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Why it is Vital for Leaders to Engage at an Emotional Level

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of being the keynote motivational speaker at the Manchester City Council Leadership Summit. I felt proud to be surrounded by so many passionate Mancunians who were determined to make our City an even better place to be.

The closing comments from the Chief Executive, Joanne Roney OBE, summed it up perfectly when she said "this city goes from strength to strength, it's unstoppable".

I shared three big ideas from my book and one of them was that great leaders engage people at an emotional level.

The following is an excerpt from my book about why it is important and how great leaders achieve it:

“Human behaviour flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowledge” Plato

It is impossible to lead if you do not understand the innate human drives that are fundamental to motivation and behaviour.

Decades of research have provided us with numerous theories about what drives human behaviour. In the 1960’s Dr Paul Mclean, a leading neuroscientist, developed the famous Triune Brain theory for helping us to understand the brain in terms of how it has evolved over millions of years.

His theory proposes that there are in fact three brains in one, each of which has developed over successive years. These three brains do no operate independently of each other, there are numerous neurological pathways which connect each part of the brain meaning they all influence each other.

Brain One The reptilian brain. The oldest of the three brains. This part of the brain is responsible for our vital bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing, hunger, sexual drives and our fight or flight system.

It’s job is to essentially ensure we survive and reproduce.

Brain Two

The limbic brain. Throughout evolution as animals became more complex, this brain first emerged in mammals (sometimes referred to as the mammalian brain). Humans share this brain with the likes of dogs, cats, horses and even mice. Their brains and this part of our brain are very similar, hence why many psychological studies have been conducted using these animals.

If you think about the difference between a lizard and a dog, or a snake and a horse, you will notice that dogs and horses have feelings like human beings. The limbic brain is responsible for our emotions and memory and is sometimes referred to as our emotional brain.

Brain Three

The neocortex. This part of the brain first existed in primates and is what separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. This part of the brain is responsible for the development of language, imagination, consciousness and abstract thinking. The neocortex is flexible and has almost infinite learning capacity. It is sometimes referred to as the thinking brain or rational brain.

The battle of the brains

For the sake of simplicity I am going to focus on two areas of the brain as we further try and understand how these three parts of our brain drives our everyday behaviour. These two I will refer to as the emotional brain and the thinking brain.

This explains why often we can have all the facts, reason and logic to make a decision and still not make it because ‘it doesn’t feel right’.

These two parts of our brain are doing battle.

You will understand this battle if you ever been food shopping when you are hungry. Your rational thinking brain might be telling you all the healthy choices you must be making to stick to your new healthy eating plan but your emotional brain is hungry and takes over and we all know what happens next!

Human behaviour is largely driven by our limbic brain. As the maxim goes ‘reason leads to conclusion, emotion leads to action’.

In the early 1990’s the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made a ground-breaking discovery in decision making. He studied people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. He found that they seemed normal, except that they were not able to feel emotions. But they all had something peculiar in common: they couldn’t make decisions. They could describe what they should be doing in logical terms, yet they found it very difficult to make even simple decisions, such as what to eat.

While our rational thinking brain is conscious and knows what is going on, our emotional limbic system is working behind the scenes meaning many of our decisions are based on emotion even if we are not aware of it.

The limbic system is carrying out our most important drives to keep us alive and safe. This is our priority and therefore it is much more powerful than our rational thinking brain. If we think about going back thousands of years when you may easily be attacked by a tiger or a bear, when this happens you have not got time to think about what to do! You need to act, not work out a plan. This part of the brain takes over and you run or if needed you would defend yourself (fight or flight).

So you can see, it makes sense that our limbic brain has such a powerful influence over our behaviour. Unfortunately, many of these natural drives we have are not suited to the modern world we live in.

This limbic system is responsible for keeping us safe and warning us when we are in danger of any sort. Now when we perceive something dangerous this system kicks in and often dumps a load of chemicals into our system that triggers our fight or flight system. This is how nerves work prior to an important event.

Our rational thinking brain might know that we are prepared, there is no real threat to our health and as much as we tell ourselves to stay calm, our limbic system is triggering emotions inside of us that make us want to get out of there as fast as we can. You can now begin to see why sometimes we have such a hard time making decisions. This is why it is important for us to ensure we engage both parts of our brain to drive high performance.

The thinking brain plays a crucial role in reigning in and controlling the urges of our deeper emotional brain. It helps us from exploding with anger when somebody upsets us or lashing out when we feel like it, because we have learned from our social conditioning that this wouldn’t be helpful to us in the long run.

It helps us to weigh up the risks in any situation, based on our knowledge and experience and not just on how we feel at the time. These two brains are communicating all the time and helping us to make decisions.

The rational thinking brain is acting a lot of the time like a controlling mechanism over our emotional side, which is why when we are tired and depleted we often have less will power and can find ourselves irritated at smaller things. The more we ask our rational thinking brain to work, the less control it will have over our stronger emotional drives.

Several studies have shown that when somebody is challenged with a cognitive task, they are more likely to give in to temptations. One particular study gave participants a number to remember while they walked from one room to another. Everyone got numbers that varied in the number of digits and remembering their number was the clear priority. When walking to the other room they were interrupted and offered a reward for participating, a choice between chocolate cake and fruit.

The evidence showed that the more digits people had to remember, the more likely they were to choose chocolate cake. The busier our rational brain is, the less influence it has over controlling our emotional brain which clearly has a sweet tooth!

Emotion wins over reason.

How is this information useful to leaders trying to motivate their troops?

It demonstrates that in order to fully engage the brain, we need to be engaged at an emotional level as this part of our brain has such a powerful influence over our behaviour.

This doesn’t necessarily mean jumping up and down, geeing people up and always being in a ‘high energy’ state – but it does mean helping people tap into their personal reasons for doing what they do. Helping people find the purpose in their work, connecting to the ‘why’ of what they do and then keeping them focused on that so you get the very best out of them.

My book is available here on Amazon ‘How Leaders Make It Happen’,

If you are holding an event in Manchester and would like to book a motivational speaker, please send me a message.


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