The Social Brain

One of the premises behind this blog is that organizations are made up of groups of people who act based on rational thought and emotions. Both originate in the brain, which is why I’ve decided to dedicate this post to insights from neurological research on how humans behave when they interact.

The main source used for this post is Matthew D. Lieberman’s book Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. It provides an excellent overview of the neurological processes behind a lot of human behaviour when it comes to social interaction.

Lieberman is a professor of social cognitive neuroscience who uses functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to examine people’s brain activity during tasks with a social component. He makes the point that human brains evolved to maximize our ability for social behaviour (like team work) which provided an evolutionary advantage over other species and enabled most achievements of human society.

In his book, Lieberman focuses on three main characteristics of the human brain (he calls them brain adaptations) which I have summarized below. I will then go into the impacts of these findings on how organizations should incentivize people and approach change initiatives.

The three major brain adaptations

1.The human brain processes social pain in the same way as physical pain.

Social pain is defined as the unpleasant feelings triggered by negative social experiences such as rejection, bereavement or isolation from social contact.

2.The human brain has a special neural network dedicated to mindreading, i.e. inferring another person’s thoughts, feelings and personality from observation and interaction.

Incidentally, this neural system seems to be very different from the areas of the brain activated for non-social reasoning (e.g. solving a geometric puzzle). Lieberman even hypothesizes that these two neural systems may work at odds with each other, so that using one would suppress activity in the other.

3.The area of the human brain that handles each person’s personal beliefs overlaps significantly with areas that allow a person to be influenced by other people’s beliefs.

Research conducted by Lieberman and his team suggests that a person’s sense of self is very malleable and subject to other people’s influence – a process that happens without the person noticing! Lieberman calls this the Trojan horse self and hypothesizes that it may be a mechanism to ensure humans harmonize automatically with the people around them.

Social Motivators in Organizations

Considering the importance of social experiences in people’s everyday lives and the profound (although often unconscious) impact they have on our behaviours and perceptions, it is no wonder that the presence of positive social aspects within the work environment should have a motivating effect.

Lieberman makes reference to the SCARF model developed by David Rock (2008) and points out how the three elements within it that have a social component align with his research summarized above.

The model describes five non-monetary drivers of human behaviour, which Rock sees as the foundation for intrinsic motivation:

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness

Lieberman points out that Status, Relatedness and Fairness are all social concepts and can trigger social pain or pleasure:


Status describes an individual’s place (= connection) within a group and the fact that he/she is being valued.


Here Lieberman draws the distinction between human capital (the levels of intelligence, experience and education represented within an organization’s workforce) and social capital ( the social connectedness and networks present within the organization). He argues that the first can only realize its full potential in the presence of the second as social connections act as a catalyst for human knowledge and abilities.


Lieberman quotes research which has shown that experiencing fairness and winning money activate the same reward circuitry in the human brain. Fair treatment of the members of an organization is therefore a strong motivator.

In addition to the motivators described above, Lieberman identifies an additional area that should motivate human activity based on the research he conducted: opportunities to care for others.

Helping other people adds meaning to sometimes abstract tasks in organizations. It also reinforces a person’s positive opinion of themselves since human beings infer their personality traits from observing their own behaviour (e.g. ‘I volunteer at the homeless shelter, therefore I must be a caring person.’)

Ways to incorporate this motivator into organizations include:

  • Making employees aware of how their work contributes to helping someone
  • Enabling employees to help each other (either in work-related tasks or through employee help groups that provide other types of support to colleagues in need).

None of the ‘social’ motivators described here are very costly and there is a thriving field of research investigating whether their effect on workforce satisfaction and productivity might not be higher than that of monetary rewards.

Social Mind and Transformational Change

It is interesting to note that there is a link between the research discussed in this post and examples of transformational change given by Robert Keagan and Jack Mezirov (see my previous blog post on Transformational Learning and Change for more details).

