Do you remember school group projects?
When the topic comes up, people are usually in one of three camps. Maybe you’re a full-on opponent — unsure how to deal with the different personalities and work habits that make up a team, plus the whole getting up in front of the class on presentation day thing? Not so cool. Or maybe you love group projects. Capital “L” love them and everything they encompass. Perhaps you’re indifferent. Hand dismissively in the air, “Just tell me what part is mine, and I’ll do it.”
Personal dispositions aside, once everyone pushes their desks together, the process always looks about the same. While no leader is initially identified, everyone is unified by an objective: Give a presentation on the economy of the Middle Colonies, show why a code of ethics in journalism is so important, etc. You get the point.
Before long, a leader will emerge, and when it’s time to present to the larger group, said person is unanimously chosen — if they haven’t assigned themselves already — as the spokesperson. One liners and other supporting parts are divvied up among the rest of the group.
On its face, the leader is deemed the leader because they seem to say the smartest things, and they also want to hear their individual group mates’ perspectives. They’re engaging and engaged. They move the conversation forward. They do things that everyone, including the disinterested team members, silently agree displays their capacity to lead the group’s work over the finish line. This scenario’s not so different when the environment changes from school to work.
But what exactly is that invisible quality that draws everyone around this leader in the first place? A study published last year, showed that a high level of neural synchrony exists between the leader and followers.
As part of the study, 11 groups of three people were asked to conduct a leaderless discussion while their brain activity was monitored via functional near infrared spectroscopy-based hyperscanning. Given a problem to consider, each group had five minutes to think about it alone and then five minutes to discuss it. Afterward, each group had to select a leader to report their findings. Discussions were videotaped, and independent observers were asked to choose a leader as well as rate the quality of the group members’ communication using several criteria that included group coordination, verbal and nonverbal communication, logic and analytic ability, active participation, new perspectives and input quality.
A few things happened.
A majority of the independent observers ended up identifying the same group leader the participants chose, and an analysis of the brain scans showed why. Researchers measured brain synchrony between each two-person interaction in the groups for coherence — how often the frequency and scale of the brain waves of the people talking to one another were in sync — and found the degree of neural synchrony was much higher between the leader and a follower than it was between two followers. The observers and followers had essentially picked up on the same things about the leader — strong verbal communication skills, so much so that the leaders achieved synchrony with their team mates.
Additionally, researchers found that based off the synchrony data collected, leaders began emerging as early as 23 seconds into the discussions, and separately, that leader-initiated communication induced greater coherence than when the follower initiated engagement.
In “How Leaderless Groups End Up with Leaders,” a February article published in the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Srini Pillay offered a few takeaways that I’d like to pass along to you:
- Think quality, not quantity. Leading isn’t so much in how much leaders communicate as it is about how well they communicate verbally.During the experiment, synchronization occurred only during moments of verbal communication. Ultimately what drove the leader endorsement — and a high level of coherence — was the quality of verbal communication, as measured by the aforementioned criteria. Yes, about 90 percent of communication is nonverbal, and a lot can be gleaned by what is unspoken, but it was during a leader’s verbal communication that researchers detected synchronization.
- Common ground is key. When leaders initiate conversations with employees, they should seek common ground in order to sync up with everyone else.This study suggests that leaders “warming up” the room achieve something greater than just establishing a welcoming atmosphere in which to share information — it helps create connection.
- More synchrony in decision-making, please. In leadership, synchrony trumps authority when it comes to decision-making. Leaders are better off leading from a place of empathy, Pillay wrote: “Leaders would benefit from setting time aside to anticipate how their decisions will impact others, adjusting those choices if necessary.”