Briefings Magazine

The Synchrony of Success

Firms fret that workplace collaboration has declined since the pandemic. Could dance help leaders choreograph more effective teams?

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By: Meghan Walsh

Early in his career, as Danny Richter was building his professional bona fides as an environmental lobbyist—he would later become vice president of government affairs at the Citizens’ Climate Lobby—he happened upon an unlikely source of leadership training. It didn’t include executive coaching or an MBA. Instead, it was a matter of syncopated rhythms, capacious swingouts, tucking, turning, and triple-stepping. “I came to see dancing as a way to practice becoming a better leader,” says Richter, who at 41 has gone on to launch his own political consulting firm.

Richter began learning the Lindy Hop, an energetic form of swing that came out of the Harlem dance halls of the 1920s. In the beginning, it was just about drilling the basic steps deep into the lizard brain until they became default movements. Only once he had established a mechanical proficiency was he able to start exploring the complexity and possibilities of partner dance.

In swing, there is a lead and a follow, but, Richter emphasizes, it’s very much a two-way conversation. The pair also is likely to be surrounded by dozens of other couples making wide turns and big moves. As a lead, Richter discovered, he needed to be able to anticipate changes in the beat, quickly assess his partner’s skill and style, and be careful not to send them crashing into another person—or a wall. The leadership metaphors came easily.

“The worst thing you can be is a jerky lead,” Richter says. “The goal is to make each other look good. I have to communicate what I’m about to do. At the same time, I have to listen, and there are so many ways people express themselves without words.”

Over the last decade, a realm of research has documented the emotional, physical, and cognitive benefits of dance. One of the more fascinating recent observations  suggests that dance teaches us to attune ourselves to others—not just on the dance floor, but also in the boardroom. The foundation of any dance tradition, partnered or solo, is synchronizing the body’s movements to a rhythm. But the synchrony doesn’t stop there. Researchers have found that the capacity to synchronize ourselves with a beat trains us to align with other rhythms within our environment, including a coworker’s heart rate or a colleague’s body language. Even when the mind tries to consciously suppress the instinct to synchronize, the body falls into step.

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Biologically attuning to our fellows primes us to connect emotionally and cognitively, which research shows increases levels of engagement, rapport, learning, cooperation, empathy, and performance. The brain, in this instance, is responding to signals from the body, instead of the other way around.

“We become the movements we make,” says Kimerer LaMothe, a Harvard PhD and author of Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming. Western culture at large—and corporate culture in particular—has evolved to emphasize intellect: logic, reasoning, language, and mathematical calculation.

But there is a growing awareness that there is significant value to be mined from the entirety of the body—and such somatic intelligence may be the missing thread needed to strengthen workplace collaboration, which, experts say, has frayed so much that the majority of executive teams can no longer work together effectively. “We are born to synchronize as a way of learning to relate with each other,” LaMothe says. “In some respects, humans are always dancing.”


Before we can walk, talk, or hold a pencil, humans are able to synchronize. Within the first year of life, babies show the ability both to imitate caregivers and respond to a beat. By mirroring their parents’ expressions, infants create an emotional and physical bond that—from an evolutionary perspective—improves their chances of being cared for, and, therefore, their survival. The power inherent in this form of connection, which in sociology is known as “social entrainment,” holds true across the lifespan: When people move together, they experience a sense of communal joy and feel they’re part of a larger whole.

As far as researchers can discern, dance has played an important role in the development of every human society. Some go so far as to postulate that dance prepared humans to develop more complex social structures, such as language, religion, and culture. Through dancing and music, our prehistoric ancestors communicated and built alliances.

But over the last several thousand years, as writing has become the prevailing mode of communication, there has been a shift from the physical to the theoretical. From early on in their education, children are taught to read, write, and reason, mostly in stillness. It’s assumed that humans are brains in bodies, and the task is to make those bodies conform, whether to the contours of a desk or a factory line. Corporate-wellness experts have recognized, however, that this orientation leads to both mental and physical breakdown as well as a feeling of disconnectedness from our peers.

“The conversation about embodied cognition has been going on for a very long time across traditions,” says Amelia Haynes, a Korn Ferry Institute neuroscience researcher. “What we’ve found with hard science is that there is a bidirectional relationship between our physiology and cognition and emotions.”

