Whatever your business goals are for 2023, this I know for sure: You can’t achieve them alone. Whether you’re the leader of a small team or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, collaboration is not a “nice to have” leadership philosophy. It is an essential ingredient for survival and success based on the essential truth that none of us is smarter than all of us.
The good news is we are already wired to connect. The experience of connection is not only a motivating component of workplace collaboration; it is the brain’s key driver. Our brains have evolved to be social and collaborative – constantly assessing what others may think or feel, how they are responding to us, if we feel safe with them, and if they feel safe with us.
Social animals thrive together and have a need for belonging that is powerful and primitive. We love contributing and we love being thanked. When others show us respect and appreciation, it triggers the same centers in the brain that are activated when we eat chocolate or have sex.
This dynamic gives insight on the intrinsic rewards of collaboration – and underscores why it is so important that a leader’s body language signals are open and positive. And that’s before we add the impact of mirror neurons.
In the late 1980s, researchers at the University of Parma in Italy found that the brain cells of macaque monkey fired in the same way whether they were making a particular motion (like reaching for a peanut) or watching another monkey or human make that movement. In terms of motor cell activity, the monkey’s brain could not tell the difference between doing something and seeing it done. The scientists named those brain cells “mirror neurons.”
In human beings, mirror neurons not only simulate actions, but they also reflect intentions and feelings. As such, they play a key role in our ability to socialize and empathize with others. Before the discovery of mirror neurons, it was generally believed that we used analytical thought processes to interpret and predict other people’s motives and actions. Now, however, the prevailing theory is that we understand each other not by analysis but through emotion. By reading body language signals and automatically interpreting the emotion behind them, we get an intuitive sense of the world around us – without having to think about it.
Employees search for signals from leaders and mimic their behaviors, both consciously and unconsciously. A key insight from mirror neuron research is the reinforcement of an old management truism: modeling desirable behaviors will encourage employees to follow suit. If you want your team to collaborate, then first you need to become a positive example of collaboration.
As a leader, mirroring team members’ facial expressions and body positions instantly communicates empathy and signals that you understand the feelings of the people around you and will take those feelings into account as you decide how to respond. This also explains why mirroring body language cues, with the resultant feeling of being “connected,” is such a powerful part of building a collaborative team.
Other research demonstrates the impact of body language to stimulate or inhibit someone’s participation in a conversation: A group of undergraduate students at VU University Amsterdam watched an eight-minute film after which they were asked to describe it as fully as possible to other students. The listeners were actually research assistants, and for half the participants they assumed a positive listening style (smiling, nodding, maintaining an open bodily position), while for the other participants they assumed a negative listening style, (frowning and unsmiling).
Participants describing the film to positive listeners used more abstractions, describing aspects of the film that couldn’t be seen, such as a character’s thoughts and emotions. They also included more of their own opinions about what the film was trying to say. By contrast, participants speaking to negative listeners focused solely on objective facts and concrete details.
The theory is that the smiles and nods of a listener signal interest and agreement, which in turn encourages the speaker to share more personal insights and speculation. Negative body language triggers a threat response that causes the speaker to pull back into the relative “safety” of facts. What this means in the context of collaboration and leadership is that by merely adjusting his or her body language, a leader can influence how team members process and report information.
Leaders must also keep in mind that when they speak, their listeners won’t only be evaluating their words and non-verbal cues, they will also automatically be “reading” their voices for clues to possible hidden agenda, concealed meanings, disguised emotions unexpected surprises – anything, in short, that will help them to determine if they can rely on what they’re being told.
Paralinguistic communication with its components of volume, pitch, inflection, pace, rhythm, rate, intensity, clarity, is all about how you say what you say. And that “how” can sometimes be more revealing of your true meaning than the “what” contained in the words. Think, for example, how tone of voice can indicate sarcasm, concern, or confidence. Or how an increase in volume and intensity grabs attention because of the heightened emotion (passion, anger, assertiveness, certainty) it signals.
The limbic brain, where emotions are processed, plays the primary role in processing vocal cues. Researchers from the University of Geneva in Switzerland discovered that they could tell whether a subject had just heard words spoken in anger, joy, relief, or sadness by observing the pattern of activity in the listener’s brain.
In collaborative assignments, you are asking people to put aside their personal agendas and egos in the service of collective solutions that benefit a larger agenda. For this to have any chance of happening, team members must know that the leader is 100 percent committed to their success. When you say that you trust, support, and believe in your team, you’d better sound like you mean it.
The organizational focus on collaboration stems from realizing that “silo mentality” and knowledge hoarding behaviors are wasting the kind of collective brainpower that could save their enterprise billions. Or lead to the discovery of a revolutionary new process or product. Or, in the current economic climate, help keep the company afloat when others are sinking!
But it’s not just corporate profits that suffer when collaboration is weak: the workforce loses something too. Individuals lose the opportunity to work in the kind of inclusive environment that energizes teams, releases creativity, and makes working together stimulating and joyful.