Monday, December 21, 2009

Stop Writing Notes at Meetings to Develop Your Compassionate Brain: An Evolutionary and Managerial Advantage

Why does Abbas Jahangiri, who owns a bar and restaurant in Toronto, hand out cookies, sandwiches, blankets, clothing and tea almost every night starting at 2:00 am, as described in the December 20, 2009 Toronto Star, 24 hours of kindness? Evolutionary biologists might speculate that his ancestors have wired him to be compassionate or that he has transformed himself willingly.

Our feelings are millions of years older than reasoning. They travel several times faster in brain time engaging in “an emotional tango”, as Daniel Goleman explains in Social Intelligence. We are wired to connect, to care, to be kind and compassionate.

Apparently, such wiring has helped us survive in the face of peril and upheaval. Those who cooperate and collaborate and do good works have a better chance of living long enough to pass on their genes and/or to inspire others to get involved. Pragmatically, it is in our best interests, both for our families and our work environments, to cultivate our compassionate brains.

The nature: nurture debate is no longer one about a static balance. The gifts of our ancestors and what we do with them influence how we present ourselves to the world. The consensus is that our genes are significantly influenced by our environment, including our mental environment.

The exciting part is that we can consciously become more compassionate, more socially intelligent. Neuroscientists, such as Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, Michigan, have demonstrated that contemplative compassionate “training” can make our brains and our bodies healthier. In effect, we can train the executive functioning part of our brains, which is newer in evolutionary terms, to work in a more sophisticated way with our older limbic/emotional system.

In the context of leadership and management, becoming a more compassionate person is a “no-brainer”. In The Political Brain, author Drew Westen meticulously documents that we are moved by leaders with whom we resonate emotionally. “Irrational emotional commitment to rationality” generally fails to inspire people to engage, to act, to go the extra mile.

The evidence so far is compelling. Emotional intelligence does contribute in important ways to personal success in life and as a leader. So, how can we work on building our compassionate side on the job?

Here are some tips from Travis Bradberry and Jean Graves in Emotional Intelligence 2.0:
1. Breath right: focus on taking slow, deep breaths;
2. Create an emotion vs. reason list: the list will clear your mind to assess the role of both in affecting your judgment;
3. Don’t take notes at meetings. Spend your time instead observing people and making eye contact to help you engage, listen attentively and pick up on subtle meanings;
4. Remember the little things that pack a punch: “Please”, “thank you” and “I’m sorry”.
5. Always have a back-pocket question: “What do you think about….?”

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