How to improve your balance on the neural seesaw

by | Jun 5, 2018 | Blog | 1 comment

Been on any seesaws lately?

Maybe not at the playground, but you’ve probably experienced a “neural seesaw” in your head.

Your brain actually switches between two distinct thinking networks, thinking socially and thinking analytically.

Dr. Matthew Lieberman, UCLA Professor and Director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, refers to these as a “neural seesaw.” As explained in his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect,  these networks have major implications for how we act, especially the way we lead.

First some background about the gray matter in our skull. Our analytical thinking takes place in the frontal lobe. This region is responsible for complex thinking, learning, and technical issues.

The regions in the middle of the brain support social thinking, such as self-awareness, collaboration, communication, authenticity and trust for ourselves and how we interpret the ways others are thinking, feeling and acting.

According to Matt, the neuroimaging studies that he and others have conducted show that when one brain region gets more active, the other one gets quieter.

While scientists have noted a few exceptions, generally when you’re thinking analytically, it’s harder to engage in social thinking at the same time, and vice versa.

Furthermore, most of us tend to prefer using one of these two networks over the other, which becomes our default “go to” way of thinking.

And, if we don’t regularly think the “other” way, it becomes harder to move to and then tap into our social or analytical network with ease, speed and quality.

Now, let’s look at the implications of the imbalance.

At the recent MEECO Conference I participated in, Tricia Naddoff, President of the Management Research Group, shared research that she and her team conducted for Matt and the NeuroLeadership Institute. Tricia examined the MRG database of leaders working in English-speaking countries.

Of the top 50% of leaders, only 5.6% were strong in both analytical (“goal focus” in MRG’s lingo) and social.

(Tricia shared that she first looked at the top third of leaders, but less than 1% were strong in both types of thinking!)

While Matt and other scientists say that thinking social and analytically “don’t feel radically different,” the two networks make a markedly different impact on others, based on 2009 research conducted by James Zenger.  

In this survey of 60,000 employees, Zenger analyzed how different leadership characteristics combined to make what employees would identify as a “great” leader.

Zenger zeroed in on two characteristics: results focus and social skills.

Leaders who were strong on results focus, that is “strong analytical skills with an intense motivation to move forward and solve problems,” were rated “great” only by 14% of the employees.

Leaders who were strong on social skills, such as “communication and empathy,” were rated great only by 12% of the employees.

However, the rare leaders who were strong in both results focus and social skills were considered great by 72% of the employees.

Zenger also found that two-thirds of those employees surveyed (almost 40,000 of the 60,000) would take a smaller salary to work for a “great” boss. 

(For a summary of Zenger’s research, check out Matt’s Harvard Business Review article Should Leaders Focus on Results, or on People? To read the research itself, get the book, The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders 2nd Edition by John H. Zenger and Joseph Folkman.)

Social skills are a great multiplier to improve leaders’ effectiveness, as Matt has noted.

Because the business climate has changed dramatically since Zenger conducted his survey almost 10 years ago, it would be fascinating to know the extent to which employees today value leaders who can equally balance both sides of the neural seesaw.

For example, speed, complexity and uncertainty have increased. Plus people are working more in cross-functional teams, many virtual. All of these situations can create or contribute to workplace friction, which leaders with strong social skills can better detect and deal with.

Recognizing that many individuals already have strong analytic skills, how do you develop and hone your social thinking and skills, especially if you’re in a new role or another situation that requires more social intelligence?

You can:

  • Work with an executive coach (such as me) to increase your empathy, improve your communications, build trust and make other changes to develop your social thinking and actions.
  • Participate in our new Humanity Labs starting this September to be seen, heard and connected and co-create a more humane culture.
  • Take classes in building social learning skills.
  • Do improv or take improv classes, especially those that concentrate on exercises in language, movement and social interactions.
  • Read fiction, which research has found to improve empathy and understanding of how others think, feel and act.

You also can do more than individual development. Consider how you interact within your ecosystem at work.

For example, recognize that you’re not alone. Ask  leaders who are strong in social thinking to add to your analytical thinking.

And you and others should examine the extent to which your organizational culture recognizes and rewards leaders and employees who practice social thinking versus results. This includes hiring and promoting leaders who care about people, not just results. (For more about the importance of the ecosystem and other trends, see How to be a more conscious executive coach.)

Meanwhile, how about starting with self-awareness? Recognize the power of toggling between analytical and social thinking, and then take at least one of the actions described here. 

1 Comment

  1. Wen Griswould

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