They describe one of the most relevant transformational changes for adult learners as moving from the so-called ‘Socialized Mind’ to the ‘Self-Authoring’ mind.

‘Socialized Mind’ describes a person’s ability to:

  • Think abstractly
  • Construct values and ideas
  • Introspect
  • Subordinate short-term interests to the welfare of a relationship
  • Orient to and identify with expectations of social groups and interpersonal relationships the person wishes to feel a part of

‘Self-Authoring Mind’ describes the next stage in a person’s transformational development where he or she

  • Treats what is taken for granted as an object rather than be subject to it
  • Negotiates their own purposes, values feelings and meanings rather than action those of others

In light of Lieberman’s finding about the inherent social nature of the brain, it is not surprising that this change represents quite a challenge for most people. The social conformism aspect of the Socialized Mind seems to be (at least to some extent) hard-wired into our brain architecture. Mezirov himself states that the role of emotions, intuitions and imagination in critically assessing frames of mind and seeking alternatives is as yet poorly understood and deserves further research.

What this means for Change Initiatives

Brain adaptation #1 – let’s reduce social pain in the workplace

Social pain is an inherent risk of any human interaction and part of what makes us human beings. Organizations should therefore strive to reduce it where possible and raise awareness of high-risk situations.

In the same way that the three social motivators in Rock’s SCARF model can significantly increase individuals’ wellbeing in the workplace, those same factors are likely to cause social pain when neglected.

Since this is the context of this blog, I will focus on situations during organizational transformation with an elevated risk of social pain. It is important to remember that an individual’s perception of a situation is the only relevant factor in whether he or she experiences social pain. Perception is reality!

Any development that changes what a group of people perceive as the status quo has the potential to affect the balance of power in the group and thereby the status of individual group members. Special or superior knowledge and abilities are often the foundation of a person’s perceived unofficial status within their work environment. Introducing a change that requires the acquisition if new skills shifts the power away from those who know best to those who learn and adapt the fastest.

Generational differences can play an important part in perceived loss of status with older group members worrying about loosing their experience-based advantage and younger ones using their more technology-infused upbringing to embrace workplace changes more quickly.

Reduce this risk by helping change targets to

  • Identify their personal contribution to the transformation process
  • Visualize their specific role in the changed environment
  • Acknowledge and value other group members’ new identities within the change process and the target state

Transformation activities in organizations often lead to changes to team structures and sometimes even workforce reductions. Changing who someone works with or removing team members threatens their sense of relatedness which can contribute to a reduction in motivation and workplace satisfaction.

The same is true for remote working, which has many benefits with respect to work-life balance, but also leads to team members rarely interacting in person and potentially feeling isolated.

Alleviate this negative effect on motivation levels by:

  • Planning for social bonding time early in the process of forming new teams – this should be an integral par t of the change management plan
  • Regularly organizing interactions that involve video for remote team members
  • Organizing virtual social gatherings which are not work-related (I had a colleague who once organized a virtual baby shower. She scheduled a video conference meeting and had baby-themed cookies sent to each participant’s location ahead of time – including the future mom’s home!)
  • Trying to bundle occasions which require the team to be in the same location (such as workshops and training events) to make a better business case for travel

Fairness is a very personal concept and every individual’s perception of how (un-)fair a situation is will vary based on their view of the world. Since fairness is a major motivator for most people it should be considered in any organizational activity. Change initiatives in particular contain many fairness pitfalls that require careful management, including:

  • Organizational changes with re-distribution of responsibilities and roles
  • Drawing on organizational resources to support the change effort (can be seen as an acknowledgement of expertise or as extra work added to someone’s plate)
  • Assessing people and providing feedback
  • Rewards for change adoption or increased performance

To prevent perceptions of unfair treatment wherever possible, always seek to understand what is seen as fair and incorporate that understanding into the to-be state as much as possible:

  • Schedule interactions with change targets to understand which aspects of their work they consider perks or disadvantages, how they value someone’s contribution or assess their informal status and competence.
  • Create organizational structures, responsibilities and roles that take into consideration what people think of as fair distribution of workload and responsibilities. Help them understand the advantages of their new responsibilities and why they were the best person for this role. Titles can have a very strong impact (positive or negative!) depending on how they are understood. Use them carefully and only after evaluating the different ways they could be perceived.

