Understanding Mirror Neurons to become a Better Leader.

Why is it that we smile when someone- smiles at us, we yawn when we see someone yawn, we feel sad when we see someone sad, we cry when we watch a sad movie. What makes this happen.

The answer is Mirror neurons. In the 90’s a group of Neuroscientists, led by Giacomo Rizzolatti from the University of Parma (Italy) found something very interesting with their research on the Macaque Monkey. They placed electrodes on certain parts of the monkey’s brain that controls hand and mouth actions.

One day, one researcher reached for his food, and lo and behold he saw the firing of neurons in the monkey’s premotor cortex part of the brain. They observed that some neurons lit up when they saw a person picking some food and also when the monkey too picked up the food. It was the first evidence that the brain contains some neurons that mimic or mirror what another person does. This led to one of the most stunning discoveries in behavioral neuroscience: mirror neurons.

Further experiments using various neuroimaging tools confirmed that humans too have similar mirror neurons systems.

Mirror neurons can be defined as a group of neurons that activate when we see an action being performed or perform an action ourselves. Thus, they are related to our behavior of imitation, cognition, and empathy. They are now considered a great tool for learning and development.

A prime example is how a child learns to eat, smile, walk, talk and learn by imitating their parents, facial expressions, emotions, and body language. Imitation has always been and will always be a powerful learning tool. Now you know why they say laughter and yawning are contagious. When one person yawns and another observes, the neuronal pathways for yawning in the observer’s brain are activated, causing them to yawn too.

These instances of mimicking, mirroring, and empathizing with others by observing someone’s behaviour are made possible by mirror neurons.

Understanding the role of mirror neurons helps build Neuroleadership. Neuroleadership is the study of leadership through the lens of neuroscience. It explores some very key elements of leadership such as influence, insights, self-awareness, understanding human behaviour, decision making and learning.

Throughout history, some of the biggest challenges for a leader have been, “How to get people to do what you want them to do” how to get people to embrace change”, and how to get people to develop a learning mindset”. Isn’t it?

Well, if this has been your challenge too, then understanding the “Hard” science of Neuroscience can offer some insights as to why people do what they do and how to get them to do what you want them to do. Leadership is all about the art of developing Influence.

As a leader remember this, your capacity to change yourself, change others, and even change the world, may boil down to how well you understand your and other’s personal supercomputer(brain), and your capacity to consciously intervene and influence in otherwise unconscious and automatic processes.

So, understanding mirror neurons will help you to become a more emotionally intelligent leader, manager, or supervisor.

Now, look at the below scenarios:

There’s the boss who expects everyone to be on time in meetings, but who himself is never on time.

There’s the supervisor who doesn’t take calls after office hours, but expects his people to do so.

There’s the boss who tells everyone to stay late, but often leaves early to play golf.

There’s the manager who expects his team members to communicate and connect but fails to communicate regularly with his team members.

There’s the CEO who lay off to cut down on unnecessary spending but then renovates his office with lavish furniture.

Have you worked under someone who exhibits the above traits?

Another question, are you a boss who fails to understand why your people do not do what you say!

Don’t ask a subordinate to do things you are not willing to do.

Understand this “do as I say, not as I do” is a horrible leadership motto. Neither it has worked in the past, nor will it ever work in the future. Ask yourself why every time there is any discussion about true leadership, one obvious cliché you’ll hear is “True leaders lead by example”. I am sure you’ll nod and agree.

Be it a leader on top, a manager in the middle, or a supervisor on the floor, remember your people are watching and emulating you all the time. Blame it on mirror neurons, but they will imitate and emulate you. Whatever you do, you are being observed. Whenever you say something and do another or don’t walk the talk people see through hypocrisy. And hypocrisy is known to foster doubt, distrust, resentment, and suspicion.

Leading by example is the only way to get people to do, what you want them to do. Just show them what you want from them. If you want excellence from your team, then show them excellence in everything you do. They will observe and try to excel. It is the fastest way a leader can create trust and credibility. Leading by example is setting the tone of expectation. The action of a leader will act as an unspoken standard for his team.

To be a truly effective leader, you must always lead by example.

American Navy Seal motto is “I serve with honor on and off the battlefield…I lead by example in all situations.” 

Managing by words or orders is very easy as there you do not have to do anything. But leading by example is what it takes to be a truly great leader. But it’s tough and there are many temptations on the journey of leadership to abandon the path of “leading by example”.

So, next time you are tempted to stray away from the age-old cliché, “A leader lead by example”, just remember mirror neurons and visualize them staring at you. Let me end with this quote from the discoverer of mirror neurons:

“We are social beings. Our survival depends on our understanding the actions, intentions, and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to understand other people’s mind, not only through conceptual reasoning but through imitation. Feeling, not thinking.”- Giacomo Rizzolatti.

Happy Leading by Example!

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