Sep 1, 2020

Back to school: what the playground (and neuroscience) can teach us about how we lead teams and build culture

It’s that time of year again. The classroom doors are about to swing open! Although, in this strangest of years the air is filled with anticipation — a mix of excitement, apprehension and a feeling of newness. More than ever, this September term feels like a significant opportunity to try to hit the reset button.

For us grown-ups navigating the decidedly strange world of work we find ourselves in at the moment, the start of a new school year is also the signal that we’re heading into Q4 of the calendar year; and along with it the ‘final push’ to close the year out in times of unprecedented uncertainty.

When it comes to both going back to school and leading teams back into the office in the ‘year of the pandemic’, it’s useful to reflect on what the two have in common. Specifically, how the playground can teach us a great deal about how we behave as adults.

Children provide us with a fascinating social lens. Looking through this lens and understanding how children interact with each other can help us learn about our social needs as adults… After all, social need (and social threat) remain at the core of how we behave, react and lead, throughout our lives.

At Unleashed, we champion an understanding of the neuroscience of leadership. That neuroplasticity that we all have is vitally important when it comes to practising, strengthening and continuously enhancing effective leadership behaviours and styles. So join us as we go back in time….


“*Insert child’s name* won’t let me play with them…”

I doubt there is an adult out there who doesn’t remember the painful rejection of being the last to be picked to join a team, or fighting feelings of confusion or even envy over that one popular kid and their gang who wouldn’t let you play with them. Perhaps if you were that ‘popular kid’ you remember the absolute HELL of starting at a new school and feeling like you would NEVER MAKE ANY FRIENDS EVER AGAIN. It’s heart wrenching! Being a child is HARD. That feeling of rejection is so overwhelming, but not hugely surprising if we look at how our brain actually responds to this feeling of being left out.

In the front portion of our brains, there’s a ‘bridge’ between the limbic system and prefrontal cortex, called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. This region looks after several complex cognitive functions such as empathy, impulse control, decision making and the distressing component of both physical and emotional pain. If we look at how that portion of our brain reacts when we’re being excluded or rejected by others, we see that the more intensely we feel rejected, the higher the levels of activity in this region*.

Yep, that’s right — the feeling of being rejected or excluded causes the same reaction in the brain as being physically hurt, hence our intense emotional response to being rejected in the playground.

Sadly, this doesn’t change as we get older, however, our playgrounds do. Our concrete playground eventually gives way to a concrete jungle, and while we’ve swapped our monkey bars for Macbooks, we’re still operating in an environment where, as humans, we need to feel included. From our brain’s perspective, our workplace is a social system just as our playground once was, not just an environment where we trade labour for money.

As adults, if we feel unrecognised, rejected or left out our Anterior Cingulate Cortex is triggered in the same way it was back in year 4 when that other kid hit you over the head with a stapler. Think about how many times you’ve been frustrated at finding out someone you work with has hoarded information, or how it feels to perceive that you’ve been undermined by someone going ‘above your head’. From there, it’s a hop, skip and a jump to losing engagement and completely checking out from your work, especially if you feel as though you have to tolerate that behaviour and “just get on with it”. As humans, we need to feel safe, connected, related and included at work, in order to feel engaged, committed and therefore, productive.

As we return to the office, don’t forget to ensure that people have the time and opportunity to bond (at a safe, social distance!), share their stories, and empathise with each other. This is particularly important for those that were on furlough and for those that took over a little of their work. Take this opportunity as a leader to set the tone moving forward and to review (with your team) how your business can be more inclusive than ever going forward.


“Kids make friends so easily. I wish it was that simple at our age.”

Ah, the simple days when you were a kid going to the beach and you’d make a friend instantly, spend the whole day rock-pooling together until the evening when you’d inevitably say goodbye and never see each other again. Those were the days when having similar lunch boxes, a small net and bucket; and a penchant for catching crabs was enough common ground for a couple of six year olds to become best friends for the day. In reality, this was our brain’s ability to feel empathy in action. It’s the reason you could establish such immediate trust in this new rock-pooling friend — trust that was being catapulted by the perception of relatedness, or the understanding that this person is “just like me”.

