An experiment in singing and what leaders can learn from it

by Miriam McCallum

November 7, 2017

So there I was, about to present a Masterclass at the recent CRF International Conference in Amsterdam and I’d just explained to the gathered delegates that we will all be singing together…silence. Then cue the varied reactions! Some laughter, a few worried frowns, a couple of looks of abject horror, some smiles, a few signs of fear and confusion – “Singing?! I thought this was about Emotional Intelligence?”. So, we were off to a great start …were we?

Of course we were! My co–presenter, Michael Robson-Kiernan, was truly masterful in bringing the group together and after a few warm up exercises and very clear and specific direction – the group started to bond and build trust. We were demonstrating the principles of collaboration and Michael used his leadership to promote psychological safety, an important ingredient for collaboration. Once the group felt safe to make mistakes and share ideas, excitement and anticipation soon filled the room.

Building on this excitement, Michael led the group who were truly fantastic. It was wonderful to see how each individual worked so hard to do it well, get it right and to ensure their contribution was the best they could offer. The harmonies were tough (deliberately so), it took a few goes to teach and get them right. Michael’s method was to demonstrate everything first but when it got out of even his own singing range, he acknowledged this and worked at it anyway – he kept going, showing his own vulnerability. The group really relaxed at this point – smiled and carried on, reaching higher and higher notes. Michael’s openness as a leader accelerated trust and a feeling of psychological safety and the initial fear, anxiety and worry disappeared. Now they were truly collaborating, smiling, each person contributing in the best way they could. Michael – through example and trust – had created a climate of inclusiveness and inspiration.

So, what was happening?

From an Emotional Intelligence (EI) perspective:
  • People were fully present deploying their natural skills easily, actively contributing together. There were no siloes, no dominance, no withholding …just collaboration.
  • Defences were down, a sense of ‘psychological safety’ was created by our leader (Michael) – so it felt OK to make a mistake because this is how we learn … and this is fast learning and the route to high performance.
  • The group were clearly in the Energise zone (stood up, moving, talking), a state related to “Flow”.
From a neuroscience perspective:
  • The hormone “oxytocin” is known to increase when we sing together – this is the “feel good” hormone that helps us bond with others and feel connected.
  • “Laughter” mirror neurons (a specific subset of mirror neurons whose only function is to detect smiles and laughter in others prompting laughter and smiles in response) were activated (there was lots of laughter and smiles!) – reducing levels of stress and anxiety and promoting more confidence in the group.
  • Spindle cells (neurons) were activated – these are the neurons which enable us to evaluate whether we can trust someone or not (why should I trust you?). The transmission is ultra-rapid – we decide in 1/25th of a second whether we can trust someone or not!
  • Oscillator cells – these neurons regulate physical movements – so that in rapport, a group singing together breathe together, hit the right notes in unison. The group are resonating with each other and their leader.
So, from a leadership perspective, how do these all connect in practice – what can we learn from our singing experiment?
  • Creating a climate of safety encourages fast learning, experimentation and innovation
  • Show belief in others and their potential
  • Be fair, to yourself and to others
  • Think about how you appear to others – are you activating the smiling/laughter neurons? What is your leadership “resonance”?
  • Spend time with people who inspire you – this will activate your social intelligence neural pathways and help stimulate your own ‘smiling/laughter mirror neurons’
  • Ask people what they think – communicate they have value and show them you value their opinion, appreciate when they tell you things
  • Encourage opportunities to collaborate – value diversity in skill, experience and perspective
  • Create time to check in – to connect – to build trust – connect with your own humanity
  • Be authentic – showing vulnerability in leadership can be a positive
  • Take the time to celebrate success