A strong desire for fairness is not restricted to humans, see this video for a poignant example of how our close relatives react to unfair treatment.

Brain adaptation #2 – putting the social brain to work

The fact that the human brain is capable (to a degree) of inferring another human’s intentions, feelings and opinions has provided a considerable advantage throughout humanity’s evolutionary path. Modern corporate environments on the other hand often prompt people to apply the more analytical capabilities of their brains. The research Lieberman introduces in his book suggests that the areas of the brain that process social information and those that deal with analytical challenges are different and might even negatively impact the other’s ability to function.

Given the importance of correctly interpreting and reacting to other people when working in teams and the great impact this has on productivity and workplace satisfaction, there is an inherent risk in favouring the analytical aspects of the brain.

Change initiatives in particular require all involved to pay great attention to the feelings, opinions and perspectives of others to allow for corrective measures whenever negative perceptions threaten to take over.

Keeping the social brain clear to do so can be helped by framing complex tasks or problems in a way that acknowledges the social complexity involved.

Consider an example where an organizational transformation requires the creation of a change network across all production sites. In one site, this activity overlaps with the yearly maintenance shutdown which has to be completed as quickly as possible to minimize financial losses. This site is very reluctant to participate and free up resources which in turn threatens to delay the entire transformation.

Framing this problem as a numbers challenge neglects the social aspects:

  • How many change agents do we need from each team?
  • Who will be busy throughout?
  • How many hours of each person can we get per week to support the activity?
  • Who can backfill them when they need to attend a workshop?
  • How does shift work factor into this?

By thinking about this in terms of the people involved (the site manager, the team leads, the individual employees) and their aims, priorities and concerns, different questions can be asked which may be more conducive to resolving the issue:

  • Which person in the organization has a close relationship to the site manager and can credibly assure them that the transformation is of more long-term value that a slightly reduced shutdown period?
  • How can the corporate priority be presented to the entire site in terms that make sense to the employees?
  • Which of their values can a successful transformation be tied to?
  • How can the central change team visibly acknowledge the significant challenges this site faces?
  • Who can broker arrangements with other sites to provide support?

While performance measures, metrics and hard facts will always play an important role in organizations, they shouldn’t be the sole focus of the combined brain power applied to problem solving. As long as organizations are made up of people, the social brain has important contributions to make.

Brain adaptation #3 – under the influence

Acknowledging the significant influence people have on each other’s sense of self and our (often unconscious) drive to harmonize with other members of a group, highlights the importance of particular positions in organizations:

  • Formal leaders, such as managers and team leads
  • Informal leaders , usually well-respected individuals with no formal position of authority
  • Occasional leaders, such as task force leads or change agents

Focusing again on change initiatives, all three types of leaders listed above have an important role to play with significant potential to influence change adoption in a positive or negative way, sometimes without anyone noticing!

It is important that formal leaders buy into the change and explain, as well as model it for their teams. Informal leaders need to be identified and brought on board as early as possible to re-enforce that. Informal leaders should also be the first choice when looking for change agents as they are already established persons of trust within their teams.

If a transformation initiative carries a risk of group think or creating a them vs. us situation, the brain adaptation discussed in this section makes it even more likely that group members will align their opinions and perceptions. This can be counteracted by immersing group members temporarily within other groups through job-swaps or secondments to share different perspectives between work units.

