In a previous post, we looked at leadership and how leaders can use their understanding of neuroscience to build a relationship with their followers. The “herd instinct” is another aspect of the leader-follower relationship that is illuminated by neuroscience. The neurochemical oxytocin triggers a “bliss response” in the brain whenever we are engaging in social behavior. The brain is an incredibly effective survival machine. One of our most successful survival techniques is our desire to find safety in numbers. When we belong to a group, this bliss response makes us feel warm, safe, and content. When we don’t have a connection with a group, our brain triggers behavior that will compel us to seek new connections until we can get that bliss response again. In a previous post I mentioned that oxytocin has been linked to such seemingly unrelated feelings as orgasm and motherhood. The good feeling that we get from belonging to a group is simply another manifestation of our response to engaging with other humans for survival.

Leaders should consider this herd instinct carefully to build followership:

  1. Recognize the power of existing affinities. The “high” that we get from a flood of oxytocin can be habit-forming, possibly even addictive. This means that breaking out of our existing connections can be extremely difficult. Sociologists long have noted how difficult it can be for an individual to escape the influences of a teenage gang, and now we know that gang initiations actually can cause physical change in the brain, which makes it harder to break those bonds.
  2. Encourage the formation of new affinities. If you want people to follow you, their brains must be able to recognize that they are part of a group of followers. Social media, face-to-face meetings, and other tools can help to send those signals to your followers’ brains.
  3. Fight the herd instinct in yourself. The paradox of all of this is that as a leader, you are in danger of falling into the herd mentality yourself. Leading often is uncomfortable, because you may not see other people around you doing similar things—that’s because you are out in front of the pack. When you are leading, your brain will not release the chemical cocktail that makes you feel good. Instead, you may feel anxious and begin to doubt yourself. It will seem safer to run to another group, rather than to start your own.

The good news is that the herd mentality can be broken. Research shows that conscious choices actually will make physical changes in the brain, breaking establishing neural pathways and making it easier to form new ones. Leaders have to change two brains: their own and their followers. Understanding that fact might make it a little easier to deal with the herd instinct effectively.