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Jan Hills

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The importance of social connection – insights from the NeuroLeadership Summit 2013


I have just returned from the 2013 NeuroLeadership Summit which was held for the first time this year in London. For those of you who may not be aware of the summit it aims to move forward the understanding of neuroscience in leadership and organisational performance. For the first time this year the Summit ‘travelled’ around the world, first to Sydney, then London, and a final summit will take place in Washington in November.

The summit features neuroscientists describing their latest research together with business people reflecting on the implications for leaders and organisations.

This year the theme was very much about the importance of social connection. Matt Lieberman described several years of research into how the brain reacts in social situations and the implications for business. Some of the highlights are:

"Evolutionarily we need to connect with each other. This is part of our survival mechanism. Think of a baby, unless they came with an ability to entice their parents to care for them they would not survive. Also in working together in groups we can do more than as individuals and connected we are stronger. Basically Maslow got his hierarchy wrong. Social connection is a primary need for humans.

The brain feels social pain and pleasure in the same circuitry as physical pain. We probably underestimate the impact of social pain: social rejection, public challenge, public criticism and the like in organisations all create pain. We would never expect someone to be at their best with a broken arm but do not extend the same consideration when social pain occurs.

We are also able, Matt thinks uniquely so, to read the minds of others. We can mentalize and understand how others may act, their goals and emotions. This has significant implications for business. To date most companies and the HR profession have worked from an economic model: money in exchange for time and skill. If we understand a social model of exchange in business it raises questions about leadership and what makes for success, reward, productivity, engagement and the purpose of our function.

Matt also hinted at new research that suggests we learn much better in social situations and even more if we are learning for the benefit of others. So watch this space for more details."

Most of what Matt covered was not new but the combination of the research and the discussion of the implications framed the others sessions and set the tone for the rest of the Summit. Lieberman is a very engaging speaker he is about to release a TED video so look out for it. His business partner for the talk was Peter Cheese from the CIPD who said he is planning to use the evidence base neuroscience can give to help HR become more relevant in business. I hope he has been reading these articles, we are already on the way!

Leadership Stamina

We went on to hear about Jessica Payne’s research into leaders, and others, performance and the importance of sleep, stress and mood. She calls this the MPG (miles per gallon model, works in the UK!). I have written about this research before so will not cover it again here.

David Rock presented a new model he is working on looking at how to accelerate wisdom in leaders. Recognising traditional methods of developing leaders through rotations etc is too slow and often misses what we need from leaders in today’s business as opposed to yesterday’s. The aim was to see what neuroscience can tell us about developing leaders faster.

The model really represents the different processes leaders must employ and the areas of the brain responsible for each. The model covers areas such as:

  • Goal attainment; the importance of pragmatism,
  • Emotional balance; social and personal regulation
  • Tolerance; the importance of social connection
  • Self-understanding; through direct experience
  • Dealing with ambiguity; fostering insight 

There was a rather good discussion on the panel about how these can be practically fostered in work including examples like Standard Chartered Bank taking managers to China to really get a sense of the country before creating their strategy for the region. Most people felt the model wasn’t really about wisdom, and there was lots of debate about what that meant anyway, but more about accelerating quality leadership. We created something similar a while ago. We call it brain-savvy leadership and created an animated video to describe the success factors.

Rock said in order to accelerate the development of leaders the neuroscience can point to some interesting methods including mindfulness which has been shown to have a beneficial impact across most of the areas in the model. However, he also observed it is a challenge to get leaders to practice mindfulness so whilst you are building up to persuading your leaders to be more mindful David Rock believes learning about how the brain works can provide some similar benefits as people begin to be more aware of their own responses. Certainly my work with leaders would bear this out. As ever my advice would be try it yourself first and the articles on neuroscience we have written for HRZone are a good start point as is joining a LinkedIn group or HR networking group which facilitates learning together about the brain.

Day two kicked off with a very good session on performance management. The observation was that most PM processes, as we have observed in our HRZone article, create a threat response. They also in practice have an unclear purpose; articulated as improving performance but the actual outcome is compensation management. Also implicitly most processes assume a fixed mindset; people are hired as talented and capable, or not, rather than a growth mindset; people can grow and develop thorough effort and training. A focus on the social elements and the quality of the conversation shifts the experience of PM. There was excellent input form Steve Rice of Juniper Networks on what they have done, which dispelled the myth that to change performance management from being primarily a threat to a more brain-savvy approach means losing structure and accountability.

Performance Management is clearly an area where we will see a lot more discussion over the coming months. The challenge was thrown out that HR must stop making incremental changes and rethink the purpose of performance management and the results being obtained based on the company purpose and an understanding of how humans actually respond.

