Social Intelligence: Its all in your head

Mirror neurons, spindle cells, and oscillators – who knew? There are still many secrets locked in your brain and these three revealed themselves recently. Each of them play a part in social intelligence (for an overview of social intelligence, check out this post from yesterday).

Here is a summary of each pulled from the HBR called Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis

Mirror Neurons:

Perhaps the most stunning recent discovery in behavioral neuroscience is the identification of mirror neurons in widely dispersed areas of the brain. Italian neuroscientists found them by accident while monitoring a particular cell in a monkey’s brain that fired only when the monkey raised its arm. One day a lab assistant lifted an ice cream cone to his own mouth and triggered a reaction in the monkey’s cell. It was the first evidence that the brain is peppered with neurons that mimic, or mirror, what another being does. This previously unknown class of brain cells operates as neural Wi-Fi, allowing us to navigate our social world. When we consciously or unconsciously detect someone else’s emotions through their actions, our mirror neurons reproduce those emotions. Collectively, these neurons create an instant sense of shared experience… The effects of activating neural circuitry in followers’ brains can be very powerful… And everybody knows that when people feel better, they perform better. So, if leaders hope to get the best out of their people, they should continue to be demanding but in ways that foster a positive mood in their teams. The old carrot-and-stick approach alone doesn’t make neural sense; traditional incentive systems are simply not enough to get the best performance from followers.

Spindle Cells:

Intuition, too, is in the brain, produced in part by a class of neurons called spindle cells because of their shape. They have a body size about four times that of other brain cells, with an extra-long branch to make attaching to other cells easier and transmitting thoughts and feelings to them quicker. This ultrarapid connection of emotions, beliefs, and judgments creates what behavioral scientists call our social guidance system. Spindle cells trigger neural networks that come into play whenever we have to choose the best response among many—even for a task as routine as prioritizing a to-do list. These cells also help us gauge whether someone is trustworthy and right (or wrong) for a job. Within one-twentieth of a second, our spindle cells fire with information about how we feel about that person; such “thin-slice” judgments can be very accurate, as follow-up metrics reveal. Therefore, leaders should not fear to act on those judgments, provided that they are also attuned to others’ moods.


Such attunement is literally physical. Followers of an effective leader experience rapport with her—or what we and our colleague Annie McKee call “resonance.” Much of this feeling arises unconsciously, thanks to mirror neurons and spindle-cell circuitry. But another class of neurons is also involved: Oscillators coordinate people physically by regulating how and when their bodies move together. You can see oscillators in action when you watch people about to kiss; their movements look like a dance, one body responding to the other seamlessly. The same dynamic occurs when two cellists play together. Not only do they hit their notes in unison, but thanks to oscillators, the two musicians’ right brain hemispheres are more closely coordinated than are the left and right sides of their individual brains.

Here are a few questions that need to be asked:

How do you improve these areas?
It isn’t quite known, but it is assumed that having an open mind and looking at yourself through other people’s eyes helps.

Can you artificially produce these results?
Strangely, if you try to force it, then other areas of your brain activate and the person you are interacting with can sense a lack of genuine sincerity. You can’t fake it.

Is one sex better at it?
Although women tend to be more attentive to emotion, there isn’t any evidence to suggest they are superior to men in regards to social intelligence.

Here are some characteristics and questions to ask yourself:







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•    Do you
what motivates other people, even those from different

•    Are you
to others’ needs?


•    Do you
listen attentively
and think about how others feel?

•    Are you
to others’ moods?


•    Do you
the culture and values of the group or organization?

•    Do you
understand social networks
and know their unspoken norms?


•    Do you
persuade others
by engaging them in discussion and appealing to their

•    Do you
get support
from key people?

Developing Others

•    Do you
and mentor others with compassion and personally invest time and
energy in mentoring?

•    Do you
provide feedback
that people find helpful for their professional


Do you articulate a
compelling vision,
build group
pride, and foster a positive emotional tone?

•    Do you
by bringing out the best in people?


•    Do you
solicit input
from everyone on the team?

•    Do you
all team members and encourage cooperation?

About benleeson
My name is Ben Leeson. I currently work for a large financial company in IT. I went to school at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY. I graduated with a B.S. in Business Administration concentrating in HR. Professor William Brown taught me and I enjoyed his classes; even acquiring an appreciation for just about all things HR. I didn’t pursue a job in that field after college but I’ve kept up with it. This blog will further my fascination with all things HR. I hope to grow my knowledge of the area through thoughtful writings and spirited feedback. I will attempt to have a fairly routine style so anyone reading can come to expect certain segments. Please excuse my incorrect grammar and occasional misspelling.

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