Somatic activities like dance aim to use body awareness and expression as a way to shift habits, improve relational abilities, and create innovative breakthroughs. “We’ve become so cerebral that the biggest gains are not from thinking harder; they’re from getting into our bodies,” says Megan Taylor Morrison, an executive coach and former dance instructor who often includes synchronization activities in the corporate retreats she facilitates.

“In some respects, humans are always dancing.”

Elyssa Dole, executive director of nonprofit online media outlet The Conversationalist, began her career as a professional dancer, spending a half dozen years as a freelance ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera. Professional dancing might seem to be a mostly artistic endeavor, Dole says, but it depends on establishing structures that allow creativity to emerge. 

For dancers, preparation is essential and all-encompassing. It is a lifestyle. And it’s visual—dancers watch one another moving through the process. Before rehearsals, Dole would use a myriad of techniques to focus her mind and tune her body. She would master steps, of course, but would also train herself to fall out of turns safely, just in case. She was always acutely aware of two things: how she felt in her body, and the parameters of her current assignment—the deadline, the setting, the intention. In concert dance, Dole says, each contributor’s role is explicitly defined. From there, though, “you don’t know where you’re going, and that’s the gift,” says the 45-year-old. “There is a trust that is shared by dancers. You need to put aside your own ego and background and trust you can connect with the people around you to pull something off.”

What eventually led Dole from dance to an MBA was her growing fascination with what happens when a cohesive organization is created—when goals are built around people whose talent and potential are taken into consideration, and when team trust is intentionally established but outcomes are given space to organically emerge. Since then, Dole has helped organizations as diverse as NASA and the New York City Economic Development Corporation reimagine ways of broadening and deepening their relationships with a diversity of stakeholder communities.

“I come to work every day not knowing what’s going to happen, but being fully prepared. There’s a way to set up an algorithmic approach to creation and problem-solving,” Dole says.


Corporations, experts warn, could be facing a collaboration crisis. A study done by the Korn Ferry Institute and Harvard University found that senior leadership teams—perhaps the most crucial groups of collaborators in any organization—are not syncing well. An in-depth performance analysis of 120 senior leadership teams (including a global sample of small businesses, multinational conglomerates, and not-for-profit and public-sector organizations) rated 79 percent as mediocre or poor.

The secret sauce at work for high-performing teams is often said to be “chemistry,” a vague concept that neuroscience articulates more clearly. Chemistry, conclude the authors of a Korn Ferry and Wharton Neuroscience Initiative paper entitled Mind to Mind: How leaders can operationalize synchrony to optimize team performance, is in fact synonymous with synchronization. “Our brains and bodies reliably fall in and out of sync with one another,” the authors write.

Movement synchrony is one of the most reliable ways of instilling trust, empathy, and cohesion in a team. A study of collegiate rowers, for example, found synchronized heart rates to be strongly associated with group flow. In the same way, the Korn Ferry/Wharton paper reports, committees with higher levels of physiological synchrony are more likely to reach a consensus. Tech companies like Meta are even programming robots to mirror microexpressions to improve digital-human interactions. An intentional approach to synchrony is even more crucial in the post-Zoom era, when eye contact and body language are largely mediated. “Things that used to be a default byproduct of being in the same space aren’t there any more,” Haynes says.

But more synchronization doesn’t always equal a better outcome. Divergent thinking often spurs creativity, which means that—paradoxically—synchronizing two highly innovative people can lead them to generate fewer ideas. Meanwhile, there is a more natural tendency to synchronize among homogenous groups, yet diversity is another key predictor of innovation. Instead of prioritizing synchrony at the expense of diversity, synchrony should be used as a tool to support diverse teams.

All of this may come down to the notion that synchrony can be used as a precision tool. Perhaps managers bring distributed teams together in person and utilize somatic techniques to build trust in the early stages of a new project or during times when collaboration is called for. During the brainstorming process, it may be better for everyone to march to their own beat. Or—as political consultant Richter has found—dancing as a hobby can be powerful on its own. “Dancing is a great way to practice relationships,” he says.

Regardless of form, there is certainly plenty to be learned through dance about the body’s innate wisdom and creativity. Dance indelibly shaped the world we live in today. Perhaps it can shape the world of tomorrow as well.


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