Promoting Social Skills in Leaders

Oftentimes, promotion in organizations is based on subject matter expertise, analytical skills or commercial success. This process overlooks the fact that teams are more successful if they have a leader with strong social skills, a fact supported by Daniel Goleman’s research on emotional intelligence (Goleman, 2004). He defines emotional intelligence as a combination of qualities one of which is social skills, defined as

  • Proficiency in managing relationships and building networks
  • An ability to find common ground and build rapport

This definition is in agreement with Lieberman’s findings on the benefits of the brain adaptations. Goleman’s research indicates that social skills are one area of emotional intelligence which is a significant driver of performance. This effect is even stronger at the highest organizational levels.

To include this selection criterion into the organizational promotion process, consider using tools that assess social skills and giving leaders opportunities to get support in improving those they are lacking in.

Involving entire teams in this process through a safe feedback mechanisms (anonymous standard assessment tools/questionnaires) followed by facilitated workshops benefits not just the leader but allows the entire group to understand each other’s social preferences and strengths. This should never be a one-off exercise but tracked over time to help individuals realize benefits and see their own progress.

Change agents also fulfill an (albeit informal) leadership role in that they are guiding their colleagues through transformations. Selecting these crucial individuals for their social skills pays off, particularly in transformational types of change initiatives which are tougher on the change targets (for more on transformational change and learning, see my post on Transformational Learning and Change).

Here are some useful criteria to apply when selecting change agents. Individuals who fulfill these criteria will most likely have very strong social skills:

  • Are they well-respected within their sphere of work (regardless of their formal position)? Do people listen to them?
  • Are the well-connected beyond their immediate team? Do they build new relationships easily?
  • Are they comfortable operating across formal organizational levels?
  • Do they have a positive attitude and an appetite to learn new things / face new challenges?
  • Are they attuned to their team’s shared history?
  • Do they pick up on emotional undercurrents in their work environment and negative feelings/opinions?

I would appreciate your feedback and comments on this post.


Goleman, Daniel 2004. What makes a leader? Harvard Business Review January 2004:82-91

Keagan, R. 2008. What form transforms? A constructive-developmental approach to transformative learning. in Illeris, K. editor. Contemporary Theories of Learning – Learning Theorists…in their own words. 1st ed. London and New York: Routledge

Liebermann, M.D., 2013. Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Mezirov, J. 2008. An Overview of Transformative Learning. in Illeris, K. editor. Contemporary Theories of Learning – Learning Theorists…in their own words. 1st ed. London and New York: Routledge

Rock, D., 2008. SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. Neuroleadership Journal 1.


Transformational Learning and Change

Learning and change are two areas which are closely linked in practice as well as in research. This is why I decided to kick off my blog with a post about the work of Jack Mezirov, Robert Keagan and other researchers who explored the differences between informational and transformational learning and the associated implications for anyone who wants to support transformational change in people and – by extension – organizations. This is a longer post as it sets up a number of topics I want to discuss in future posts.

What is Learning?

Before we get into the thick of transformational learning, I would like to introduce the (rather broad) definition of learning as used by Knud Illeris, Professor for Educational Research at Roskilde university and imminent learning theorist. He defines learning as

‘…covering all processes that lead to relatively lasting changes of capacity, whether they be of motor, cognitive, psychodynamic (i.e. emotional, motivations or attitudinal) or social character, and which are not due to genetic-biological maturation.’ (Illeris, 2003)

Using this definition, one can argue that any type of change requires some form of learning!

Most of this discussion is based on two chapters in the book Contemporary Theories of Learning – Learning Theorists…in their own words edited by Illeris:

  •  What form transforms? A constructive-developmental approach to transformative learning by Robert Keagan
  • An Overview of Transformative Learning by Jack Mezirov.

Let’s begin by looking at different types of learning. In his chapter, Keagan provides an excellent overview:

Informational Learning

This type of learning is the most frequent. For most individuals, it starts during childhood and continues throughout their entire life, with particularly busy learning periods during school, university, professional training or the acquisition of a new hobby.

According to Keagan, Informational Learning changes what someone knows, often with the aim of addressing a technical challenge. The what can consist of factual knowledge, abilities or behaviours.

