Brain Psychology and Leadership Skills: The Rest of the Story | AboutLeaders

Leadership Skills

I’ll never forget early in 2004 when the bubble of a major epiphany I had, burst.

After having experienced and studied the social nature of people, across a dozen organizations, I noticed common social patterns behind organizational issues. One such pattern was the most obvious: people were afraid to speak up when it was critical to do so.

This was prevalent at the medical device company I was consulting for at the time. As I was describing these patterns to a friend, he said one of them sounded a lot like Crucial Conversations (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, & Switzler, 2002).

I read the book and found the authors explored one of the same patterns I did. However, the social patterns of human nature Patterson, et al, didn’t address still awaited exploration.

Tip of the Iceberg

I realized the Crucial Conversations pattern was just the tip of the iceberg. The tools the book offered failed to account for the iceberg underneath.

A glimpse of such does exist, however, in Dan Goleman’s books on Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence (Goleman, 1996; Goleman, 2006; Goleman, 2011).

Most knowledge of what lies beneath the surface still remains confined to the research literature awaiting translation.

If books like Crucial Conversations can be written about a mere speck on the tip of the social nature iceberg, you can imagine the literary volume it would take to describe the whole iceberg. Voluminous findings exist spanning numerous disciplines over more than a century.


These findings paint a very different picture about human and social nature than most of us are accustomed to.

Why should I care, you may ask? Aside from leadership styles, philosophies, tools and techniques, principle #1 in leadership is engaging the journey toward self-mastery.

The leadership one practices may hit a ceiling without self mastery if it merely consists of tricks and technique. The most daunting journey toward self-mastery is where the terrain is our social world and the vehicle is learning of our self. There is a reason why such a journey is daunting.

The emotionally-invoked social dysfunction outlined in books and in an article here (Hallowell, 2012) is actually the last resort of the brain’s hardwired goal to maintain homeostasis (AKA status quo (Damasio, 1999)). Survival is merely urgently attending to the status quo. The more common homeostatic drive is conservation of mental energy (Lesko, 2003).

This means that consciously engaging in social situations can feel hard, as it will require neural changes that burn more energy, generate more heat and produce more waste than our already habituated social self. Thus, our first tendency is to avoid such change. This may be why many leaders struggle and why change is difficult to navigate.

Emotions and Reason

As explained in previous works (Goleman, 2011; Hallowell, 2012; Patterson, 2002), when our ancestors faced a carnivorous predator, the primitive part of the brain that handles fight or flight would activate while higher brain function shut down.

Today, that higher function is needed to avoid fight or flight and effectively carry crucial conversations. The underlying implication is that our brain evolved to adapt to a different world than we have today. The everyday moment-by-moment aspect of that world was the social world of the hunter-gatherer. Keep this concept in mind as you read on.


Emotions such as those exhibited during crucial conversations are merely the most observable (Damasio, 2001). Such emotions are toward the extreme of what is termed in psychology as affect (Duncan & Barrett, 2007). Affect is the meaning we associate to events, situations, objects, and people, and the impact that meaning has on us.

For instance, you are attending a meeting with John, who seems to have little interest in anything you have to say. The fact it seems this way comes from affect. The affect associated to John and meetings, will make you less likely to speak in meetings when John is present.

Affect refers to not only significant emotions we can see in facial expressions, language and behavior, but also everything down a scale to the most subtle we are not consciously aware of.

This is important because we now know that reason is intricately tied to affect (Damasio, 1999), yet reason is still separate from affect (emotion). The conventional view the two are mutually-exclusive and distinct no longer holds (Duncan & Barrett, 2007).

The same adaptive goals and thus brain structures at play in crucial conversations (or facing a saber tooth tiger) are also at play in every other social situation. Also, because such processes occur beneath our awareness, if we do become aware, we are usually only aware of the products of such thought processes (Heuer, 1999).

Such products can include for instance who we like or dislike, what information we attend to or ignore, the evaluations we attribute to others and ourselves, and the social statuses or subtle social roles we assimilate or reject – and of course detection of threat.

The Rest of the Story: The Social Brain

We understand that because our brain physiology evolved for a dangerous environment incompatible with today’s social settings, emotions can get in the way of such situations as crucial conversations.

We also know that such emotions are merely the extreme we experience in difficult but otherwise rare social settings – and that most emotions (affect) we experience are far more subtle. Finally, all affect originates and processes beneath our awareness.

