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.


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