Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Social connections and social intelligence

 

   This month's Harvard Business Review includes an article by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis (co-authors of Primal Leadership)on 'Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership'.

The article combines Goleman's thinking about about social intelligence (the bottom two squares in Goleman's model of emotional intelligence) with Boyatzis's ideas on how leaders can create resonance with others by becoming attuned to the needs and dreams of people they lead.

Calling on evidence from social neuroscience, Goleman had previously noted how our brain’s very design makes it permeable and sociable, producing automatic neural responses in response to social interactions.  As he described this, "our brains engage in an emotional tango, a dance of feelings".

This is especially the case those with whom we have an emotional connection and with whom we spend the greatest amount of time.

When we engage with these people we enter an intimate brain-to-brain linkup - a neural bridge that lets us impact the brain of everyone we interact with, just as they do us: "we are wired to connect".

But we also know that our brains and bodies are connected, so our relationships don't only mould our experience or even our brains but our biology too.

This leads to the idea of ubuntu: that we are the product of our relationships.

Two of the most important facts I've heard about social neuroscience were provided by David Rock at the CIPD conference one year ago today.  These were that when idling, four out of five of the brain's activities are to do with relationships and how people are connected up.  And that someone's level of social connecting determines their overall level of happiness more than any other factors.  So this is important stuff.

In this article, Goleman notes that:

"Certain things leaders do—specifically, exhibit empathy and become attuned to others’ moods—literally affect both their own brain chemistry and that of their followers. Indeed, researchers have found that the leader-follower dynamic is not a case of two (or more) independent brains reacting consciously or unconsciously to each other. Rather, the individual minds become, in a sense, fused into a single system. We believe that great leaders are those whose behavior powerfully leverages the system of brain interconnectedness.

It follows that a potent way of becoming a better leader is to find authentic contexts in which to learn the kinds of social behavior that reinforce the brain’s social circuitry. Leading effectively is, in other words, less about mastering situations—or even mastering social skill sets—than about developing a genuine interest in and talent for fostering positive feelings in the people whose cooperation and support you need."

 

He also provides some updated evidence from neuroscience, looking at the role of three different types of neurons in the brain:

Mirror neurons

"The brain is peppered with neurons that mimic, or mirror, what another being does. This previously unknown class of brain cells operates as neural Wi-Fi, allowing us to navigate our social world. When we consciously or unconsciously detect someone else’s emotions through their actions, our mirror neurons reproduce those emotions. Collectively, these neurons create an instant sense of shared experience.

Mirror neurons have particular importance in organizations, because leaders’ emotions and actions prompt followers to mirror those feelings and deeds. The effects of activating neural circuitry in followers’ brains can be very powerful. So, if leaders hope to get the best out of their people, they should continue to be demanding but in ways that foster a positive mood in their teams. The old carrot-and-stick approach alone doesn’t make neural sense; traditional incentive systems are simply not enough to get the best performance from followers.

There’s a subset of mirror neurons whose only job is to detect other people’s smiles and laughter, prompting smiles and laughter in return. Top-performing leaders elicited laughter from their subordinates three times as often, on average, as did midperforming leaders. Being in a good mood helps people take in information effectively and respond nimbly and creatively. In other words, laughter is serious business."

 

Spindle cells

"Intuition is produced in part by a class of neurons called spindle cells because of their shape. They have a body size about four times that of other brain cells, with an extra-long branch to make attaching to other cells easier and transmitting thoughts and feelings to them quicker. This ultrarapid connection of emotions, beliefs, and judgments creates what behavioral scientists call our social guidance system. Spindle cells trigger neural networks that come into play whenever we have to choose the best response among many—even for a task as routine as prioritizing a to-do list. These cells also help us gauge whether someone is trustworthy and right (or wrong) for a job. Within one-twentieth of a second, our spindle cells fire with information about how we feel about that person; such “thin-slice” judgments can be very accurate, as follow-up metrics reveal. Therefore, leaders should not fear to act on those judgments, provided that they are also attuned to others’ moods."

 

Oscillators

"Followers of an effective leader experience rapport with her—or what we and our colleague Annie McKee call “resonance”. Oscillators coordinate people physically by regulating how and when their bodies move together. You can see oscillators in action when you watch people about to kiss; their movements look like a dance, one body responding to the other seamlessly. The same dynamic occurs when two cellists play together. Not only do they hit their notes in unison, but thanks to oscillators, the two musicians’ right brain hemispheres are more closely coordinated than are the left and right sides of their individual brains."

 

The questions this triggers for me are

1) - is this group contagion where 'culture' comes from?  Is organisational culture simply the result of this wide area network operating across our organisations, linking up everyone in these organisations via the right side of their brains?

This would also explain why culture often reflects the personality of its founder.  As the HBR article explains, "spending time with a living, breathing model of effective behavior provides the perfect stimulation for our mirror neurons, which allow us to directly experience, internalize, and ultimately emulate what we observe".

 

2) - do we need to increase the understanding of social connectedness within our organisations in order to develop pro-social cultures?

 

What do you think - is there something in these ideas?