Leadership and the Brain: A User's Guide to Empathy

As cave dwellers, co-operation improved the chances of our survival as a species, so the instinctive tendency for co-operation is deeply embedded in our brains. If this is the case, why is co-operation sometimes so difficult to establish? In this article, Amrop guest writer Dr. Tara Swart takes a look at the neuroscience of business. How can its insights explain and optimize our interactions with stakeholders?

Over the last few million years, we have developed such a large cortex (modern brain) in comparison to the deeper, older regions of the brain that we are less in touch with our instinct and with non-verbal signals than we once were. Most of this brain growth has been connected to the evolution of language and interpersonal capabilities such as empathy, co-operation and strategizing as a group.

Why is co-operation sometimes so difficult?

When systems become destabilized, we produce threat states and transmit signals that reveal these, to some extent. This is one reason why leaders are so influential in setting the tone of a business culture. It explains how a manager transmits a positive or negative atmosphere – and why team members often go to such lengths to avoid hearing bad news. Furthermore, our brains are still more acutely geared towards loss-avoidance than reward-seeking – worth bearing in mind when preparing to give feedback or lead change.

We create our own reality

When we think that we are making a completely rational decision in our professional environment, we are not. Our decision is based on the accumulation of our life experiences, relationships and expectations. This applies not only to individuals but to collectives – a family, a team, a Board – a business as a whole.

Empathy – Soft Skill, Hard Results

Empathy can have an ‘unfreezing effect’ – transforming the ‘frozen state’ of threat-avoidance into creativity and trust-building behaviors – such as knowledge-sharing or the spontaneous admission of mistakes. Empathic attitudes and behaviors can yield unprecedented results in one-to-one relationships and stimulate high performance in individuals, teams and organizations.

Institutionalized Empathy

Google and Marriott are ranked in the top 25 of the Great Place to Work Institute® 2014 list of the World’s best Multinational Workplaces. These brands not only understand the role of empathic attitudes and behaviors in building unique and privileged bonds with employees, they have institutionalized these and nurture them on a conscious and ongoing basis.

Google: “We strive to maintain the open culture often associated with startups, in which everyone is a hands-on contributor and feels comfortable sharing ideas and opinions. Our offices and cafes are designed to encourage interactions between Googlers within and across teams, and to spark conversation about work as well as play.”

Marriott: “People welcome you as you are. And applaud you for where you’re going.”

EY, no stranger to the list itself, states: “We encourage you to express opinions. It’s only by bringing together different viewpoints that we can enhance our insights and succeed in building a better working world.”

The link between internal and external stakeholders is clearly made in these organizations.

The Neuroscience of Engagement and Empathy

It’s no secret that in a relationship we must be open to trusting, rather than being in a stress or fear state, (which others could become aware of on a primal level). Less obvious is the science behind it. The existence of mirror neurons in the hippocampus area of the limbic (emotional) system of the brain are a key trustbuilder.

Imaging studies have shown that the brain regions thought to contain mirror neurons are active not only when a person performs an action but also when he or she observes another person doing so. Mirror neurons may also be similarly involved in empathy. At an unconscious level, we are in constant dialogue and attunement with everyone with whom we interact, gaining some understanding of how they feel. 

Therefore, looking out for, and playing back, language such as ‘I feel’ versus ‘I think’ or using visuals and metaphors depending on what we pick up from our interlocutor, can be anything from emotionally intelligent to manipulative. As explained, as the modern, logical cortex of our brain has developed, we have tended to lose sight of the information we receive from our gut instinct and motivation centers. Yet, those centers are still within us, and deep down we know if someone is authentic or not. 

To come across as genuinely interested, a socially-appropriate level of eye contact, and a style and level of listening that is about attempting to understand the other person, rather than interjecting with a smart question or even an anecdote of our own on the topic, are the key foundations. 

When two people interact in this way, an ‘emotional resonance loop’ develops between two brains on several levels: Neurochemically, our brain starts to release dopamine in its reward areas – dopamine is associated with getting something we want; opioids, with getting something we like. Meanwhile, serotonin release is associated with being in a good mood and oxytocin is in the air when trust is growing and when we are falling in love. A hormone secreted by the hypothalamus that induces a calm, warm mood, oxytocin increases tender feelings and attachment, and may lead us to lower our guard. Oxytocin is perhaps the hormone most fundamental to being interesting/empathic. Noradrenaline intensifies the effects of all of the above and is involved in attention and concentration, whilst levels of cortisol (stress) should be low in this scenario.

Feelings are combinations of eight basic sets of human emotions (fear, anger, disgust, shame, sadness, surprise/startle, joy/excitement, love/trust). Evidence from research into inter-personal neurobiology suggests that the empathic attitude of ‘being interested’ is to feel curiosity, a desire to know, and is a manifestation of the surprise/startle emotion combined with excitement and trust.

Thus, the brain is all about inter-connectedness – our genetic make-up combined with all our life experiences. In a phrase, how to be engaging would be to be aware of and able to regulate the impact of our brain on that of another. It is about providing enough, but not too much, novelty, challenge and choice to engage and motivate.

The brain is able to learn, unlearn and relearn. We can develop these skills even if they are not already a strong part of our toolkit. We can learn explicitly through reading as well as implicitly through life lessons or brain-based coaching, a discipline engaging executives through both explicit and implicit brain learning areas, through logic and emotion centers, to change and sustain Leadership behavior that motivates and inspires others into high performance. Thanks to human neuroplasticity, empathy can be developed through personal reflection and/or with guidance.

If you are a technically-strong executive, how can you also develop your ability to motivate and inspire? An understanding of empathy – towards ourselves, others, or our organization – serves to help people fulfill their potential, passion and purpose: “what are we really here for?” In this way, we can begin to explore –  through personal reflection or with an executive or peer coach or mentor –  how we collaborate, how we role-model, and ultimately, how to create genuinely cohesive organizations.  Here are three tips:

  1. Monitor yourself: Be aware of how your brain operates to define your thoughts and feelings.
  2. Look around: Find out how external factors affect your interactions.
  3. Practice the new: Keep working on your alertness to the impact of neuroscience in interactions, decision-making and relationship building in various scenarios.

Download the full article.

Author: Dr. Tara Swart

Find out more about Dr. Tara Swart at The Unlimited Mind.