Relating to relatedness

I think it was Stephen Turner (2007) who lamented that much sociological theory is uninformed by our contemporary understanding of neuroscience.

David Rock, in series of articles (2006, 2009) looks at leadership and management from the perspective of neuroscience. One particular section caught my eye, in which he writes about teams; the Relating to relatedness of the title.

Fruitful collaboration depends on healthy relationships, which require trust and empathy. But in the brain, the ability to feel trust and empathy about others is shaped by whether they are perceived to be part of the same social group…. Each time a person meets someone new, the brain automatically makes quick friend-or-foe distinctions and then experiences the friends and foes in ways that are colored by those distinctions. When the new person is perceived as different, the information travels along neural pathways that are associated with uncomfortable feelings (different from the neural pathways triggered by people who are perceived as similar to oneself).

Leaders who understand this phenomenon will find many ways to apply it in business. For example, teams of diverse people cannot be thrown together. They must be deliberately put together in a way that minimizes the potential for threat responses. Trust cannot be assumed or mandated, nor can empathy or even goodwill be compelled. These qualities develop only when people's brains start to recognize former strangers as friends. This requires time and repeated social interaction.

Once people make a stronger social connection, their brains begin to secrete a hormone called oxytocin in one another's presence. This chemical … disarms the threat response and further activates the neural networks that permit us to perceive someone as "just like us." Research by Michael Kosfeld et al. in 2005 shows that a shot of oxytocin delivered by means of a nasal spray decreases threat arousal. But so may a handshake and a shared glance over something funny.

Conversely, the human threat response is aroused when people feel cut off from social interaction…. Leaders who strive for inclusion and minimize situations in which people feel rejected create an environment that supports maximum performance. This of course raises a challenge for organizations:

This, of course, has implications for teaching, especially when teams are used (as in team-based learning). We have always known that how teams are put together is important, but this article gives us a more nuanced understanding. It also reminds me how important it is for teams to have some (structured) time to get to know one-another.


Rock, D. (2009). Managing with the brain in mind. /Strategy & Leadership, Autumn/(56), 60-68.

Rock, D., & Schwartz, J. (2006). The neuroscience of leadership. /Strategy & Leadership, Summer/(43), 73-82.

Turner, S. P. (2007). Social theory as a cognitive neuroscience. /European journal of Social Theory, 10/(3), 357-374. <span

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