Social Intelligence

In the September 2008 Harvard Business Review, Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis offer the next step in the evolution of their thinking on Emotional Intelligence. Turns out the brain has specific neurocircuitry that affects how we act at work and at home. One neurocircuit that I found especially intriguing is the mimic or mirror neurons. 

Mimics and Mirrors 

"The brain is peppered with neurons that mimic, or mirror, what another being does....Collectively, these neurons create an instant sense of shared experience." How cool is that? It begins to explain how we can have empathy with a character in a movie or become angry around someone who is angry. It also explains how we can learn things just by watching others. 

Recently, I also read Alice Cooper's book, Golf Monster. As I read his story, I was struck by how Alice mimicked and mirrored others to develop his onstage persona. Watching Mick Jagger led him to get out from behind the microphone and start moving around the stage, but he didn't stop there. He noticed little things like Mick never looked down; he always looks out at the audience. And Alice borrowed those moves and made them his own. 

Alice did the same thing with golf. He'd watch the pros and notice how they positioned their hands on the club and body around the ball. He became a sponge soaking up the way that the pros do things which, along with a great deal of practice and play, allowed him to lower his handicap to become an excellent player and consistent invitee to celebrity golf tournaments. 

In KnowWare, we call this modeling--a more explicit form of mimicking and mirroring with the goal of extracting the essence of what works and replicating it. 

Laughter At Work 

As a result of my modeling of comedians and especially Karyn Ruth White, my co-author of Your Seventh Sense - How to Think Like a Comedian, I found that almost everyone resonates with one comedian or another. Karyn Ruth and I dubbed these comedians as "humor heroes." 

Goleman and Boyatzis also found that there is "a subset of mirror neurons whose only job is to detect other people's smiles and laughter, prompting smiles and laughter in return." They also found that these mirror neurons affect work performance. "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." 

They quote Fabio Sala who 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, helps people take in information effectively and respond nimbly and creatively. In other words, laughter is serious business.

Employee Retention 

They also found that this ability to lighten the mood affected employee retention. At one Boston hospital, "prized talent often ended up leaving [one leader's] department; in contrast, outstanding folks gravitated to [the other leader's] warmer working climate." 

A Canadian health care system found that nurses whose leaders scored low in social intelligence "reported unmet patient-care needs at three times the rate -- and emotional exhaustion at four times the rate -- of their colleagues who had supportive leaders." 

Business Survival 

Goleman and Boyatzis also found that boards of troubled companies often opt for expertise over social intelligence. Having watched Qwest recover under the charm of Dick Notebart who had both the social and the execution expertise, I know how important these skills can be. As Goleman and Boyatzis conclude their article: "the so-called soft side of business begins to look not so soft after all." 

Here's My Point 

Our neurology evidently spends part of it's time mirroring others: bosses, coworkers, spouses, kids, etc. To maximize the effectiveness of this skill, we need to:

  • Notice the people we resonate with. Are they a positive or a negative influence on our behavior?
  • Stop being sucked in by the behaviors and feelings we don't want.
  • Mirror and model people we want to emulate. Who are your business, humor and family "heroes"? If you could be like anyone, who would it be?
  • Never stop striving to become the kind of person we want to be.

Let's face it, it seems a lot easier to stay the same and expect the world to change than it is to take control of our destiny. But if you want to get ahead, you're going to have to debug your mental software and upgrade it with wisdom you can model from others.

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