How Leaderless Groups End Up with Leaders
We’ve always known that communication is an important leadership skill. But most leadership research and advice is centered on what leaders say and how they say it, not on the underlying neural processes that govern communication between people.
A new finding in brain science reveals a curious dynamic — a neural synchronization — during communication between leaders and followers: the brain activity of leaders and followers is more highly synchronized than the brain activity between followers and followers.
In their experiment, Jing Jiang of the Max Planck Institute and her colleagues asked 11 groups of three people to conduct a leaderless discussion while their brain activity was monitored and the conversations were recorded. They were given the following topic for discussion: “An airplane crash-landed on a deserted island. Only six persons survived: a pregnant woman, an inventor, a doctor, an astronaut, an ecologist, and a vagrant. Whom do you think should be given the only one-person hot-air balloon to leave the island?” Each group was given five minutes to think about the problem alone, and then five minutes to discuss it. After the discussion, one person had to be chosen as the leader to represent the group and report the findings.
In addition, independent judges observed the group discussions and were asked to choose a leader using their own criteria. They also rated the quality of communication skills of people using the following seven criteria: group coordination, active participation, new perspectives, input quality, logic and analytic ability, verbal communication, and nonverbal communication.
Brain synchrony was determined for each two-person interaction within the three-person groups. Every time one person addressed another, this synchrony was determined by a measure called “coherence,” which indicates how often the frequency and scale of brain waves of both people are in sync.
The findings in the study were remarkable: Most (nine out of 11) of the external judges chose the same group leaders that the participants themselves chose. Something about these leaders clearly stood out.
When a leader and a follower were talking to each other, the degree of coherence, or neural synchrony, between the two was much greater than when followers were talking to each other within the groups. But then the question was, in the leader-follower pairs, who initiated the synchrony? Whose brain does the synchronizing with the other?
A statistical test called a Granger Causality Analysis (GCA) can be used to determine this. GCA indicated that both leaders and followers initiated the synchrony, but another statistical test, a two sample t-test, found that leader-initiated communication induced greater coherence and synchrony than did follower-initiated communication. Also, the degree of synchrony was associated with the quality of communication skills mentioned above.
The researchers found that one could predict leaders after 23 seconds by looking at the synchrony data alone, because leaders induced much greater coherence. So just by looking at the degree of synchrony induced when someone spoke, one could tell who was a leader.
Clearly, neither the leader nor the followers were aware of this neural synchronization, since it’s all happening on a biological level. The brain region in which the synchrony was detected was the junction between the left temporal (side and bottom) and parietal (side and top) lobes (the left TPJ). The synchronization occurred during verbal communication, but not during nonverbal
communication or periods of silence. The results are important because they help us reflect on how communication influences who is a leader, how leaders emerge during the communication process, and what factors cause them to be leaders. There are four important implications:
It’s not how much you communicate. It’s how well you communicate. How often leaders spoke did not matter. Even when they spoke less often, it was the degree of brain synchronization and the quality of their communication, measured by the seven aspects mentioned above, that mattered. The greater the quality, the greater the coherence and synchrony with followers. High-quality communications may increase synchrony with followers.
It’s your verbal skills, not your nonverbal skills, that matter when making decisions. In general, nonverbal communication can reveal a lot, but in this experiment it did not affect whether leaders were chosen. Their verbal communication skills were that mattered.
When leaders initiate conversations, they should seek to synchronize with followers or have followers synchronize with them. Being aware of the brain synchronization phenomenon helps leaders better understand the biological basis of good communication. This implies that it is important for leaders to start conversations with a view to developing synchrony with followers. Finding common ground and a means for connection is important and can result in a higher level of coherence during communication between leaders and followers.
In decision making, your synchrony, not your authority, is what matters. Try to predict how others will respond to you by putting yourself in their shoes; this is especially important when managing another person’s emotions. It’s a skill that can be developed. Leaders would benefit from setting time aside to anticipate how their decisions will impact others, and then adjusting those choices if necessary.
We also know that social synchrony is disturbed when people are threatened; the brain’s “alarm,” the amygdala, registers the threat. In organizations, this fact implies that for leaders to be perceived as leaders, they need to be in touch with their followers emotionally, understand their points of view, and address threats that disrupt cooperation.
The brain region that synchronized in the Jiang study is also known for having a significant role in sharing emotional states and in reading the mental states of others, which are important for maintaining group cohesion and cooperation. When the brain is cooperative, it is usually activated by shared social emotions. If leaders want to truly influence their followers, they’ll remember this — and speak accordingly.