Is Your Heart the Boss of You?

Every now and then, I have the pleasure of seeing how my education and early career as a bench biologist can have some connection with the work I am now doing. I have been aware of the work of the Institute of HeartMath for many years,  but in reading a book called “The Compassionate Life” by Marc Ian Barasch, I became reacquainted with the work of HeartMath and considered how it applies to our interactions at work.

The Institute of HeartMath is a group of scientists who not only the heart, but it has a mission to maximize the heart’s interaction with the brain. If this sounds too “out there”, keep reading. This institute has been studying something called “Heart Rate Variability” patterns, small beat irregularities in heart rhythm. What they’ve noticed is that certain patterns seem to correlate with specific emotional states, including compassion, love, and forgiveness.

The discoveries

HeartMath research indicates that just imagining our heart glowing with warmth produces a physiologic effect that correlates with feelings of compassion and loving kindness. This may prove that we have more control over our moods than we think. To top it off, the electromagnetic field generated with the  emotional states of compassion, love, and forgiveness (called “coherence”) can affect a person’s brain waves – and simultaneously go on to affect another’s brain waves.  So emotions are proving – scientifically – to be catching after all.

Finally, the heart has its own “brain” of sorts – consisting of some 40,000 neurons and associated cells that resemble the brain’s cortex. Research is showing that the heart can learn and send out dopamine (a pleasure chemical that influences behavior) and oxytocin (a chemical associated with the feeling of love). In addition, there is evidence that some sensory information is sent directly to the heart before it even travels to the brain.

What this means to you

So what does all of this research mean to leadership and organizations? In my mind, it means we need to give the heart its due at work. If we listen to our heart first, are we able to increase our emotional intelligence and improve our interactions and relationships with others? Should we begin to give emotions more credibility at work?

Why not put more of your heart into your work and the relationships that you have with those around you? It isn’t coincidental that brain coherence increases immune function. It looks like compassion, love, and forgiveness is actually proving scientifically to be better for you and better for your followers in more ways than one.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

14 comments on “Is Your Heart the Boss of You?

  1. “the electromagnetic field generated with the emotional states of compassion, love, and forgiveness (called “coherence”) can affect a person’s brain waves – and simultaneously go on to affect another’s brain waves.” Is this what we call chemistry in common terms? I not only mean the romantic chemistry, but also the great working relationships between a supervisor and the employee, two partners in business, and the cordial relationship among team members.

    I am all for putting more of our heart on the work, organization, relationships around us. Surely it will make our environment more pleasant. But I feel there should be balance in listening between heart and brain. I am wondering if we put more of our heart in work, will it impede the promotions and ability to explore other opportunities. Also I am worried it may depress the employees when they lose the jobs due to economic reasons.

  2. Hi Mary,
    Your post really made me think about decisions I have made in the past. Decisions that I may have acted have differently on, if more thought was put into them. Sometimes we just go with our “gut” which I now think may be directly related to going with our heart…
    There is a great deal of us that don’t put our heart into our work. I can see why too, because it’s so easy to do. With our heart naturally being compassionate, loving and forgiving, theres no reason why it shouldn’t be given its due in the workplace. It’s interesting how studies have shown the release of dopamine and oxytocin. Most people, including myself would always associate these chemicals with the brain and nervous system. I look forward to learning a little more about this scientific theory and to whose really making my decisions; heart or brain…?

  3. Welcome Yathi, I believe you might be on to something here – that of the connection between “coherence” and great working relationships. And I certainly would not advocate for a completely “heart-centered” workplace – there is room for both the brain and the heart, after all (and indeed, we MUST use both). I’m a little confused about your last statements about impeding promotions and depressing employees, though. Could you explain further?

  4. Hi Sachin, I’m glad that the post has made you think retroactively about decisions you’ve made. I also think there is something to being more “proactive” with your thoughts. For instance, if you have a tough conversation coming up, you can use what you are learning to consider how you’d like to show up for that meeting – as more heart centered or brain centered? Or perhaps an equal balance of both? How might you do that?

  5. Thanks Mary. If we love the tasks we do in a particular area (in one division) or if we love the people around us in that division, we may not explore the promotions that come out in another division.

    My other point was that a person works in a place for a long time whole heartedly. The manager let that person go due to business reasons. That employee would think that he/she dedicated himself/herself for this organization for a long time but the organization didn’t care them. The actual reason for the layoff may be due to the economic reasons, or some other reasons but not the employee’s performance. Now that employee has a narrow range of experience and will have a difficult time to find another job. This situation may depress the employee.

    These are just my thoughts. I do not know any actual examples.

  6. Fascinating blog which sparked the following thoughts. If the connection between our heart and brain can impact the success or failure of our leadership, one would think that by controlling our heart rate we could control our ability to access compassion, love, and forgiveness. It would be an interesting study to have leaders wear a heart rate monitor for a day. If their heart rate goes above a certain point (100 bpm for example) a quiet alarm would trigger. By learning to control one’s heart rate we should be able to increase our ability to access the traits that result in greater leadership. This is assuming that it is difficult to access these traits when one’s heart rate is 150 bpm!

  7. Hi Mary,
    It was my mentors that reminded me that I didn’t have to lead by position, even though I could have. I became much better at real leadership the day I shredded my business card. I was challenged to take a higher, more difficult path to achieving longer-lasting loyalty and deeper relationships with those who followed me closest.

  8. Hi Mary,

    Came to your site via my friend @LisaPetrilli who tweeted about it. And I’m glad she did.

    Very, very intriguing and thought-provoking topic for sure.

    I think Garrick’s idea is brilliant. I would take it further and study leaders and see what impact listening to their heart and controlling their heart rate has on their health.

    Thanks for sharing this Mary!

    All the best,
    Steve O

  9. Hi Mary,
    I like the idea of balancing both heart and mind. Their may be some situations where a I have made premeditated decision before meeting with someone. For example having to let an employee go… I’ve never dealt with that one, but would expect it to be a decision that the heart should take step back for.
    In general, I like the balance of both. If I make a decision that I regret, I’ll definitly learn something!

  10. Hi Sachin, it is difficult to let the heart take a step back when an employee must be let go. Even seasoned leaders (and those who operate more from the head) seem to have difficulty with that one. I agree that balance is key.

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