Your Brain at Work

Using neuroscience to improve daily life

Why Everyone Hates the Boss

Being disliked by others may not be your boss's fault.

ihatemyboss.com., maybe you've heard of it, heck, maybe you've posted on it. It's a website where people go to vent about how lousy their bosses are.

We hear people going on tirades about their bosses all time. Whenever a group of coworkers go out to eat, it's a safe bet their boss will be a hot topic of conversation. One of the most common complaints about leaders is that they are promoted for their technical skills, despite the fact that they often have poor social skills. However one of many big insights that emerged on day two of the 2011 Neuroleadership Summit is that this may simply be a function of a leader's role.

UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman, one of the founders of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience field, presented research on our ability to mentalize, 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 impaired. The trouble is that our ability to mentalize about other people's thoughts is extremely poor even at the best of times.

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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. As it turns out only 2.5% of people could successfully guess the tune with tapping as the only information being given. Our ability to the think about the minds of others is surprisingly poor, even when not under pressure.

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

Leaders who spend too much time analyzing and strategizing may find it difficult to activate their rarely used social circuits. 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 we can do to improve a leader's capacity to mentalize about others? Lieberman is curently trying to answer this question now.

 

The 2013 NeuroLeadership Summit is going local with three days of events in three different locations. Click here for more information.  

David Rock is executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group, a global consulting firm.

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