Transformational Learning

Transformational Learning happens less frequently in most individuals’ lives. It is different in that it influences our frame of reference (other authors refer to it as frame of mind). It changes how we know.

Frame of Reference

In his chapter Jack Mezirov defines a frame of reference as involving

  • a habit of mind – the criteria applied by an individual to decide whether a position is justified or not (this can be subconscious)
  • a resulting point of view (this is usually more outwardly visible)

Keagan adds that a frame of reference isn’t a purely logical construct but can encompass emotional, social and moral aspects which guide an individual’s assessment of information and situations.

Mezirov emphasizes that changing a person’s frame of reference should never be a purpose in and of itself. The change should always be motivated by providing the individual with a better ‘mindset’ to deal with the situation she/he is facing.

At this point I won’t go into the different ways people build their frames of reference because this will form part of a future post related to the social aspects of organizational minds.

To summarize:

Informational Learning Transformational Learning
    • Results in a change of knowledge and/or behaviour
    • Results in a change of frame of reference
    • Addresses ‘technical’ challenges
    • Addresses ‘adaptive’ challenges
    • Changes ‘what’ we know (within an existing frame of reference)
    • Changes ‘how’ we know by restructuring the frame of reference

While Informational Learning involves ‘meaning-forming’, Transformational Learning (and the resulting transformational change) involves changing the ‘meaning-forming’ process. These two types of learning serve very different purposes.

What useful insights can we draw for change and learning activities in organizations?

Implications for Adult Learning and Change Management projects

Keagan argues that in order to support adult learners on their journey, it is important to understand

  1. Past: their previous transformational path – How did previous learning and change initiatives go in this organization? What did people experience? What do they remember most?
  2. Present: their current frames of reference – In which way do the organizational culture and people’s individual characteristics (age, years of service, educational background, nature of day-to-day work, etc.) influence their ‘meaning-forming process’?
  3. Future: the impact of the challenges they are facing on their frames of reference. Does the situation require informational or transformational learning? If so, how much? How does is vary between different groups?

In practical terms, planning a successful learning or change project in an organization has to involve an analysis of peoples’ previous experience with change and learning in general, and their relationship to the particular subject. Only then can we determine the type of learning and change interventions required as well as the pace of change that is feasible .

Understanding an Organizations’ Change Past

In my experience, workshops with sub-sets of change targets to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of previous change initiatives are an excellent way of gauging the organizations change and learning history (item 1). I believe in identifying potential change agents as early as possible in the change process and making this activity an integral part of the change network kick-off event. It sets the expectation that lessons learned from previous initiatives are recognized as valuable input and provides a forum to share concerns in a constructive way.

Asking change agents to work in small groups to complete sentences like ‘Previous changes in our organization were…’ or ‘The last transformation initiative resulted in…’ allows them to provide feedback on a broad range of topics, from factual results to personal experiences.

The way working groups are formed for this activity determines the output that can be gleaned from the analysis:

  • Mixing change agents from different parts of the organization allows for a wider sharing of experiences and more creative brainstorming
  • Function-specific work groups tend to provide more insight into the very different ways change was previously experienced by different parts of the organization.

This type of exercise provides a great starting point to explore the present state.

What is the present state like?

This is where the change agents are asked to describe their current daily work environments. Prompts like ‘How we do things today’ or ‘What are the unwritten rules, the traditions, ways of working we apply? What is important/the priority in our daily work? How do we know we’ve done well? What behaviours do we encourage in our teams? ‘ usually illicit the information required to draw a picture of current frames of reference as they apply to the organization.

This type of activity should always involve looking at the advantages and disadvantages of the status quo as a path into the next activity which aims to visualize the benefits the change initiative will provide.

The reasons for change identified by organizations’ senior leaders rarely resonate with the employee groups most affected by the change. Finding out their daily pain points and hopes for improvement provides the change practitioner with the grass roots levers to use as motivation for change.

Organizational culture is an extensive topic of research in itself which I hope to address in more detail in a future post.

