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Summary:

Managers of remote teams have plenty to worry about. On top of the deadlines, interpersonal conflicts, competing priorities, and keeping everyone connected and collaborating, Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard is adding another item to their list of potential stresses: mirror neurons.

neuroscience of telecommuting

Managers of remote teams have plenty to worry about. On top of the deadlines, interpersonal conflicts and competing priorities that face all team leaders, managers of dispersed teams need to concern themselves with keeping everyone connected and collaborating despite physical distance. Now, Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard is adding another item to their list of potential stresses: mirror neurons.

In a recent article, Rothbard frets that because of specialized neurons, called mirror neurons, your team may suffer from their lack of physical proximity. She discusses some famous Italian neuroscience research on these neurons, saying of the researchers:

They found that what we do when we are watching [others] is that our neurons start mimicking, firing in the same way other people’s [neurons] are firing. They think this is the basis for social learning. We learn how to do things by watching other people…. It creates a pathway neurologically for us to follow.

Remote working, the article suggests, “could mean that skills don’t get transferred as quickly or completely from one employee to another because colleagues are unable to watch each other work.” So should you start fretting immediately about your team’s mirror neurons and whether they’re firing away in your Friday catch-up?

For those fascinated by the human brain (and who isn’t?), mirror neurons are an extremely hot topic. Here’s a 7-minute TED talk from neuroscientist VS Rachmachandran, which explains why some experts believe they’re at the very core of human civilization.

But perhaps it’s too early to be adding to your stress levels over the frontiers of brain science. First off, research mentioned in the New York Times suggests that children’s mirror neurons fire when watching violent TV shows and other studies have even shown that mirror neurons fire when we’re read descriptions of physical actions. So there’s no reason to despair yet that your training video conference is a failure at some fundamental biological level just because it’s not face-to-face (though if you’re using avatars in a virtual world, the jury is out).

Conclusion: keep an eye on mirror neuron research out of curiosity, sure, but it’s a little early to add it to the list of practical problems for web workers.

Do you find it harder to empathize with colleagues or learn new skills if you’re not face-to-face?

Image courtesy Flickr user fbobolas

  1. Communicating over the internet is something you would do if you cannot see them in person.

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  2. I find not being face to face with my colleagues a bit frustrating because I’d really like to smack them sometimes. I can’t imagine that would have a beneficial effect on their mirror neurons, however …or their face.

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  3. True, remote team management has plenty of issues surrounding it. Bridging physical distance for superb outputs is no easy task!

    This also caught my attention:

    “Children’s mirror neurons fire when watching violent TV shows … ”

    … as well as online games that advocate stealthy, rage killings. We have every reason for effecting Internet security.

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  4. Fascinating. This further emphasizes for me the importance of video communication channels in remote work and communications.

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  5. I would think that this kind of research would support videoconferencing in remote work, since merely observing someone performing an action gets those neurons going. I should point out that a lot of scientists are skeptical about how big a role they actually play in empathy, imitation, and reading intentions. Here’s a link to an article about that http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=mirror-neurons—-rock-stars-or-bac
    Nevertheless, there is definitely a lot that gets missed when you can’t see the person you’re communicating with.

    Btw, great video :)

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