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The Neurobiology Mandate: The Key to Restoring Passion, Pride and Productivity (Part 2)


“We are hard-wired for relationships.”

In my earlier posts, I shared that the key to restoring passion, pride and productivity to the workplace is emotional engagement. One of its pillars is the communication mandate, which I wrote about here.

My field of study is interpersonal dynamics. That hasn’t stopped my family from having more than its share of conflict! I had to see a psychiatrist to help me settle issues with my children.

That was my introduction to the neurobiology of personal relationships—how the brain affects personality and how we deal with others. Like strong communication, neurobiology is a key part of understanding each other.

Emotional connection is primal in our DNA; we’re born to connect with others, not be alone. Here’s how you can harness the power of our wiring for better workplace success.


Attachment – How Elephants (and People) Connect

Psychologist John Bowlby points out: “Emotional and physical ‘attachment’ to another person gives a sense of stability and security necessary to take risks, branch out, and grow and develop as a personality.”

Bowlby pioneered the idea that childhood development depends heavily upon a child’s ability to form a strong relationship with at least one primary caregiver, usually one of his or her parents.[1] A strong attachment to a caregiver doesn’t just mean a child will be fed and kept comfortable; it also provides a necessary sense of security and foundation. With those basic needs met, children know they are better able to explore their environments, learn about the world and go on new adventures.

When a child is connected emotionally and with such a relationship in place, there is stability and security. In general, those without such attachments are more fearful, and less willing to seek out and learn from new experiences. This is the fundamental foundation for a field in psychology called attachment theory.

We don’t just see this in humans. Like us, baby elephants are born blind and completely dependent on their mothers and other members of the herd. As an elephant calf grows up, the other females in the group act as full-time babysitters that have been termed ‘allmothers’. While the allmothers take care of the calf, the mother will eat as much as she can to produce as much milk as possible for her little one.[2]

What does this mean for us? It’s a reminder that primary caregivers, usually the parents, should always be there for their children, especially during the infant stage—and that they too need a support network so that they can give the child their best.

Attachment theory draws links between parental attachment and personal development. According to Bowlby and his colleagues, it is the nature of our emotional and physical bonds with our mothers and caregivers that empower us to take risks, branch out and develop our own personalities.

Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver have famously applied attachment theory to adult relationships. Their work with adults who had grown up with weak parental attachments has shown that such people struggle with feelings of inadequacy and a lack of intimacy in their lives.

That’s a big part of why some adults find it easier than others to connect emotionally with people. We need emotional connectivity to thrive, and we want it whether we admit it or not—whether at work or at home.

The degree to which people are emotionally engaged directly affects how willing they are to explore possibilities and be creative. This means that only when people are emotionally engaged they are able to explore possibilities and become more creative in their jobs.

On the flipside, non-engagement dissipates trust and they work in fear, guilt, shame, anger or suspicion. As a result, they lose motivation and merely go through the motions at best—or at worst, they fail to perform as required.

We need connection just like we need air. In too many workplaces, the fresh air of emotional connection is the missing ingredient for innovation and performance.


Mirror Neurons – Monkey See, Monkey Do

Dan Siegel believes that we are hard-wired to perceive the mind of another being. We don’t just observe others’ actions, but perceive (in some way) their internal world. This is made possible by ‘mirror’ neurons—the pathways in our brains that let us act on how another person is feeling.

Neuroscientists differ on precisely how the effect works, and it has been called “the most hyped concept in neuroscience.”[3]

The mirror system is basically how we deduce another person’s internal state from their actions. If I reach for a glass of water, you’ll know my intention is to sate my thirst—and perhaps feel thirsty yourself.

What’s happening? Your brain is perceiving my state via the mirror neurons. They transmit that information to your cortex, which influences the limbic area (that is, the motivational, emotional, learning and memory aspects of the brain) and the brain stem, and that affects the rest of the body.

Those are the same systems that let us feel the joy and pain of others. That twist in your gut when you see a serious car crash, or that agony when we see someone’s limb getting twisted? That’s our capacity to imitate behavior and simulate in ourselves the experiences of others, and is the root of what we know as empathy.[4]

Seen in this light, we cannot help but emotionally connect with others on some level. We are made that way, and a large part of leadership is enhancing this connection so that we can engage on a relational, intellectual and emotional level.

That’s why we enjoy friends and friendship. Those with strong relationships have discovered how crucial they are to longevity, mental and social well-being, and personal happiness.[5]


Neuroplasticity – We Can Teach Old Dogs New Tricks!

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. It’s what allows our neurons to compensate for injury and disease, and adjust their activities in response to new situations or changes in their environment.

In effect, it keeps our brains young! We can teach an old dog new tricks, and it turns out that the brain does not stop growing after childhood or adolescence. The true extent of neuroplasticity remains to be seen, but I foresee new discoveries creating a revolution in learning and growing. We will come to see how experience changes us, and how to alter our brains themselves through strong and intimate relationships.

In my next article, I’ll explore Dan Siegel’s new paradigm of interpersonal neurobiology; how we can mold, influence and change the mindsets of people—even if they aren’t mindful of their own need to change themselves or form better relationships. There’s hope for all of us!


[1] “Attachment Theory,” Psychologist World, at

[2] Pinterest, at

[3] Christian Jarrett, “Mirror neurons: The most hyped concept in neuroscience,” Psycology Today (December 10, 2012), at

[4] PsychAlive, “Dr Dan Siegel – Mirror Neurons: The Discovery,” YouTube (March 3, 2011), at

[5] Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, “Daniel Siegel – The Teenage Brain,” YouTube (May 13, 2014), at

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