Anamcgary's Blog

Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR

Leaders capacity to relate

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One of the most common complaints about leaders is that they are promoted for their technical skills and ability, and often have poor social and communication skills. A big insight that emerged in the 2011 NeuroLeadership Summit is that this may simply be a function of the leader’s
role.  I don’t agree with this conclusion, but it is a very interesting topic, especially when I applied it to some of the leaders I’ve worked with over the years.  It really got me thinking.

UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman, one of the founders of the social Cognitive Neuroscience field, presented research on our ability to mentalize, (their word not mine) or predict other people’s emotional or intentional states. It turns out this requires significant effort, attention and resources. People experiencing even a mild cognitive load or “stress” find their ability to think about what others are thinking or needing is impaired. The trouble is that our
ability to mentalize about other people’s thoughts is extremely poor even at the best of times. I certainly never thought of it this way, but it does make
sense.

In one study, an average of 50% of participants initially predicted that people would be able to work out the tune of a very well-known song by listening only to the beats being tapped out. It turns out only 2.5% of people could successfully guess the tune with tapping as the only information. I’m not totally sure how this relates, but I am not a scientist.  Their study found that our ability to the think about the minds of others is surprisingly poor, even when not under pressure.  Not a big surprise.

The other challenge is that the ability for thinking analytically, such as thinking about the future or about concepts, switches off the ability for thinking about others. People spending a lot of time being analytical, conceptual or goal focused may have diminished ability for thinking about the minds of others, simply through lack of use.  They may have a point here.

Leaders who spend too much time analyzing and strategizing may find it difficult to activate their rarely used social ability. Put this together with how hard it is to think about the minds of others when under pressure (and leaders are under massive cognitive load), and you begin to see why there is such an emotional divide between cognitively exhausted senior executives and the people they lead.

The big question now is what can be done to improve a leader’s capacity to relate and connect with others? Lieberman is studying this very question now.  I for one look forward to seeing the results.

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