maximise staff engagement and commitment are now seeking out ways to improve their ability to influence their imagination. 

Article by Kevin Ryan, managing director of Training Edge Australia and an international speaker, workshop leader and author with Training Edge International. He is a business communication expert specialising in the areas of employee and client engagement, sales, humour intelligence and presentation skills. For details, e-mail him at kevin.ryan@trainingedgeasia.com or visit www.trainingedgeasia.com