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Walking the Walk: How People's Words and Actions at Work Can Actually Shape Your Brain


The world of work has transformed significantly in recent decades. What was once a stable environment with clear hierarchies and expectations has given way to constant change, ambiguity, and flux. Within this new reality, the people leaders and colleagues we interact with on a daily basis have taken on even greater significance for our well-being and success. A growing body of research has found that the words and actions of others, for better or worse, help to shape the very structure and function of our brains.


Today we will explore key findings from neuroscience on social influences and highlight practical ways that leaders and coworkers alike can create an environment that enhances individual potential and organizational performance.


Research Foundation: Social Neuroscience


Social neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field that examines the biological mechanisms through which social interactions influence brain development and behavior (Cacioppo & Berntson, 1992). A core insight is that we are social creatures whose experiences are inherently relational - our relationships and social environment get "under the skin" to affect neural circuitry, physiologic responses, and genetic expression over time (Eisenberger & Cole, 2012). Three key findings from this research area lay the foundation for understanding how what leaders say and do matters greatly for individuals and organizations.


Mirror Neurons Link Us Through Observation: First, human mirror neurons help explain why we are wired to learn from observing others. These neurons, which activate both when performing an action and observing it, allow for rapid imitation and may underpin empathy (Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004). Simply watching a leader's confident presentation style or thoughtful problem-solving, for example, can subconsciously influence our own behaviors through mirroring. In today's knowledge work environments, leveraging the power of observation may be one of the most effective ways to spread desired skills and mindsets.


Social Connections Strengthen Areas for Growth: Second, having trusting, supportive relationships activates reward centers in the brain and promotes neuroplasticity - our ability to form new connections based on experiences (Cozolino, 2014). This socially-driven neuroplasticity scaffolds intellectual, emotional, and social development throughout life. A leader who makes personal connections while also challenging employees in a caring way may help optimize individual potential and team cohesion.


Toxic Environments Impair Functioning Over Time: Third, ongoing stress from factors like hostility, lack of control, or unpredictability can damage areas related to memory, decision-making, and self-regulation through prolonged activation of threat responses (McEwen & Gianaros, 2010). Leaders must be conscious that negative behaviors like public criticism or withholding information take a toll by increasing anxiety and eventually reducing performance. Cultivating psychological safety is vital for well-being, innovation, and retention in knowledge work.


The Power of Positive Language


Given the brain's sensitivity to social influences, the words leaders and coworkers use each day matter greatly. Positive language conveys optimism and possibility, helping to shape perceptions and drive engagement. Some practical strategies include:


  • Coach, don't critique: Focus feedback on observed behaviors that can be improved rather than character assessments. For example, say "Next time, try structuring your proposal like this" instead of "Your analysis was sloppy."

  • Catch colleagues doing things right: Actively look for opportunities to acknowledge others' contributions and successes using specific positive language, not just general praise. "Great work streamlining the approval process - it will save us hours each month."

  • Reframe challenges as opportunities: Use problem-solving language when discussing obstacles. Phrase issues as things that can be addressed through teamwork rather than personal failings. "How might we leverage our new partnership to address rising costs?"

  • Promote positivity through storytelling: Share transformational stories from your experience that exemplify overcoming adversity through perseverance, collaboration, or innovation. Stories build morale and inspiration.


Regularly choosing positive language helps create an environment where people feel respected, motivated to develop, and optimistic even amid change and challenges. Leaders at Bridgewater Associates consciously apply many of these strategies to reinforce the investment management firm's culture of radical transparency.


Modeling Mental Agility in Times of Uncertainty


The modern work context is defined by ongoing change and ambiguity as technologies advance and customer needs evolve rapidly. In such an environment, the ability to adapt one's thinking is of paramount value. Leaders play a key role in cultivating mental agility through modeling behaviors like:


  • Welcoming diverse perspectives: Solicit multiple views respectfully and be open to having initial hypotheses challenged. This shows intellectual humility.

  • Testing assumptions through inquisitiveness: Ask questions to gain deeper understanding rather than make assumptions. Leaders at Anthropic demonstrate curiosity daily through transparent research discussions.

  • Rapidly updating based on new information: Acknowledge when evidence suggests a shift in perspective is needed. Communicate changed stances transparently to build credibility. Reed Hastings does this well as Netflix CEO.

  • Thinking in systems rather than silos: Consider interdependencies between factors and how strategies in one domain affect others. Take a holistic view to anticipate unwarranted impacts.

  • Using failures constructively: View setbacks or mistakes as learning opportunities rather than personal shortcomings. Be transparent about past errors to encourage risk-taking.


Modeling mental agility and embracing an evolutionary mindset helps inspire others while also strengthening networks in the brain's prefrontal cortex for complex strategic thinking under uncertainty. This capability is vital both for individuals and organizations facing relentless disruption.


Focusing on Humanistic Management Approaches


The science of social influences underscores that how leaders treat people matters tremendously for motivation and well-being and, therefore, performance (Grant, 2013). Some supportive approaches include:


  • Individual consideration: Get to know direct reports personally and care about their goals, values, lives outside work. Recognize them as whole human beings.

  • Inspirational motivation: Clearly communicate an appealing vision and aspirations for the future that raise expectations and significance of work.

  • Intellectual stimulation: Challenge employees in a respectful, caring way to tap into their creative potential and help them continuously learn and improve.

  • Empowering others: Share control appropriately and help people gain expertise through taking responsibility and developing mastery. Enable autonomy within boundaries.


Companies putting these humanistic concepts into practice report elevated engagement and productivity. At SAS, leaders make personal connections and provide inspiring challenges within an empowering culture fostering trust, transparency and work-life integration. Their methodology has generated decades of sustained growth.


Conclusion


In today's dynamic, knowledge-focused enterprises, what leaders communicate through words and deeds has never been more impactful. When managers apply principles from social neuroscience to cultivate positivity, flexibility, consideration and empowerment, they actively help shape employees' brains for enhanced well-being, resilience and capability over the long term. By walking the talk of optimism, inquisitiveness and caring daily, leaders foster cultures where people feel psychologically safe to continuously learn, adapt, take risks and give their best through good times and bad. With the right approach, organizations can develop workforces with the agility, cohesion and motivation needed to thrive amid relentless change.


References


  • Cacioppo, J. T., & Berntson, G. G. (1992). Social psychological contributions to the decade of the brain: Doctrine of multilevel analysis. American psychologist, 47(8), 1019–1028. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.47.8.1019

  • Cozolino, L. (2014). The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachment and the developing social brain (2nd ed.). W. W. Norton & Company.

  • Eisenberger, N. I., & Cole, S. W. (2012). Social neuroscience and health: Neurophysiological mechanisms linking social ties with physical health. Nature neuroscience, 15(5), 669–674. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.3086

  • Grant, A. M. (2013). Rocking the boat but keeping it steady: The role of emotion regulation in employee voice. Academy of Management Journal, 56(6), 1703-1723.

  • McEwen, B. S., & Gianaros, P. J. (2010). Central role of the brain in stress and adaptation: Links to socioeconomic status, health, and disease. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1186, 190–222. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.05331.x

  • Rizzolatti, G., & Craighero, L. (2004). The mirror-neuron system. Annual review of neuroscience, 27, 169-192. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144230

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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