How do groups pick their leaders?

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Natural leaders are good communicators and emotionally in touch Image: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Emma Luxton
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Scientists are able to predict which members of a group will emerge as leaders by looking at their brain activity during conversations.

Neuroscientists from the Max Planck Institute found that when a group member becomes a leader, his or her brain activity begins to synchronize with that of "followers".

They found that interpersonal neural synchronization (INS) between leaders and followers during social interactions was significantly higher between leaders and followers than between followers and followers, indicating that leaders emerge by synchronizing their brain activity with that of their followers.

Groups of three people were asked to start a discussion but without an identified leader. During this task their brain activity was recorded, as shown below.

Source: Jiang, Jing et al. “Leader Emergence through Interpersonal Neural Synchronization.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 112.14 (2015): 4274–4279. PMC. Web. 25 Feb. 2016.

When a leader and follower were talking to each other, the synchronicity between them was much greater than when followers spoke to each other. In other words, in situations where no leader is identified our brains make the decision for us.

How important are communication skills?

Leaders are often great communicators. But while communication skills are important, it’s what you say – not how often you speak – that determines leadership. The researchers found “the quality rather than frequency of the leaders’ communication makes a significant contribution”.

Participants with better communication skills had better synchronicity with the others in the group. This resulted in the best communicator being subconsciously identified as the leader by the group.

In the study, verbal communication was considered more important than non-verbal. But the verbal interactions played a much greater role in determining who was identified as the leader.

How brain synchronization affects leadership skills

The research noted some other important implications for leaders:

  • It is important for leaders to be aware of how brain synchronization can help them to improve their communication and leadership skills.
  • Finding common ground with followers can lead to neural synchronization. This is important in developing a good connection.
  • When making decisions, leaders should focus less on authority and more on synchrony with followers. Leaders should attempt to anticipate how their decisions will affect others and try to communicate effectively with their followers.

In an article on the study, the Harvard Business Review noted: “For leaders to be perceived as leaders, they need to be in touch with their followers emotionally.”

Understanding people's emotions is important in maintaining group cohesion and cooperation, and understanding the brain synchronization phenomenon can help leaders make that first step.

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