The Brain and Leadership Empathy

Iacoboni - mirroring people

Dr. Relly Nadler:
Have you ever felt totally understood by a co-worker or a boss? What was it that let you really feel that way? Why is empathy important for leaders? Have you ever had an emotional reaction that you were out of control and later regretted what you said or what you did? What do we know about the brains working with these reactions when we are feeling empathy and when we are getting emotionally reactive? Are there ways to enhance your empathy?

These are the questions that we are going to focus on in this session. Our guest is Dr. Marco Iacoboni from UCLA’s brain mapping center of the David Geffen School of Medicine. Dr. Iacoboni’s research has been covered by the New York Times front page, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time, The Economist and major TV networks. Dr. Iacoboni will talk to us a little bit about his book, Mirroring People, published in 2008.

We will be talking about a specific emotional intelligence competency, empathy and how you build it. Dr. Iacoboni is going to talk about the brain and empathy. Empathy is one of the building blocks of other key competencies of executives. You need empathy to communicate well, to be trustworthy, for self-awareness, to be able to build bonds with folks, for conflict resolution, to have a service orientation and focus on your customers, and to be a leader – the focus of this talk – being a change catalyst and having influence.

What is empathy? It is the ability to understand other people and accurately hear the unspoken or partly expressed thoughts, feelings, and concerns of others. It implies taking an active interest in other people. There’s a lot of research that supports the value of empathy. It could be that you see this as a soft skill but in being a star leader it’s a very important skill. Empathy requires self-awareness, sensitivity to others feelings and it really derives from being aware of your own feelings.

It’s been known that physicians that are better at recognizing the emotional aspects of patients are more successful at treating them than less sensitive counterparts. It’s also been known that the ability to read others needs appears to come naturally in the most successful managers of product teams. Empathy has been found to be effective in sales, in smaller and larger retailers, and it also reduces stereotypes that may cause anxiety in poorer performers. We know that the way the brain goes that we are wired to connect. We rely on these connections with others for our emotional stability.

Some of the research shows that if a male has three or more intense stresses in a year; think of money troubles, a divorce or being fired. Many times they call this the triple death rate in people who are socially isolated so that they are going to be at risk for a heart attack – of you have money troubles, divorce, or have been fired. But if they have close relationships, people who are empathic with them and they empathic with them, there is no impact. So the triple death rate has no impact if you have really good relationships. What are your relationships like? Do you have good, close friends?

We also know when people are in a good conversation there is this physiological mirroring. Dr. Iacoboni will talk about the mirror neuron. When three strangers are in silence for one to two minutes, the person who is most emotionally expressive transmits that mood to others. Emotions are contagious.

Let’s take a quick look to see where you are. Are you average or are you a star in regards to empathy? The average performer listens well, reads non-verbals and is open to diversity. The start performer also does that but the actively listen. They see and are sensitive to others perspectives and they understand others. Where are you on that. Are you average or are you a star.

Dr. Iacoboni is from UCLA’s Brain Mapping Center. He’s going to tell us about what a functional MRI is. His work has been covered by the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time, The Economist, and major TV networks. He is very excited about a new book that he has just finished. It’s going to help us folks get a better idea of this mirror neuron and it’s entitled: Mirroring People, published in the spring of 2008. Dr. Iacoboni, thank you very much for being on the show.

Dr. Iacoboni: Thank you for inviting me.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Maybe you can give us a little bit of background; your history and your research then maybe move into your work on the functional MRI—how long has it been around, and exactly what is it?

Dr. Iacoboni: I’m a neurologist and I’m Italian as you can hear from my accent. In fact when you were telling the story about the head butt I was clearly resonating with that.

Dr. Relly Nadler: I imagine you must have been watching that and happy because you’re Italian.

Dr. Iacoboni: Exactly. I agree with you it was an act of folly from Zinedine Zidane, he was a great player but he got ejected and we won the Cup. In fact, it’s such a good example of losing control of your emotion that I actually put it in my Mirroring People book. I think what happens is that when you actually watch, over and over again, the clip from YouTube you can feel the emotions, both the rage from Zidane and the pain from Materazzi. When you do that you have to understand it’s really your mirror neurons that are doing that. We will talk about all of that later.

Let me give you more about my background. We use a lot of different techniques to study the brain, but certainly the one that is more popular is called SMRI. It’s like an MRI machine. The hardware is exactly like a classical MRI. You can change the software and then you can look how different brain regions get activated when people do certain things. So I can put you in the scanner and I can ask you to move your right hand and when you move your hand I can see you motor cortex getting activated. That is the part of the brain that controls your movement.

So we can really study the brain in cooperating and doing various tasks on the scanner. That has really helped a lot to understand how the brain works. It’s been used the last 15 years or so.

Listen to the complete interview above.


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