Friday, June 19, 2009

Neuron See Neuron Do

Have you ever commented or heard someone say "that person really means what they say." or "you can really tell they walk the walk." Turns out these feelings are more than just a gut reaction. They are significant at a neurological level in ways that, until recently could not be imagined. In today’s entry and several following I want to discuss an article I recently came across by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis in the Harvard Business Review titled “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership.” The article presents some rather astounding information. The seven page article requires a subscription to read all the way through (a subscription I think is well worth the money for anyone interested in organization thought). I have taken, what I consider to be, some of the most important items and will discuss them in this and the next few consecutive entries.

In the article Daniel Goleman presents findings from various research studies in the nascent field of neuropsychology that are producing evidence that interactions between individuals are significant at a neurological level in a way that we have yet to understand.

Neuro-physiology 101: The central nervous system is a network of neurons of various kinds that carry out various functions within the body. The brain functions by creating and attending to neural connections that create neural networks. Basically, from some points of view, our brains are highly complex networks where associations are maintained by the firing of neurons.

With that in mind, it was often believed that the brain was a closed system which only responded to external stimuli in a “perceive and process” mode. Data comes to the brain via the way of stimulation of one of our 5 sensory systems (touch, taste, olfactory, eyesight, auditory) is processed in different areas of the brain and tied to some perceptive knowledge and then stowed away.
Recently researchers in France were working with monkeys trying to isolate neurons that were involved in the monkey raising its arm. They were attempting to find the specific neural set involved in this action. One day a researcher was eating an ice cream cone in front of a monkey who was connected to electrodes and when he raised his arm to bring the ice cream cone to his mouth the same neurons that had been observed to be involved in the monkey raising its arm(along with a few others nearby) fired in the monkey’s brain. The monkey was not raising its arm it was only observing someone else, who it had a relationship with raise their arm. Further study revealed these “mirror neurons” as they have come to be known are scattered through out the brains of monkeys AND humans. The authors describes these mirror neurons as a “neurological wifi” that not only mimic movements, they also sense and mimic emotions of others. This is a significant finding. We do not only perceive the emotions and actions of others, we are mimicking them in our brains and therefore, at some level, experiencing them as well. Suddenly the statement, “I can not imagine how you are feeling right now” is not true. Not only can we imagine how someone is feeling we can experience it on some level as our brains react to the outward indicators of someone’s emotional state.

“What does all this science mumbo jumbo have to do with me and the people I work with?” you ask. Well, in one word, everything. This finding has opened a floodgate of research into how our nervous system responds to other people. One study looked at how effective leaders affect individuals they lead. Guess what? When effective leaders interact with people those mirror neurons are going crazy. People feel the passion the leader has for his or her vision, they feel the enthusiasm, the excitement and the energy. When the effective leader speaks to them personally about their work it is the same powerful experience. It affects change at a neurological level.

So what’s the secret? What is the magic pill that gives these people the power to turn mirror neurons into Mexican Jumping Beans?

Do not mistake sincerity for authenticity. As Peter Berger says, “sincerity is all to often the process of believing the lie you’re telling.” Whichever way it is used, sincerity can be sensed and it makes an impression on us. I’m reminded of a clip from the movie Office Space.

While that is an extreme example I am sure you can think of interactions with people in your life that are uncomfortable because they are based on a foundation of insincerity. Your brain isn’t going to buy it. Guess what, no one’s brain buys it.

If you feel like your interactions with those around you are lacking give sincerity a try. Take a close look at your interactions with others. When you communicate with sincerity you will find that others recognize and respond to it. They’ll value your opinion and they will want to be around you because they will sense that you are authentic.

We found this out for ourselves at the University of Houston. Our old Leadership and Management Certificate program had modules about negotiation and “coaching” which were centered on the idea that if you just phrase things a certain way or manipulate the circumstances then people will respond to your way of thinking. We had left out one thing, it’s really hard to do that sincerely. You may get people to do what you want, but they won’t be happy about it. When we created our new program we felt that it was crucial to create a program that was centered around knowing yourself and being authentic. That’s why we chose the name “EmPower: Leadership to the Power of You” because it clearly illustrates our core philosophy. Self-knowledge is the key to authenticity and the beginning of any leadership journey. Authenticity, by its very nature is sincere.

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