Mirror Image Effect is a genuine bias that, as humans, we’re incredibly susceptible to. We just love people who we perceive to be just like us! The moment we meet a new human, our brain has milliseconds to decide whether the person in front of us will be friend or foe, and that decision is predominantly based on whether they are “like us” or not. (We can blame evolution for this bias as it comes from the time when we lived in caves and had milliseconds to decide whether the thing in front of us was going to eat us or not. Our brain created shortcuts so that we didn’t have to waste time analysing a situation and could cut straight to judgement or action — aka running away from the dangerous and hungry thing with sharp teeth!)

Nowadays, whilst it’s unlikely that the new person in front of us is an actual threat to our physical lives, our threat response is still triggered and this information is sent along the neural pathways that are specifically associated with uncomfortable feelings (different neural pathways to those which are triggered when we meet others we think are similar to us.)

However, as we start to find more common ground with that stranger (perhaps a new colleague), by swapping names, discussing hobbies, the weather this morning, or by sharing common values and attitudes etc, our brain begins to secrete Oxytocin (the hormone linked with feeling affection, generosity + admiration) and starts to disarm our threat response, allowing us to feel a closeness and relatedness with an individual, that in turn, boosts collaboration in teams**.

Leaders who understand how important relatedness is for humans are a step closer to building a high performing team and an effective culture. On an individual level, the presence of feelings of trust, empathy and connectedness cannot be assumed, instead initiatives and approaches that create opportunities for relatedness must be designed and crafted. As Leaders, we need to proactively reduce threat responses and increase reward responses by creating safe and connected relationships at work. Think {well designed} buddy schemes during onboarding, great mentoring or coaching, team away days, small learning groups or hackathons. On a company level, work to build connectedness within your team in relation to your shared mission, what you’re all working towards, even your aspirational culture. It not ok to decide whether someone is ‘like me’ based on how they look (you’re likely to get it very wrong), and without necessarily carrying around a pink unicorn lunchbox to be able to get a hunch if someone has similar likes and dislikes, team members must get to know each other, their backgrounds, their experiences, likes, dislikes etc. The more they understand each other, the more they will feel safe!

You’re always going to have micro-cultures within different teams and quite rightly (the culture that supports and motivates your dev team on a daily basis, isn’t likely to be the same one that supports and motivates your sales team), however it’s crucial to still work hard to enable relatedness between all teams and all individuals. Inclusive practices that drive relatedness and connectedness at the beginning of a relationship will increase your business’ chances of success!


Another way to summarise our brain’s reaction to meeting new people or being in new situations would simply be ‘Threat vs Reward’***. It’s your brain’s way of figuring out how it can minimise danger and maximise reward in this new, unknown situation.

Think about a time when you’ve met a friend’s toddler, and within seconds of saying hello to the little one, they are hiding behind their mother’s legs or burying their head into one of their parents’ sides. Disclaimer — they don’t hate you. This is essentially ‘stranger anxiety’ — to them, you are the ‘unknown’ and whilst they are deciding whether they like and trust you, they have to negotiate the situation in a purely sensory and physical way.

From a neuroscience perspective, what’s happening here is that, as we encounter unknown or unexpected things (a new person, a noise in the dark, or suddenly having a difficult conversation), our Limbic system (the part of the brain that is responsible for all human behaviour, decision making and also feelings like trust and loyalty) is stimulated. As this happens, neural networks are activated, hormones are released and your brain is trying to understand whether this new situation or person is going to be a danger or not (again, something we can pin on evolution!). If we ‘decide’ that this situation is indeed one we should be concerned about, it becomes a pure ‘Threat’ response, aka our Fight, Flight, Freeze (FFF) response.