Finally came another fantastic session from Matt Lieberman on decision bias. Unfortunately I can’t say too much about it as we were asked to ‘keep the ideas’ confidential as David Rock is releasing an article soon. Slightly odd! But I don’t really want to be the first to spill the beans except to say that mindfulness seems to play a part again; this time in reducing the tendency to bias. More on that once the cover is off! Whilst you are waiting you can read my HRZone article on Decision Bias in HR

So all in all a good day and a half if somewhat disappointing that some of the sessions were largely repeats of previous summits. I also felt that a great opportunity was missed to introduce the work of British based neuroscientists. Apparently British neuroscientists published 25% of all peer reviewed articles on neuroscience last year. They deserve more recognition.

Matt Lieberman is just about to release his book Social and I managed to get an advance copy. If you are interested in this area it may be one to add to the wishlist as the clear take home message from the summit was, social is way more important to us as humans than we have previously acknowledged and organisational performance will benefit from understanding the implications of that. And of course individuals will perform better in an organisation which recognises its importance too. It also provides so much more than an economic model of business in terms of rewards and we as HR professionals are missing opportunities. More on that in a forthcoming HRZone article on Reward. 

4 Responses

  1. HR less process more science

    Hi Peter thank you for your comments. As a long term member of the CIPD I am pleased to hear/read your comments about getting more balance between process and a fundamental understanding of the science behind the principles of our profession. I agree the science is a mix, many of the neuroscientists draw on psychological theory and practice; people such as Matt Lieberman. Our own work draws on behavioural economics, for example, as well as neuroscience. 

    I also agree there is a great deal of interest in this area across HR professionals. We are doing quite a lot on the 'education' front including the articles we write for HR Zone, a breakfast club where we share the science and debate the implications for HR and we are in the process of conducting research into how HR are using the science and the results they are getting for a book we are writing. I would be very interested in getting your views on that. Maybe we can discuss that some time. [email protected].

    Neuroscience can be very helpful and create insight especially, i find, for cynical business leaders. BUT HR needs to go further than that and provide practical tools and methods of applying the insight to achieve change in individuals and business. Without this neuroscience or any other science will be another fad. That is the work i , and my team, have been doing over the last four years with good results.

    As to my comments on British neuroscientists there is interesting work being done at Cambridge Dean Mobbs work on motivation ( he recently moved to Stamford) and also John Coates work mainly on traders but which i am sure has wider application for performance. Prof Paul Brown on coaching and the rather quirky work of Dr Steven Peters, although you can't fault his results in sports! There are also a number of younger scientists who are interesting to follow.

    Of course in true British fashion there are sceptics. Neuro-sceptic is good to follow because he/she covers the science rather than just trashing it.  HR needs to be able to make judgments about what is important and what is useful rather than lurch from one fad to the other. I think the profession has an opportunity here to develop an evidence base for its work in business which will make it much more influential. At least that is what we aim for!

    Look forward to hearing more about your work. 

  2. NeuroLeadership Summit

    Hi Jan – thanks for your comments and insights from the NeuroLeadership summit. The CIPD was one of the lead sponsors for the event and we are building a collaboration with David Rock and colleagues to help share the insights and thinking from this area much more broadly across the HR profession. We got a lot of interest and positive feedback and there is an appetite for more understanding of this field.

    I believe we do need to revisit some of what have become accepted practices and processes in HR with a better understanding of the underlying science of human behaviour, learning etc. HR has become too process obsessed and we need to refocus on the foundations – understanding of the person, how we behave, what motivates, how we learn etc. Neuroscience is giving us some new insights and a solid foundation, but should also be balanced with other areas of psychological thinking and research (e.g. positive psychology, behavioural economics, ethics etc). Leadership, learning, performance management are all areas that could really benefit. Whilst there are some advocates and shining lights of examples, design of processes based on real understanding of neuroscience is not yet widespread and I think we can all learn something from it.

    Your point about highlighting British neuroscience work was interesting, and I would be very open to connecting with them as well, but need help in identifying. I am aware of a somewhat anti neuroscience movement as well (check out 'Neuro-Bollocks'!) which as you can guess from it's title is British in its basis! I think there main point is you can take it too far – it can't tell you what people are thinking…. hence the need to balance with other disciplines as well. So, let me know who you would rate in this field in the UK. Thanks


  3. Thank you

    Yes agree I too would love to hear others views, especially on changes to Performance Management and the impact of bias in business. 

  4. Feedback from others

    Thanks Jan, great synopsis.  I attended the Summit too and agree with comments about British neuroscientists.  Would love to hear any other views from readers who also attended.

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