“Frazzle” is a neural state in which emotional upsurges hamper the workings of the brain’s executive center – when the biology casts out of our zone of intellectual excellence. The neurobiology of frazzle reflects the body’s default plan for emergency.

On the other hand, boredom fogs the brain with its own brand of inefficiency. Minds wander, lose focus, motivation vanishes.

Is there a neural “sweet spot” between boredom and frazzle where the mind runs with thrilling internal harmony, ease and efficiency – where our powers operate at an optimum level? How can we maintain this “sweet spot” of cognitive performance where motivation and focus and motivation peak at the intersection of a task’s difficulty and our ability to match its demand?

Picture a bell curve.

  • On the horizontal axis is stress.
  • On the vertical axis performance.
  • At the top of the bell curve is our optimum efficiency, our cognitive edge -- the “sweet spot”.
  • With too little stress performance declines sharply – the bell curve pinches out at the lower left into boredom.
  • Too much stress and performance also declines sharply – the bell curve pinches out at the lower right into anxiety.
  • At a tipping point just past the optimal state, challenges begin to overmatch our abilities. Increasing anxiety begins to erode cognitive efficiency.
  • We do our best at moderate challenge levels of stress. Our minds frazzle under too much pressure.

The emotional task of leaders is to help people get to and stay as close as possible to their “sweet spots”. It’s easy for leaders to crank up the stress level – just show a little anger, which subordinates catch like the flu. Conversely, well-titrated leader irritation can energize the organization.

Leadership boils down to a series of social exchanges that drive subordinates’ emotions into a better or worse state. Like wise parents, wise leaders help create a shared secure base – the right mix of security and anxiety.

A good leader is a great listener, encourager, communicator, courageous, has a sense of humor, shows empathy, is decisive, takes responsibility, demonstrates humility, shares authority.

A bad leader is a blank wall, a doubter, secretive, intimidating, has a bad temper, is self-centered, indecisive, blames others, arrogant and mistrustful. As in families, if the leader disappoints, employees can look to surrogates for a secure base at work – colleagues, a work team, work friends. In optimum circumstances, a cohesive work group with a secure and security-promoting leader creates an emotional “surround” that can be so contagious that even people who tend to be highly anxious find themselves relaxing.

Socially intelligent leadership starts with being fully present and getting in synch. Once engaged, the leader can sense how people feel and why, and how to interact smoothly enough to move others into a positive work state. Because emotions are so contagious, every boss at every level needs to remember that he or she can make matters either worse or better.

Some prisons and correctional institutions are applying elements of social intelligence, particularly with adolescents and younger inmates. Otherwise the correctional mainstream is bleak. The U.S. has two million people in prison, 482 out of each 100,000. Once a person is caught up in the prison system, the odds of escaping its gravitational pull are abysmally low.

Some formerly high crime neighborhoods are applying social intelligence to improve personal safety, lower drug use and unwanted pregnancies, and increase children’s academic performance.

Experiments in “restorative justice” have lowered recidivism. Offenders are required to meet their victims, face the emotional aftermath of what they have done, make amends where possible, altering the emotional subtext from I-It to I-You.

Too much of the world is divided into Us-Them. Too often what divides is a narcissism of minor differences. Ultra-subtle prejudices hide in the low road, in the form of implicit biases, automatic and unconscious stereotypes.

Recent research shows that automatic stereotypes and prejudices are fluid, can shift. At the neural level, even the low road remains an eager learner throughout life. When people think or talk about their tolerant attitudes, the prefrontal brain activates and the amygdala quiets down. As the high road engages in a positive way, the low road loses its power to stir bias.

Recall that the pain of ostracism registers in that part of the social brain that also reacts to pain. Victims of prejudice often obsess about the hurt. Holding on to hatred and grudges floods the body with stress hormones that can cause adverse biological consequences. Genuine forgiveness can reverse the biological reaction on both sides, lowering blood pressure and heart rate, lessening emotional pain and depression. Following the fall of apartheid in South Africa, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission pursued forgiveness and reconciliation on a national scale. In Rwanda, some Hutus and Tutsis are making a similar effort in the wake of genocide.

In some respects, social intelligence is confirming (or borrowing from) positive psychology. The wealthiest people are not necessarily the happiest. As the wealthy get more money, they adjust their expectations upward. “The rich may experience more pleasure than the poor, but they also require more pleasure to be equally satisfied” – a kind of hedonic treadmill.

The most powerful influences on how happy women feel are the people with whom they spend their time. Men or women, the most universally agreed-upon feature of the “good life” are good relationships. One researcher concludes that it requires five upbeat interactions between a couple to offset every negative one.

The exquisite social responsiveness of the brain demands that we realize that not just our own emotions but our very biology is being driven and molded, for better or for worse, by others – and in turn, that we take responsibility for how we affect the people in our lives.

Vitality arises from sheer human contact, especially from loving connections – the raw buzz of fellow feeling.

Social responsibility begins when we act in ways that help create optimal states in others.

Nourish your social connections.

Bookmark & Share