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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Oct 2, 2020


As human beings we often act out of self-interest, but is that the best way to lead others? Recent research sheds a light on whether we make better decisions when considering others.



Hello and welcome to episode 97 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we explore whether we make better decisions when considering others.

I define leadership as achieving results through people for good. The ‘for good’ element is a values statement on my part - it’s how I would hope leaders would act. I’m sure you would also hope that leaders are aiming for collective benefit more than just self-interest.

However, it seems when it comes to learning and decision making we are wired to think primarily of ourselves first. Take, for example, experiments where people are asked to learn a new game in return for a cash payout. Participants learn faster and make better decisions when earning money for themselves than when they are earning money for someone else. Self-interest leads them to put more effort and attention into the learning process.

But what about when there’s a downside? What if, instead of earning money, we are trying to avoid a penalty or harm? Are we still primarily self-interested?

Recent research using an electric shock game provides an insight into these questions. Now, let’s be honest here - psychologists have had a long and occasionally dodgy love affair with passing electricity through people in the name of science. Remember the time we found out that most people would electrocute others to the point of them pleading for help and becoming unconscious rather than disobey someone wearing a lab coat? Thankfully, we do have some ethics and no one in that famous Milgram experiment was actually delivered an electrical shock - it was all actors. In the case of this recent research, the shocks were very much real, but weren’t harmful. The experiment involved two versions of a task where participants would choose between two abstract symbols, one of which would lead to a lower chance of delivering an electrical shock. In one version of the experiment the shock would be delivered to the participant making the decisions. In a second version, the shock would be delivered to someone else. Participants performed better on the task when their choices would result in a shock for someone else, than they did if they were the ones receiving the shock. A level of empathy meant that people worked harder to optimise their decisions to reduce harm to others.

fMRI scans during the experiment revealed different brain regions being activated in the two different versions of the electric shock game. If the shock is being delivered to the participant making the choices, regions associated with evaluating decisions light up. If the shock is going to be delivered to someone else, areas associated with evaluating the emotional state of others also light up. 

So that’s great news - when we are aware of a downside for others, we tend to demonstrate greater care in our decision making. What’s really interesting it that greater care leads to more effective decisions being made. Our decisions improve when we consider others.

So what does this mean for the way we lead? Hopefully you’re not in a workplace that has a penchant for delivering electrical shocks. But, as leaders, our decisions often have potential upside benefits and downside impacts on others. The standard business mantra is that decisions should be focused on data - just stick to the facts. While there’s some truth to that, we need to broaden what we include as data. We need to extend our definition of ‘data’ to include the potential impact on others. The research suggests that isn’t just good for others, but ultimately leads us to make better decisions.

I trust you found the podcast helpful. And remember to check out Leadership Today On-Demand. It includes all of our video content, including our brand new Six Daily Practices of Remote Leadership course - complete with a workbook and two hours worth of research-based practical advice to lead teams more effectively while also looking after yourself. You can sign up for a free 30 day trial, which gives you enough time to complete the course, watch a few recorded webinars, and even check out some quick hits on topics like feedback, influencing and assertiveness. Cancel your subscription at any point during the first 30 days and you won’t pay a cent. Just go to the website and follow the on-demand link.



Lukas L. Lengersdorff, Isabella C. Wagner, Patricia L. Lockwood, Claus Lamm. When implicit prosociality trumps selfishness: the neural valuation system underpins more optimal choices when learning to avoid harm to others than to oneselfThe Journal of Neuroscience, 2020; JN-RM-0842-20 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0842-20.2020

As reported in Science Daily -