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Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership

by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis

In 1998, one of us, Daniel Goleman, published in these pages his first article on emotional intelligence and leadership. The response to “What Makes a Leader?” was enthusiastic. People throughout and beyond the business community started talking about the vital role that empathy and self-knowledge play in effective leadership. The concept of emotional intelligence continues to occupy a prominent space in the leadership literature and in everyday coaching practices. But in the past five years, research in the emerging field of social neuroscience—the study of what happens in the brain while people interact—is beginning to reveal subtle new truths about what makes a good leader.

The salient discovery is 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. We place them on the opposite end of the neural continuum from people with serious social disorders, such as autism or Asperger’s syndrome, that are characterized by underdevelopment in the areas of the brain associated with social interactions. If we are correct, 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.

The notion that effective leadership is about having powerful social circuits in the brain has prompted us to extend our concept of emotional intelligence, which we had grounded in theories of individual psychology. A more relationship-based construct for assessing leadership is social intelligence, which we define as a set of interpersonal competencies built on specific neural circuits (and related endocrine systems) that inspire others to be effective.

The idea that leaders need social skills is not new, of course. In 1920, Columbia University psychologist Edward Thorndike pointed out that “the best mechanic in a factory may fail as a foreman for lack of social intelligence.” More recently, our colleague Claudio Fernández-Aráoz found in an analysis of new C-level executives that those who had been hired for their self-discipline, drive, and intellect were sometimes later fired for lacking basic social skills. In other words, the people Fernández-Aráoz studied had smarts in spades, but their inability to get along socially on the job was professionally self-defeating.

What’s new about our definition of social intelligence is its biological underpinning, which we will explore in the following pages. Drawing on the work of neuroscientists, our own research and consulting endeavors, and the findings of researchers affiliated with the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, we will show you how to translate newly acquired knowledge about mirror neurons, spindle cells, and oscillators into practical, socially intelligent behaviors that can reinforce the neural links between you and your followers.

Followers Mirror Their Leaders—Literally

Perhaps the most stunning recent discovery in behavioral neuroscience is the identification of mirror neurons in widely dispersed areas of the brain. Italian neuroscientists found them by accident while monitoring a particular cell in a monkey’s brain that fired only when the monkey raised its arm. One day a lab assistant lifted an ice cream cone to his own mouth and triggered a reaction in the monkey’s cell. It was the first evidence that 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. In a recent study, our colleague Marie Dasborough observed two groups: One received negative performance feedback accompanied by positive emotional signals—namely, nods and smiles; the other was given positive feedback that was delivered critically, with frowns and narrowed eyes. In subsequent interviews conducted to compare the emotional states of the two groups, the people who had received positive feedback accompanied by negative emotional signals reported feeling worse about their performance than did the participants who had received good-natured negative feedback. In effect, the delivery was more important than the message itself. And everybody knows that when people feel better, they perform better. 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.

Here’s an example of what does work. It turns out that 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. A boss who is self-controlled and humorless will rarely engage those neurons in his team members, but a boss who laughs and sets an easygoing tone puts those neurons to work, triggering spontaneous laughter and knitting his team together in the process. A bonded group is one that performs well, as our colleague Fabio Sala has shown in his research. He found that top-performing leaders elicited laughter from their subordinates three times as often, on average, as did midperforming leaders. Being in a good mood, other research finds, helps people take in information effectively and respond nimbly and creatively. In other words, laughter is serious business.   To read more go to the Harvard Review

Reader Comments (2)

I enjoyed this article when it was first published in Harvard Business Review in 2008. It followed an article on Collective Creativity in the same issue written by the Ed Catmull of Pixar. I wrote a letter to the editor shortly thereafter had the authors merged their two articles since Collective Creativity is a better illustration of social intelligence and the science of leadership than the overused illustration of leadership as role-base, dyadic social influence. I would think that your good work in compassionate leadership has a collective dimensions that is worth articulating. Here is what I wrote that was published in the following issue:

>>I was intrigued by what I first thought was a two-part article, where “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership” would offer the scientific underpinnings for “How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity,” by Ed Catmull (September 2008). How disappointing to discover that the articles were not, in fact, linked—what a missed opportunity!

Catmull identifies the key operating principles for managing creative talent and risk that govern his company, Pixar. In my experience, those principles are not limited to companies in the creative fields. Rather, they apply to all organizations—businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies. Unfortunately, however, the prevailing authority-obsessed corporate culture seems to be toxic to organizational creativity.

This is where I thought Goleman and Boyatzis were going to join in. I expected that the authors would discuss the science of social intelligence to substantiate and encourage collective creativity in organizations, instead of employing this science to reinforce the overemphasized authority dynamic of the supervisor-subordinate relationship. Successfully fostering the conditions under which creativity can emerge and flourish—a core purpose of leadership—does not just produce better performance, it also makes life worth living. Maybe Catmull, Goleman, and Boyatzis could get together and write another article. Let me suggest a title: “Social Intelligence Leadership and the Biology of Creativity.

Ken Otter, Ph.D.
Director Leadership Studies Programs
Saint Mary's College of California

September 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKen Otter

Ken, I am grateful for your comment regarding Goleman and Boyatzis's work. Breaking old habits is indeed difficult, and having been in the workforce myself for years, I can tell you that the old power-over leadership by fear seems to get results. It may be short term and the side effects are deadly, however, that is what most business's use as a paradigm... fear and domination as a method for productivity. And you know I actually think that most workers expect it to be that way. Change may be difficult on all levels.

We used to joke "what are your subordinates having for lunch? " The answer "Their manager". It was expected that people disliked their supervisors, and would try to step on colleagues in order to get to the top. Dog eat dog.

Relationship-focused leadership is coming into corporate America by necessity.

Here is my question for you. Do you have references for empirical evidence that relationship-focused leadership creates more sustainable business environments? I know from my own experience and from reports from business owners, that the bottom line is more favorable and live more enjoyable, however, I am looking for some clear research findings that may help the old guard let down some of their guard toward a more congenial and less stressed work place.

Know of any?
Faye Landey, Trainer and team member of Compassionate Leadership (where it is a pleasure to work)

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFaye Landey

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