Why “Somatic Markers” are critical to a business leader?

by Didier Marlier on Saturday February 4th, 2012

Michael Newman and I have mentioned Professor Antonio Damasio several times on this blog. Besides being one of the leading neuroscientists of the XXIst century, his work is compelling for leaders of today.

One aspect, in particular, touches the topic of decision making. More concretely, to us business leaders, how do we “move our people from intention to action”? In other terms, what conditions do we need to create to engage our people into following us in the new strategy, organization, culture or post acquisition integration we have designed for them?

For those of you who know us well, we strongly believe that leaders need to act at three levels (intellectual, behavioural and emotional) through three levers: Logos, Ethos and Pathos. For memory:

  • Logos: is about co-creating clarity, meaning and ownership about the change we intend to engage our people in.
  • Ethos: is about behaving in ways that are coherent with our stated intention.
  • Pathos: is about anchoring the change through powerful “emotional markers” (via spectacular symbols, profound stories or powerful metaphors).

For us, a critical condition for engagement (see our book “Engaging Leadership“) is for the leaders to work on those three agendas at the exclusion of none.

I published a post (“People don’t buy what you do!“), on Simon Sinek’s theory, following which people buy why we make a product or service instead of what it is and how it functions. In the long version of his clip, Sinek explains that, in his view, the analytical part of our brain (Neo Cortex) acts as a powerful filter. But what moves customers from the intention to buy to the purchasing act, is when the product or service, after passing the rational test of the Neo Cortex, connects, resonates with the emotional, limbic part of our brain (this is what our partner, Nick van Heck calls the “Resonating Focus”).

In another post (“We think of our future as anticipated memories“), I summarized one of the strong points of Nobel Prize of Economy 2002, Daniel Kahneman, whose work seem to demonstrate that our emotional memory takes over from our factual memory. This is fundamental to the principle of engagement: people will not necessarily be convinced by our factual logic but far more by the emotions attached to the decision that we invite them to support.

This bring us to Damasio and his “Somatic Markers”: In the short clip here below, Damasio talks about one of his patients who was a “normally” intelligent person but whose emotional memory had been seriously impaired. Just the mundane fact of choosing a restaurant was becoming an endless task for this man, constantly reasoning, weighing the pros and cons but incapable of linking the decision for one or the other places, to any emotional memory. “It is emotions that allow us to mark things as good, bad or indifferent” explains Damasio. It is only when facts and analysis (taking place in the Neo Cortex) and emotions are matching that we move from paralysis or intention to real engagement. Damasio calls those powerful emotional memories “Somatic Markers”.

What does this mean for business? Imagine how people, who lost their job in a previous merger, are taking the news of a new one? How do people who have attached the name of “reorganization” to discomfort and suffering, welcome the news of another one? As we are not the famous “Men in Black”, able to miraculously wipe-out all of the negative memories of our people’ mind, we need to build for them alternative, positive, authentic and constructive “Somatic Markers” who will allow them to choose, consciously or not, between a negative of a positive memory which they can attach to the intended change. The article from Christophe Lachnit on our blog confirms that, following Damasio, symbols, stories and metaphors find their way straight to the emotional center of our brain.

It seems that many of us are/will be deeply involved into selling their new strategy, reorganizing their company, trying to inspire a new culture or seeking to merge as rapidly as possible several organizations (and maybe doing those four at the same time). Convincing through cold analysis, data presentation and powerpoint indigestion will definitely not be enough if we wish to get our people to rapidly and wholeheartedly engaged into change and back to creating value for the customer. It will be our duty to behave in a way that matches our declared intention. And it will be fundamental to understand how to build those somatic markers in the minds of our people…

Another busy week ahead around Paris and Amsterdam. Enjoy yours!



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5 Responses to “Why “Somatic Markers” are critical to a business leader?”

  1. Didier and team,
    Another great post this week :exactly where our team here in asia stand today in the implementation of our new road map and merge following acquisition :thanks for your posts as they are a great source of inspiration

  2. Thank you Claude. Indeed, too often mergers and acquisitions are dealt with at “Logos” (rational) level alone, forgetting the need to create positive Somatic Markers to ensure that the difficult transition is gone through as authentically and rapidly as possible. But knowing the history of your company, I trust you will succeed again. Thanks for sharing

  3. Dear Didier

    As usual those posts come with a perfect timing – either because you have some sort of telepathy… or because the issues are always relevant and updated.

    Last friday I was discussing with my team why a technical project should have an appealing name instead of a cumbersome acronym who actually sounds like named after a disease… I haven´t linked that to pathos but your post reminded that you don´t need a corporate turnaround to use it – even a small, regular project can benefit from logos-ethos-pathos approach.

    Nice week to all.

    • Thank you Eduardo,
      Always is a pleasure to hear from you…
      And yes, indeed it doesnt take a major revolution from the top to apply such concepts. In the Hero’ Journey which you know well, it is far more a matter of personal choice…
      Thanks a lot for your kind words


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