The nature of the transformation ahead

There are a few questions we can ask ourselves to determine the nature of the change:

  • Is an addition to or deepening of existing knowledge or behaviours sufficient to prepare the change targets for the future state?

Informational learning requirements can be addressed with the traditional tools for organizational learning, ideally taking into consideration any new technology or learning approaches which suit the respective environment and generational learning preferences (digital learning, self-serve learning, post-learning reinforcement through communities of practice, etc.). Many experts have explored this area of learning and there are abundant resources online.

  • Will the change targets have to ‘unlearn’ part or all of their current understanding of their daily work activities?

This process is not just an intellectual challenge but also emotionally draining. People who used to think of themselves as knowledgeable and competent within their area if work have to go through a period of half-knowledge and frequent mistakes. Minimizing anxiety and keeping the in-between state as short as possible are key to a successful transformation that involves un-learning and re-leaning. Plan to provide positive experiences and numerous small victories on the way. Change targets need to see an upward trend at all times and get plenty of positive reinforcement, particularly from their peers and direct supervisors.

  • How much of their existing understanding and perceptions can be re-used to form part of the new reality they will be dealing with?

Spending time early in the process (and using the insights gained through the change agent workshops) to find analogies and transferable aspects between the old and the new can save a lot of energy later by reducing anxiety and resistance to the change. Sometimes all it takes is the right angle to see how the new process/ environment allows the application of existing skills.

For example, a factory belonging to a global manufacturing company might pride themselves on being at the forefront of shop floor innovation and process improvement practices. Why not look at the introduction of an Enterprise Resource Planning system with the same lens?

Not: But:

‘Corporate HQ is forcing this one-size-fits-all system down our throat which won’t really work for us anyway. We will have to remind them why this can’t be implemented without serious negative impact on our numbers.’

‘We live a tradition of taking on engineering challenges and competitive pressure from other manufacturers’   ever-evolving products every day. We can use our experience in process improvement and creative problem solving to design a new way of working that supports the new reporting requirements. Let’s show HQ what process excellence across the board looks like!’

If transformational learning is required, a more in-depth analysis should be conducted to answer additional questions:

  • Which parts of the change targets’ frames of reference need to be changed to make them successful in the modified environment?
  • Where do these elements of their frames of reference originate from? Longer-held beliefs tend to be more deeply engrained and take longer to change.

Changing frames of reference is a difficult process which has to be tailored to the specific situation at hand. Support during the transformation can come from:

  • Role Models within (or outside of) the organization who have already adopted the new frame of reference
  • Rewards for behaviours that originate from the new frame of reference
  • Emphasizing the growth and development aspect of the new frame of reference – where else would it beneficial outside of the work environment?
  • The use of story-telling to provide a common language and imagery for the journey ahead
  • Structuring the transformation to involve entire groups of change targets, so that social cohesion is kept where possible and early adopters can inspire and motivate the others. Depending on the environment, this could involve communities of practice and social media. Give everyone a specific role within the transformation so they feel needed

If transformational learning is required, Mezirov argues that the role of the educator is to support some of the principal aspects of the process:

  • Transformation learning happens mostly subconsciously – educators should help make it apparent to learners
  • Transformation learning requires ‘dialectical discourse’ to validate learners’ judgments – educators should encourage frequent exchanges between learners

I would appreciate your feedback and comments on this post.



Illeris, K. 2003. Towards a contemporary and comprehensive theory of learning. Int. J. of Lifelong Education 22 (4):396-406

Keagan, R. 2008. What form transforms? A constructive-developmental approach to transformative learning. in Illeris, K. editor. Contemporary Theories of Learning – Learning Theorists…in their own words. 1st ed. London and New York: Routledge

Mezirov, J. 2008. An Overview of Transformative Learning. in Illeris, K. editor. Contemporary Theories of Learning – Learning Theorists…in their own words. 1st ed. London and New York: Routledge