Putting it lightly, this FFF/Threat response is not ideal. It’s exhausting for us mentally and uses up a ton of oxygen and glucose from our blood, which is taken from other areas of the brain, including the hippocampus which is the part of our limbic system that’s responsible for forming new memories, and therefore, our ability to learn. If we experience it chronically, it also has an incredibly negative impact on our ability to think analytically, problem solve and be creative.

Now, you see where I’m going with this ;)

Luckily, we’re a little bit better at working through that ‘meeting a new human’ anxiety than we were as a toddler (thank goodness — it wouldn’t be hugely professional to hide behind a colleague’s leg the day a new team member starts!), but our brain still has the same reaction when we interpret something as a threat. Triggering our FFF response whilst at work is potentially disastrous and means that not only is the part of our brain that controls memory and how we learn, shut down, but our ability to be collaborative, strategic or think outside of the box is completely compromised. Our brains simply become less efficient!

Unfortunately, not only is it easy for this to happen, it’s also quick (neuroscientists suggest that after the brain decides there’s a potential threat, it takes around a ⅓ of a second for a threat response to be triggered.) For example — poorly given feedback from a peer or manager, our status or value being questioned, feeling we’ve been treated unfairly or that we’re being micromanaged are all behaviours that will trigger our FFF threat response.

On the flip side, recognising hard work and values driven behaviour, empowering individuals to be autonomous, clearly setting expectations and championing + building psychological safety at work (we recently published another blog post on how to do just that) will instead trigger that reward response and allow teams to be more effective, collaborative, creative and high performing. That’s intrinsic reward to the max!


I’ve loved reflecting on my childhood, looking at how my friends’ children behave + hopefully seamlessly linking it to what we know about how our brain works! But as with all Unleashed blog posts, there’s some specific + impactful learnings to be had about how to lead teams and build culture.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a 6 year old wanting to go back to school to see your friends, or desperately wanting to do something on our own without adult supervision, or whether you’re a 30 year old wanting to make sure you’re in the loop on a certain project — all of our brains have the same kinds of social needs and challenges. Psychological safety and relatedness + connectedness to other people are all basic human needs — in fact many studies have shown that these kinds of social needs are treated in our brain as of similar importance to our need for food and water. We need to feel needed and to know that we play a valued role in the future of a company, not just in the eyes of our manager, but in our peers also.

And this kind of insight isn’t just a ‘nice to have’. Leaders who understand and actively embed this knowledge into the way they manage teams and build culture are better equipped to motivate, support and engage the talented people around them. Understanding these kinds of brain-nuances and the specific drivers that trigger these kinds of threat and reward responses in the brain, teamed with an understanding of an individual’s personal ambitions, likes, dislikes, motivations and demotivations, is the key to engaging and motivating talent, building collaborative and high performing teams and fostering psychological safety internally. Sounds like a win win to me!

This is but a mere glimpse at how understanding our brains can help us better lead teams. And if you want to dive deeper into learning more and taking your leadership skills to the next level, then just ask some kids!

[*] There’s a fascinating study done by Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman at UCLA which tracks the response rate within the brain when someone feels rejected in a virtual game of catch, which you can read here.

[**] Here are more details of a great study by Kosfeld 2005 which showed that oxytocin via a nasal spray boosted collaboration and cooperation in some individuals, by reducing their aversion to being betrayed — very interesting!

[***] The research around Threat vs Reward and the development of the SCARF model was coined by David Rock in 2008, and looks at the 5 key domains that influence our behaviour in social situations. He explains his research really well in this video.

Written by Unleashed People + Culture Partner, Michaela Bartlam.

If you enjoy both boat puns and great insight on all things People, Culture + Leadership, then sign up for our newsletter Unleashed Thinking. One email per month, no spam.

Get Unleashed Thinking straight into your inbox

Thank you, you've been subscribed!

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.