leadership at its best

Together – it’s a magic feeling!

Ponder the word together for a moment – what feelings does it conjure up for you? For me, it evokes something positive, something meaningful, a pleasant, physical feeling. I think it’s something we should think about, especially now when so many people feel excluded and encounter so many difficulties in their daily lives. One thing is clear – a person who feels excluded is unhappy.

In our modern world, exclusion can manifest itself in many ways: being snubbed and excluded from the games in the schoolyard by your pals; your workmates going for lunch without inviting you along; a colleague unfairly taking credit for your work; your organisation failing to treat you as one of their high potentials, the conversation suddenly going silent when you come into a room; being frozen out of the labour market; being prejudiced against due to the colour of your skin, your ethnicity, your faith, your gender or your age. Being excluded is not belonging anywhere and failing to be part of a bigger whole.

I myself recall the countless occasions when I had to sit on the subs’ bench in my soccer team, because I wasn’t considered a talent by others. It was an unpleasant feeling every time the coach announced the eleven players in the starting line-up – adding that Dala and Affe would start on the bench. As a footnote, my fellow benchwarmer Affe became a really good defender, playing in Superettan, the Swedish second division.

What the word together can evoke in us as human beings does a lot more than just awaken my curiosity. And I’m not alone. Gregory Walton and Priyanka Carr (2014), both psychology researchers at Stanford University in the U.S, also found the question so interesting that they started to investigate its deeper meaning. Their study showed that people who work together and treat each other as teammates – even when they don’t physically meet – demonstrate a higher degree of motivation. Walton said in an interview: “Our research shows that when people behave towards each other as if they were working jointly on the same task – rather than working independently on the same task – it has a major impact on their motivation”. The researchers also determined that an effective way of inspiring commitment was quite simply to use the word together.

How can that be? Well, according to Walton and Carr, the very word together sparks a powerful social signal in our brain, activating our curiosity and reward systems, which in turn trigger positive feelings. The explanation is that the brain is affected by the fact that it interprets the word together as me belonging, as me feeling affinity and as me working in a team with other people whom I can trust.

This leads me to think about the relatively new knowledge gained by my fellow brain researchers. The knowledge that the brain is extremely socially programmed. Or socially wired, which I think is a cool concept. In their research and application, David Rock and Martin Lieberman (2008) have determined that our brains have five universal social domains, one of which is affinity or relatedness. The other four are: status, certainty, autonomy and fairness. Relatedness is described as a feeling of trust, connection, of belonging. Rock and Lieberman’s research shows that when people experience a lack of relatedness, mental and emotional suffering is caused, a suffering that can even manifest itself in the form of physical pain. Here, our brain reacts in the same way as it would if someone were to give us a cuff round the ear or punch us hard in the stomach. The good side of the coin is that when we experience relatedness in our relationships with others, at work, or in life generally, it boosts our well-being and our desire to develop and learn new things. I interpret this as telling us that the experience of belonging and feeling affinity is of existential importance for us as human beings. An important pre-condition for feeling well and wanting to mature as a person.

In the summer, when I read Lasse Berg’s new edition of the book Gryning i Kalahari – Hur människan blev människa [Dawn in Kalahari – How mankind became a human being] I connected this existential perspective to the origin and evolutionary development of mankind. Lasse Berg’s feat of describing this development up until the present day is exceptional, by the way.

Having read his book, it occurred to me that a great deal of what he writes about can be linked to the reasoning above and to what I wrote about in an earlier post Survival of the Kindest. That we as human beings are social creatures – who both are, and have for a long time been, dependent on each other in order to develop and hence be successful in the process of natural selection. The simple fact that we have lived in groups as gatherers for over 190 000 years and generously shared our assets and resources with each other. According to Lasse Berg, human conflicts were rare and when they did occur, they were solved by love rather than by aggression. Solving conflicts by aggression seems to have emerged more recently in our human development, partly as a result of the ownership of resources and assets becoming more important and as a consequence of greater domestication following the rise of the agricultural society.

The conclusion we now can draw is that there is something deeply intrinsic in us as human beings in the form of moral emotions that motivate us to be generous and wish each other good health, well-being and happiness. Let us together, both on a small and a large scale, help each other to manifest this fantastic human driving force and thus be a part of each other’s success and well-being – embodying  an impulse which for so many thousands of years has characterized us as human beings. And one which modern psychology and neurology research has now acknowledged! This argument also supports the conclusion in my previous post – that societies whose members show a greater degree of sympathy and kindness are more likely to flourish! Or as Lasse Berg so thoughtfully writes: Exclusion kills a person inside – how does a person feel who is never allowed to be good?

Let´s do as John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote in one of their lyrics: Come together, right now!

Jonas Dahl is an organization and leadership consultant at Gaia Leadership, PhD Student and researcher from Stockholm School of Economics, and is a trained teacher in Mindful Self-Compassion. His research looks into how processes in leadership can develop based on a compassion perspective.

Linkedin: se.linkedin.com/in/jonasdahlswe
Twitter: @jonasdahlsthlm


Berg, Lasse. Gryning över Kalahari: Hur människan blev människa. Updated edition. Ordfront, 2012.

Carr, Priyanka B., and Gregory M. Walton. “Cues of working together fuel intrinsic motivation.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 53 (2014): 169-184.

Rock, David. “SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others.” NeuroLeadership Journal 1.1 (2008): 44-52.

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