Historically, leaders have controlled employees rather than connecting with them. According to neuroscientist and educator Dalton Kehoe, author of Mindful Management, this approach has had a negative impact on the conscious, neural needs that motivate people to work productively. Here’s why.
Inside the human brain, things get complicated when someone has the legitimate right to tell us what to do. One part of the brain knows that the situation requires attention, but the mirror neuron system suggests that another’s dominance is actually a low-level threat. We are fearful and we want get away from the person.
Dominant Doctors Are Perceived Negatively
The subtlety and power of this situation is reflected in the work of psychologist Nalini Ambady. She asked research study participants to listen to short recordings of surgeons talking to patients. The exchanges were filtered to preserve the intonation, rhythm and pitch of the surgeons’ voices, but they eliminated content.
Ambady then asked participants whether the doctor had ever been sued for malpractice. If the surgeon’s voice was judged to sound dominant, participants guessed that he or she had been sued. If the voice sounded less dominant and more concerned, the surgeon was put into the non-sued group.
Follow-up studies have shown that people don’t trust doctors who show dominance without concern. Patients who can’t emotionally connect to a doctor don’t do as they are told, but when they get sick again, they blame the physician.
Dominant Managers Breed Willful Employees
Similarly, if a manager speaks in a dismissive and controlling way, employees automatically resist what they’re saying. As John Zenger and Amy Cuddy have shown in their research, most managers unthinkingly emphasize their strength, competence, and credentials at work, which doesn’t emotionally engage their staff.
To feel engaged, our mirror neurons must mimic the emotions of connection and positive anticipation (optimism) while our manager is talking to us, rather than feelings of distance, aggressiveness or contempt. Dominance triggers low-level threat and our emotional energy turns inward for protection.
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