Fourth Age Communiqué - Leadership for the rest of us

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

If mamma ain't happy ... ain't no one happy

Ever wonder how this aphorism can be so spot on accurate? Studies in neuroanatomy show a significant correlation between the emotions we feel and how we interrelate with others. One sure sign of successful emotional interaction is how well we find ourselves “in sync” with others. The reverse is equally true, as we know from Mama: we can be just as receptive to cold pricklies as we can to warm fuzzies.

Researchers call this phenomenon “mirroring” — or mimicking others’ emotional patterns. And although it certainly occurs during friendly, positive interaction with others, this tendency is far more commonplace (or at least visible) when interpersonal conflicts flare up.

The common denominator in how we receive and respond to the vibes around us is the “open loop” nature of our limbic system. Unlike the circulatory system, which is self-regulating, Goleman says our emotional centers require input from (and output to) external sources.

Translation: we not only feed off others’ energy, it is a requisite for psychological well-being. Goleman goes on to say we rely on connections with other people for our own emotional stability. This can manifest itself in taking on another person’s sour attitude, or feeling more lighthearted when someone laughs. Studies further show we tend to “norm” with those around us very quickly: from within minutes of encountering strangers to up to two hours within team interactions. Finally, mirroring is not a phenomenon limited to our vocabulary; we are just as prone to emotionally mirror someone nonverbally (including, but not limited to body language) as we are from hearing their vocal inflections.

A key learning for the EI leader, then, is to recognize the vibes each individual in a team brings to bear with it. Positive environmental attenuation, or vibes that make people feel good about themselves and their work and bring out their best, Goleman refers to as resonance. The opposite is negative feelings, or lack of harmony, which Goleman refers to as dissonance. The goal then becomes to reinforce a positive work environment with appropriate levels of positive affirmation.

So the next time you find yourself asking, “what’s eating Mom?”, you’ll know why it might have started eating at you too.


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