There’s a saying you probably heard as a child that goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It’s a nice thought, but scientists now know what a lot of kids are well aware of: words can and do hurt.
When someone attacks with sticks or words, the same areas in the brain are activated, which shows that physical pain and social pain have a lot in common.
Some of our most painful experiences in life will include the death of loved ones or rejection by a group or individual we admire, and in both of these cases, the brain will react in a nearly identical way.
This is what the results of research on social pain have revealed. One study involved participants being asked to play a computerized version of catch with two other players they believed were human but were actually computer simulations. Eventually, the participant was excluded from the game by the other players, and it led to a neural reaction that was extremely similar to how the brain responds to physical pain.
Managers would do well to recognize this and not ignore incidents where an employee is dealing with social pain, even if there isn’t a noticeable drop in the quality of work. You wouldn’t expect someone with a physical injury to be at peak performance, so the same holds true for someone who’s dealing with a breakup or some other painful circumstance.
Specifically, in response to social pain, the brain will experience a reduced capacity for making plans, concentration and creativity; in other words, it will be far from peak performance.
So, to lessen the risk of team members feeling socially rejected and suffering the related pain, managers need to keep a constant eye on team dynamics and track how well everyone is cooperating and getting along.
Managers should also take the time to form their own strong social bonds with each of their teammates. This way, they can routinely check in, ask staff about their lives and let them know they’re respected and appreciated.