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 Why it’s beneficial for leaders to care – what’s in it for them?

By Mary-Joe Emde

By Mary-Joe Emde, CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group in South Africa.
She is also a faculty member at USB Executive Development (USB-ED) and facilitates on USB-ED’s Certificate in Neuroleadership presented in Cape Town

Dr George Kholrieser, well-known author and hostage negotiator, addresses the principle of secure-based leadership in his latest book Care to Dare.  At the 2012 NeuroLeadership Summit in New York in October, Kholrieser partnered with Dr Niaomi Eisenberger, renowned social neuroscientist from UCLA, to address the question of what happens in the brain of a leader that cares. 

As many as 80% of employees are driven by fear and kept hostage by somebody or themselves. Being a hostage speaks to lack of personal power and not playing to win.  When employees lack personal power, the brain experiences a lack of safety and primal survival responses are generated. In order to shut down the brain’s defensive mechanism, leaders need to provide a secure base to foster growth and development. 

“A secure base is a person, place, goal or object that provides a sense of protection, gives a sense of comfort and offers a source of energy and inspiration to explore, take risks and seek change.” Kohlrieser, 2012

A caring leader provides a secure base for employees to challenge themselves and take appropriate risks, as well as look for opportunities. A lack of caring can lead to pain and suffering. Recognising social pain in someone you don’t know is  difficult, as the brain regions associated with empathising with their pain are not as active as they are with someone that you know well. Leaders don’t always recognise the social pain of their followers owing to lack of relatedness. The field of NeuroLeadership is providing opportunities for greater awareness and understanding of caring. 

Social pain and pleasure

So what is the neurological process associated with caring? Dr Eisenberger highlights the fact that human beings have evolved to maintain social relationships, as being connected is crucial to our survival.    As an insurance policy for staying socially connected, our social attachment wiring has ‘piggybacked’ onto the pain systems in the brain. Social pain and social reward is therefore experienced in the same brain regions as physical pain and reward. 

Picture 1: Brain networks associated with social pain and social pleasure

Dr Eisenberger’s studies have even shown that Tylenol, an American drug used to reduce pain, fever, cold and flu symptoms, can reduce hurt feelings. 

Picture 2: Tylenol reduces hurt feelings

During a conflict situation, emotional bonding is broken and social pain is experienced. Helping leaders to understand that social pain activates fear and disengagement will go a long way in developing effective strategies for influence and support in the workplace. 

What’s in it for me?
Besides creating engaged and cared-for employees, a caring leader also benefits personally. Eisenberger’s research has shown that caring for and supporting someone else activates the two brain regions associated with pleasure, the Ventral Striatum and the Septal area. 

Picture 3: Ventral Striatum and giving support

Picture 4: Septal Area and giving support

Giving support and caring not only activates the brain’s pleasure-seeking areas, but also reduces stress. During an experiment designed to test Systolic blood pressure of individuals before completing a stress task, during a stress task and post-stress task (Inagaki & Eisenberger, in progress), it was found that support-giving reduced Systolic blood pressure drastically.

Leaders very often label caring as a ‘soft skill’ and shy away from displaying caring behaviours. The impact of this research is that through an understanding of the neurological functioning of the brain, leaders will gain greater insight into employee behaviour, as well as an understanding of the personal benefit gained by supporting others. Through applying a scientifically grounded approach, a leader is able to make sense of his or her behaviours and their impact on others. With deliberate focus and practice, a leader can develop a social skillset that supports engagement and collaboration. 

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