Effective Leaders Know the Science Behind Their Behavior


Effective Leaders Know the Science Behind Their Behavior

Lynn had dreaded this meeting with her team. Frowning, she looked around the conference table and said, “I’ve got bad news. Upper management told me this team’s performance is unacceptable. We have to pull up our numbers by the end of this quarter, or heads will roll. I’ve decided to make major changes. First, all vacations for the rest of the quarter are cancelled. I expect each of you to be here focused on work. Second, you will meet your weekly goals, no matter how many hours it takes.”

Don’t Make Bad Situations Worse
Whatever you think of the content of Lynn’s message to her team, it’s clear that how she delivered it made a bad situation worse. Missing from Lynn’s delivery were use of the self-awareness, self-management, and empathy that are key to emotional intelligence. During the Brainpower webcasts, my colleague Daniel Siegel and I shared with viewers many of the research studies we’ve used as the basis of our work with emotional intelligence and Mindsight.

If Lynn had understood and taken to heart some of that science, she could have handled the meeting more skillfully.

If I were Lynn’s coach, here are a few studies I would have shared with her for how she could apply their findings.

Self-Awareness and Contagious Feelings
When Lynn walked into her meeting upset, she was participating in something called emotional contagion. Whenever people interact, our brains and bodies react to the feelings of those around us. Marco Iacoboni is a colleague of Dr. Siegel’s at the University of California, Los Angeles who studies neural circuitry like the mirror neuron system that operates in emotional contagion. Those systems work automatically, instantly, unconsciously, and out of our intentional control.

Andrew Meltzoff at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at University of Washington also studies how people are hardwired to pick up signals from someone else.

When it comes to spreading emotions, some people have more influence in passing along their feelings. When there are power differences between people, the person with the most influence is the “sender” of feelings. Lynn didn’t realize she was spreading her bad mood.

Use Self-Awareness to Manage Emotional Contagion
Working with a coach and using 360-degree feedback tools such as the Emotional Social Competency Inventory are superb ways to develop self-awareness. Developing a mindfulness practice also can help you learn to be aware of your emotions. Dr. Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness tool is a practical exercise that can strengthen self-awareness.

Sigal Barsade, a researcher at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, specializes in studying emotional contagion and its impact in organizations. She suggests ways leaders can manage their emotions and create a positive emotional culture in their teams. First on her list is to be aware of your own mood and to change it if it isn’t useful. One way to do that is to change your facial expression. Dr. Barsade understands the facial feedback hypothesis, which states that our facial expressions impact our emotions. Intentionally smiling leads to feeling positive emotions.

Manage Yourself First
Before leading anyone else, a leader first must manage themselves. Lynn’s lack of self-management started with entering the room in a bad mood and escalated when she blew up at her staff. Lynn’s outburst was a classic “amygdala hijack.” The amygdala is an area in the emotional centers of the middle brain. I’ve learned about the amygdala from the research of Joseph Ledux and his colleagues at New York University.

In my book, The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights, I said,

“The amygdala is a trigger point for emotional distress, 
anger, impulse, fear, and so on. When this circuitry takes over,
 it acts as the ‘bad boss,’ leading us to take actions 
we might regret later…. 
The key neural area for self-regulation is the prefrontal cortex, 
the brain’s ‘good boss,’ guiding us when we are at our best. 
The dorsolateral zone of the prefrontal area is 
the seat of cognitive control, 
regulating attention, decision-making, voluntary action, 
reasoning, and flexibility in response.”

For Lynn to control her ‘bad boss’ amygdala, she needs to build her emotional self-management skills. And, her outburst set off a collective amygdala hijack among her team. John Gottman is a psychologist who has done extensive research on relationship dynamics. His advice is to take 20 minutes to cool off, step away from the situation. That’s the time it takes for your body to process the adrenal surge caused by the amygdala. In a setting like this team meeting, even a 5- or 10-minute break to take some deep breaths and get out of the room would help. 

Lead with Empathy
Also missing from Lynn’s handling of the “bad news” was any empathy for the members of her team. By operating without empathy, she was unable to identify with or vicariously experience what her staff members were thinking of feeling. Jean Decety at the University of Chicago refers to three kinds of empathy.

  • Cognitive empathy allows you to sense how someone else thinks about the world. This helps you say things so they can be heard. Without cognitive empathy, Lynn was missing information that could inform how to best present ideas.
  • Emotional empathy means you resonate with how another person feels. Lynn’s inability to read the emotions of her staff left her open to distressing the people around her.
  • Empathic concern is an ability to sense what someone else needs and express how you care about those needs. Lynn’s lack of caring for her team led to a decrease in their motivation.

Empathy is crucial to all forms of relationships, especially in the workplace. Effective leaders need to exercise all three forms of empathy on a daily basis.

Source: Daniel Goleman

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