3 Tips to be Smarter Happier and More Productive

It’s a simple fact of business that if you try to do it all on your own you won’t succeed, yet many managers fall into the trap of being too busy to engage with their teams and develop positive working relationships.  The latest findings in the neuroscience community tell us that effective leadership and high productivity is about balancing our analytical thinking with ‘social’ thinking because it makes us smarter, happier and more productive.   

The Social – Non-social Seesaw

One of the more recent discoveries is that we use a different part of the brain for Analytical thinking and Social thinking and when one is activated the other is dampened down.  So a greater emphasis on the analytical thinking generally associated with IQ is good for logical reasoning and problem solving, but this very activity reduces the social thinking generally associated with Emotional Intelligence (EQ).  This can account for many leadership and even political decisions being made by highly analytical thinking with little or no consideration for how people will feel about the decision and if it will be possible to implement in the long term.  Wise leadership takes both into consideration because it takes people to implement the decisions. 

Promoting the wrong Skills

A recent large survey looking into what makes a great leader came up with some surprising results.  Less than 20% of respondents said that leaders with analytical skills who focused on results were seen as ‘Great Leaders’, while leaders who had a focus on results and this was combined with social skills were seen as ‘Great Leaders’ by 75% of respondents.  Other research has also found that businesses with very high human capital (intelligent, highly competent staff) were not as productive as ones that also had high social capital (leaders and managers who promoted social interactions, networking, sharing and collaboration).  

Professor Matt Lieberman, a neuroscientist at UCLA, says that social skills are a multiplier.  They enable the harnessing of analytical skills, intelligence and competence.  Well-connected teams who have good social interactions will work together to compliment the strengths and weaknesses of the team, achieving far more than a bunch of very smart individuals working on their own. 

But the leadership study also found that the percentage of leaders scoring high on both Results Focus and Social Skills was a shocking 0.77%.  This clearly shows that social skills are not being valued by the people promoting leaders, and yet the science is showing that they are far more successful at engaging with staff and promoting high levels of productivity. 

Social Pain

Lieberman and his team have made a number of findings that are changing the way we think about our social interactions or the lack of them.  The latest developments in magnetic resonance scans of the brain mean that we can study human behaviour like never before.  In one experiment, designed by Kyp Williams at Purdue University in the US, they had 3 participants passing a virtual ball to one another in a computer game.  When one had the ball the only choice they needed to make was which of the other participants to throw the ball to.  Part of the experiment was to get two of the participants to only pass the ball to one another, excluding the third participant.  Brain scans showed that the part of the brain that got stimulated when the third participant felt the ‘pain’ of being excluded was the same as the part of the brain that registers the distress of physical pain.  When people reported being particularly upset by the rejection there was a stronger response in that part of the brain.  They also found that if you take Tylenol [paracetamol] the pain of feeling excluded will go away.  

These findings throw an interesting light on the chronic lack of engagement that many people have with their work – a recent survey found it was two-thirds – because they feel socially excluded by their managers, who are too busy focusing on results.   However I don’t think a little paracetamol will cure it! 

Social Learning

It is common knowledge that when learning something we usually focus on committing new things to memory which activates the analytical thinking part of the brain; the prefrontal cortex.  An interesting study done 30 years ago was exploring different ways of learning.  A group of students were told to read a boring piece of text and that they would be tested on it later.  Another group were told that they were going to be teaching the information to others but that they would not be tested on it themselves, but their trainees would be. 

The ‘teachers’ were in fact tested and they were found to have better recall of the information than the students who were pre-warned that they would be tested.  It is worth noting that the ‘teachers’ never actually got to teach anyone, their results were produced simply by the fact that they believed that they were going to teach someone. 

Lieberman explored this experiment with the new insights from neuroscience and it shows that when you learn information and your goal is to share it with others you don’t rely on the analytical parts of your brain but the social thinking mechanisms which are located on the midline of the brain where the two hemispheres meet.   The more active this region is during a learning experience the more likely the learning will not only be remembered, but also shared with others. 

How can you get your people to learn more effectively by ensuring they activate their social brains during learning and then share new knowledge and skills with others? 

How to be smarter, more productive and happier

According to Lieberman becoming more social is the key to being smarter, more productive and happier. 

1. When learning, activate your social brain by thinking about who you are going to teach the new material to.  When leading and managing, use your logical analytical brain to resolve issues but also think about the way your people will respond to your decisions and take their perspectives into consideration.  People will notice you have done this and be more likely to listen to you if you address their concerns upfront. 

2. Show your people you care about them as individuals, that you are genuinely social. Create a more social environment by promoting collaboration because your people will be more likely to see you as a great leader and be more productive.  It is also interesting to note that, because of the way they brain is wired, you can stimulate the same region of the brain that gets activated by a pay rise when you praise someone – and it doesn’t cost anything.  

3. Finally, consider how you balance your pursuit of wealth and your social and family life.  The relentless pursuit of earning evermore money and having evermore stuff is creating unprecedented stress in western society and yet according to many academic studies there is no direct correlation between having more money and being happy.  Obviously, basic needs need to be met but are you getting enough quality time with your family and friends?  Are you activating your social brain enough? 

Success is ultimately defined in the eye of the beholder, on your deathbed you will be the final judge of how successful you were.  But what are your success criteria?  Is it about your material wealth or is it about your social wealth?  How wise are you about balancing both and being happy while you do it? 

Remember . . . Stay Curious! 

With best regards

David Klaasen 


David Klaasen is director and owner of the niche HR consultancy, Inspired Working Ltd.  (www.InspiredWorking.com)

We now have a new website packed full of learning resources for managers for more info see www.InspiredWorkingonline.com
If you have a communication or performance problem and would like some objective advice drop him a line at

Views: 1379

Comment by David Stearne on July 11, 2014 at 12:21

I immediately thought about the Ohio State & University of Michigan studies from the 40s & 50s - no I'm not quite that old.  

As I understand the research findings, leaders that are more considerate / people oriented (and less task focused) and that promote participation or collaboration achieve better results.  

This fits with what I know about the factors that lead to higher levels of engagement and satisfaction at work ...

- knowing that my boss cares about me and my welfare, success and development

- being given a chance to have a say and to influence not only what I do but how I do it

- understanding what the organisation stands for

- being 'in the loop' / having access to information about how things are really going.

Comment by David Klaasen on July 11, 2014 at 18:11

Thanks for your comments David.  It is interesting how in many ways the neuroscience research is scientifically confirming what we already know. What I like about it is that it makes it easier to build a strong case for investing in people development with the 'analytically minded' Finance People.  If it's scientific it's less 'fluffy' and they can see the values in it.

Comment by David Stearne on July 14, 2014 at 11:36

Agreed David ... but it can be a tough sell, as I'm sure you know.  I've met and worked for a few closed minded analytic types (is that an oxymoron) that think they already have all the answers.  To the stereotypical task oriented autocrat there are only two ways of doing things, their way or the wrong way!  I liked you website.  Cheers


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