READ SCARF Article 4: The Neuroscience of Relating to others

The current pandemic is wreaking havoc with everyone’s emotions. However, it is worth noting that as a leader your emotions are setting the standards of behaviour in your business and the performance of your people is a mirror of your mindset. If you want to change their behaviour and performance, you need to change the way you are thinking about it.

In normal times the way you feel is scrutinised on a day to day basis, if not on an hour by hour basis by your people because their brains are hyper-sensitive to it. It is not personal; it’s just the way human brains are wired. However, during the unprecedented lockdowns of the Covid19 outbreak, everyone is even more sensitised and volatile.

It was only as recently as 1995 that the Italian Neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma discovered ‘mirror neurons’ and they have opened up a rich understanding of how human beings connect with others.

Understanding intent

One of the surprising things about mirror neurons is that they only light up if we see someone perform an “intentional action”; that is an action with a specific intent behind it. Rizzolatti discovered that when we see someone do something with ‘intent’ like pick up a glass of water to drink from it, mirror neurons throughout the brain light up. The same mirror neurons will light up again when we take a drink of water ourselves. You can observe this at meetings; if one person takes a sip of water a number of others will do likewise and it can be very interesting to notice who is following whom.

Random actions don’t have the same effect. It seems that mirror neurons are a way of understanding other people’s intent, their goals and objectives and as a result feel connected to them. They help us get an intuitive understanding of other people’s goals. It is also interesting to note that many scientists now think that mirror neurons are connected to autism and new studies are showing that the ‘mind blindness’ of people with varying degrees of autism show damage to mirror neurons.

It is important to recognise just how hyper-sensitive our brains are to social interactions. The neuroscientists have recently discovered that four out of the five main processes acting in the background when your brain is at rest, involve thinking about other people and yourself.

So, what are the implications of this for you at work?

Well, how clear are you about your intent when leading and managing your team? If you are very busy with lots of conflicting priorities, don’t be surprised if your team are a bit confused or lacking focus.

When you smile your people will smile with you, if you are confident your people will feel more comfortable and secure. But if you are tense, stressed or anxious your people will feel it, if not consciously, it will be a below-conscious awareness and this can erode their morale, confidence and performance.

Contagious emotions

Studies show that the strongest emotions in a team can rapidly ripple out and spread like a contagion so everyone resonates with that emotion without consciously noticing that it is happening.

What are the strongest emotions in your team at the moment? Are they positive optimistic emotions helping people to succeed or are they negative pessimistic emotions hindering people by increasing stress and anxiety? Are you influencing them or are you being influenced by them? Are you helping or hindering performance with your own emotions?

The key to all of this is better self-awareness. The more aware you are of your own emotional state and the impact it is having on your relationships, the more you can do something about it. All the cutting edge research into effective leadership and management is now exploring how the ability to improve our thinking about our thinking can produce dramatic results.

It’s all about relationships

The brain responds to social needs using the same neural networks as basic survival, like the need for food and water. Being hungry and being rejected or ‘left out’ activate the same pain and threat to safety responses. A feeling of relatedness is a primary reward for the brain and if there is an absence of relatedness it generates a primary threat. In fact our default nature is to see everyone as a potential ‘foe’ until we get some positive cues that we perceive as ‘friendly’.

As readers of previous articles in this series know, the primary threat response activates the limbic system or ‘old mammalian brain’ and makes it very easy to misread social cues. A joke becomes a slight, a slight becomes an attack and an attack becomes a battle. This can rapidly erode trust and be the end of productive working relationships.

Think about the last time you went to a party or networking meeting where you didn’t know anyone. Your brain gets into a heightened state and may even create a false perception of a threat where none exists. This makes it difficult to interact with others. As soon as someone you know arrives, your stress levels will drop. If they then start to introduce you to others so you can share a bit of small talk and explore common ground, your brain releases an interesting neurochemical called oxytocin. This is one of the happy chemicals and it helps communication and collaboration, it is the same chemical a small child experiences when she makes physical contact with her mother.

In his excellent book ‘Your Brain at Work’, David Rock explains that when two people dance, play music together or engage in collaborative conversation and share thoughts, emotions and goals the oxytocin that gets released creates ‘safe connectivity’, and this helps people ‘get related’.

Studies with surgical teams in intensive care operations show significant improvements in team work, even when they have only met for the first time, when people know each other’s names and job roles. This improves even more when people know something about each other’s personal life. Once again it creates relatedness.

So what are you going to improve the working relationships within your team and the relationships your team has with other departments or groups? How are you creating opportunities for them to get related? The success of your business may depend on it.

Stepping back for a moment

The intensity of work and the stresses of an ever-increasing workload can inhibit our brains from consciously noticing the subtlety of what is going on and we can lose sight of our relatedness to others in our drive to get everything done. You may not notice it until you get people complaining about each other, or when it’s too late and your staff simply leave.

Don’t neglect the basics. Are you giving your people some quality time to step back and review how they are doing – or if you are up for it – how they think you are doing as their manager? Are you doing regular appraisals? Are you asking them about what is going on for them and what they want to get out of their job? This is the oil in the machine and if you neglect it you may find things begin to overheat or even cease up completely.

It’s not only about your staff. Making time for yourself to step back in order to consider your own emotional state and how you feel about the various relationships at work can be a valuable investment. It’s about recognising the subtle feelings and intuitions you have about people and what they trigger in you. It’s about making time to listen to the quiet voice inside, the voice that David Rock calls the ‘Inner Director’.

Accessing your Inner Director

A simple and very effective way to raise your awareness of your Inner Director is to practice some basic relaxation for only a few minutes per day. Once you have learned a couple of techniques to relax you can make them your own and use them at any time to step back for a moment. This means you will be able to access your Inner Director more easily, especially when under pressure, and gain powerful insights about the best ways to improve working relationships and therefore performance.

Having access to your inner Director means you can identify how your brain is responding to different situations and avoid over-reacting. But the ability to do this requires a ‘quite mind’. The quicker you can notice that you are being triggered by a lack of certainty the more you have a chance to calm yourself with a few relaxing breaths and regain access to your pre-frontal cortex, the part of your brain that does your intuitive thinking and creative problem solving.

Learning to relax using your breath is a critical skill and a great place to start is with a Body Awareness Meditation where you take a few minutes to observe your breathing and then systematically relax your toes, feet, legs and body all the way to your head. Doing this on a regular basis will enable you to become even more aware of what you are experiencing and what is really going on around you. With raised awareness you can respond more effectively rather than just reacting to a surge of neurochemicals and emotional triggers.

I have had two versions of this basic relaxation meditation professionally recorded with an ambient soundscape and it will be freely available to readers of these article for a limited period.

If you are interested in improving your wellbeing, and accessing the power of raising your awareness with deep relaxation and mindfulness just follow the link below and follow the instructions.

Welcome to our special resources to help you relax and become more mindful


If you would like to know more about mindful leadership and how to improve communication, or learn about our robust yet practical system for clarifying complexity, inspiring your people, avoiding common problems and driving performance during uncertain times please click here to book a no-obligation call to discuss your needs.



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Remember . . . stay curious!

David Klaasen

©David Klaasen – May 2016