The Science of Emotion (and Why We Need to Take it to Heart)


By Jennifer Gerves-Keen

Social connectivity is one of the most important survival tools of humans. It also has far-reaching consequences on our capacity for personal growth, as ‘social pain’—such as rejection by others—has been shown to impact our ability to learn and our desire to perform.

Connectivity Key to Workplace
From studies that show workplace retention increases if employees have a friend at work, to organizations that have increased productivity by simply communicating the positive impact of the work done to the responsible employee, it is becoming clear that the ‘social’ side of the brain can no longer be ignored. Providing opportunities for employees to connect with each other, and in particular with their leadership, is essential.

Matthew Lieberman, a social cognitive neuroscientist based at UCLA, is the leading researcher in this field, and has has done some interesting studies around social pain and its capacity to influence our behaviour, our performance and even our intelligence. Unfortunately, the importance of positive social connectivity—along with the negative impact of social pain—are not yet fully understood, or even discussed, in the majority of organizations.

Fear Factors Strongly in Dysfunction
Case in point, I often work with dysfunctional teams and have found that poor leadership, particularly when it creates an environment that functions through fear or intimidation, can have long-lasting impact on the individuals working within that leadership; this holds true to the point of changing not only behaviour, but actually modifying people’s personalities over time.

It generally takes a very long time, even with great leadership and a solid team environment, to build trust and positivity again with these individuals. Behaviour certainly tends to improve over time, but will these individuals ever reach their full potential, or has their confidence/security been shaken in a permanent way?

The amygdala in our brain tells us how to react to certain situations, and prepares our body to action when it perceives threat. It helps coordinate our response to different things in our environment. It also plays an important role in social interactions; for example, it help us determine how close we are to others and how we feel when we’re around them—as well as detecting the difference between people who are trustworthy and untrustworthy. As many of our decisions are based on emotion and previous experiences or memories, it’s worth understanding how much of a part the amygdala plays in our day-to-day lives.

If we could coach or ‘train’ people to manage their amygdala in such a way that we could better support individuals who wished to take more risks for their own growth or fulfillment, we could help them eventually become more successful in their long-term “life” vision. Unfortunately—and sometimes illogically—the powerful threat-based emotions being generated by the amygdala can be a real obstacle in the development of both individuals and teams.

Social Thinking Serves Greater Purpose
From a total rewards perspective, the social side of our brain needs to be considered—particularly in light of the fact that our brains have been proven to respond very strongly when we help or give to others as opposed to when we are pursuing our own self-interest. Pro-social motivation is a powerful driver for all people; in the workplace, it can make us more productive, as knowing that we can have a positive impact on others tends to heighten motivations while leading to better organizational results overall.

Interestingly, while our brain at work behaves like a see-saw, alternating between analytical and social thinking, when at rest, our brains automatically “go social.” This explains such behaviour as the desire to share things on Facebook, or the need to tweet our activities to the world. It also gives humans an unparalleled capacity for collaboration, something most organizations haven’t even begun to tap into. We need to study and better understand the social capital available in organizations that we are simply not using.

People Over Pay in Satisfaction Study
For example, a study in Australia ( showed that “people planning to stick with their current job cited “good relationship with co-workers” as the major reason (67 per cent)—above “job satisfaction” (63 per cent), “flexible working arrangements” (57 per cent) and even salary (which ranked seventh at 46 per cent).”

Given that most people spend most of their time at work, doesn’t it make sense that establishing friendships and positive connections with your colleagues would lead to a more optimistic culture and overall productive environment?

It’s important to not equate the “social brain” with actually being social. It’s about a deeper level of connectivity with the people around us, not spending more time at social events or in conversations. However, just how fine-tuned our social skills are in the workplace can have a major impact on how we perceive our leaders—and are perceived in return. Leaders may have vision, or be results-oriented, but if they are incapable of connecting to others, their vision may never be realized.

“You may feel that you have a vision worth rallying behind, but without the ability to reach people on a fundamentally social level, a brilliant business strategy will falter,” explains neuroleadership author David Rock in a Huffington Post article, “How Leaders Fail” in 2013. “It is a fact that our brains identify social needs as important as physical needs, like food or shelter. Yet, too often organizations fail to appreciate the attention social needs require and as a result, the potential of leadership vision and management initiatives are never fully realized.”

From a 10 year study of 60,000 managers and leaders conducted by the Management Research Group (MRG), Rock also shared that less than one per cent of leaders were considered to be skilled in both areas: encompassing a goal and results-oriented focus with interpersonal skills.

Positive Change is Possible
We all have the capacity to increase our interpersonal skills. It has been proven that we can increase our emotional intelligence, and we also know that we can create new neural paths in our own brains.
While not easy, it can be done through persistently pursuing new habits over time—such as recognizing the importance of people and creating much needed “social” movements to drive and sustain our organizations.

Jennifer Gerves-Keen, MA, PCC is a coach and consultant focused on collaborating with her clients to develop people in effective ways that actually make sense.

(PeopleTalk Fall 2015)

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