Thus, since all affect originates in the same brain physiology, and all thinking – AKA reason – involves affect, all our thoughts, perceptions and evaluations of others may be vulnerable to the same incompatibility we can experience with crucial conversations. This is characteristic of what has come to be known as our social brain (Johnson, Grossman, & Kadosh, 2009).

A more suited term to poignantly grasp the functional view of human, social nature is social instinct. However, it is important to understand that instinct does not mean predetermined behavior. Rather, it means a goal-oriented tendency where the goals originated in a past and obsolete era.

Social instinct is comprised of the several major functions: social perception (including social comparison and evaluation), social influence, and social cognition (Baron, Byrne, & Branscombe, 2006). Some of the observable phenomena in social instinct include stereotype threat (Stone, Sjomeling, Lynch, & Darley, 1999), self-fulfilling prophesy (Kierein & Gold, 2000), and implicit personality theory (Baron, Byrne, & Branscombe, 2006). The rest of the iceberg involves more subtle and fundamental adaptive goals such as social role and status, dominance, and avoidance (Locke, 2003; Wilson, 2000).

Four important things to know about social instinct are:

  • It is merely goal-oriented default tendency
  • Specific tendencies can vary significantly across a population,
  • We can learn to improve our social ability
  • We can override the default

Why Don’t We Speak Up?

Although this is merely an introduction to the proverbial social iceberg, the following takeaway should be helpful to everyone: (a) our social perceptions of ourselves and others can betray us, and (b) we can learn to detect such patterns and overcome such betrayal.

The limbic system impulses mentioned in Crucial Conversations (Patterson, et al, 2002) and Dr. Hallowell’s article (2012), stem from goal-oriented social tendency and the responses we learned for such situations. However, such is merely the extreme of our social nature.

For more subtle and more common social situations, our limbic brain doesn’t understand the sociopolitical reasons why we don’t speak up when we know we should.  We just “feel” that way.

The feeling of reticence and its rationale originate from different brain structures (Norden, 2009; Pinel, 2009). This means we can experience a response that doesn’t match the reality of the situation.  Consequently, our emotions (affect) and thus our conclusions can deceive us (Arbinger, 2002).

If we are not aware of such self-deception, we may spin incorrect justifications for these emotions rather than questioning the emotions (Haidt, 2001). When the situation involves other people, this manifests in our tendency to blame others for the emotions we experience, more than is warranted (Baron, Byrne, & Branscombe, 2006).

Again, this processing occurs beneath our awareness – it is not conscious, wrongful accusation. It fulfills a major goal of social instinct: to provide structure and explanation for the social world around us (Seidel, et al, 2010) under the auspices of homeostasis (Damasio, 1999; Damasio, 2001) and energy conservation (Lesko, 2003).

What Can We Do About It?

Our most crowning evolutionary achievement is our executive brain – located in the frontal lobe (Norden, 2009). It can be trained, not only to calm the limbic system and regulate emotions, but with practice, we can habituate this control (Diamond, 2009).  At the macro level, we can use the tools offered by Patterson, et al (2002) and follow Dr. Hallowell’s (2012) advice. I’ll refer you to those works for details.

On the micro scale, we can practice detecting and questioning our social perceptions, the social evaluations we make of others and ourselves, and overall avoid the practice of blindly believing as true, our view of others.  Such is especially needed when we experience an emotional response (Arbinger, 2002; Patterson, et al, 2002).

For instance, when you feel uncomfortable around someone, question yourself why. Ask what proof you have to feel uncomfortable.  Have you already attributed to them some derogatory evaluation? Do you really have enough evidence to warrant your derogatory feelings about them?

I have witnessed how a person’s mere facial features and animated behavior can turn people off to such extent they will avoid them.  Isn’t it a better option to question our discomfort instead?

How you regard others will cause them to behave consistent with your beliefs about them (Stone, et al, 1999) or have them turn on you. Playing devil’s advocate in your mind on their behalf will go a long way in weeding bias out of your leadership garden. It will also contribute fuel for your journey to self-mastery. But be aware that doing so may seem hard because it may cause uncomfortable neural changes.

On the bright side, if it seems hard, you’re probably doing something right.

How Does Brain Psychology Relate with Leadership Skills?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Mark Graybill

Mark has a Master’s in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and is a management consultant, a leadership instructor for the Air Force Reserves, and a Ph.D. student of Psychology specializing in Social Cognition and Instruction.

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