It turns out our beautiful brains are loaded with corporate culture juice that some folks call chemicals. When activated, these chemicals produce feelings of satisfaction, pride, trust, alertness, happiness, perseverance, empathy, and assists us with concentration, collaboration, and solving complex problems. These chemicals are part of our evolution as humans and, back in the day, helped us avoid dying of starvation, being eaten by a tiger, and promoted our advancement through extreme collaboration.
Scientists call them endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and cortisol and, according to Simon Sinek author of “Leaders Eat Last,” they fall into two groups: “selfish” and “selfless.” The relationship of these chemicals to individual behavior is nothing new and has been written about in scientific journals as well as in publications such as the Huffington Post. Simon Sinek, however, puts a new spin on their importance as he explains in great detail how these chemicals interact to either enhance or wreak havoc on corporate culture – reducing productivity, and putting serious dents in our bottom line. Very, very cool. Below is a short and sweet breakdown of Sinek’s brilliant work.
Endorphins are neuropeptides and are perhaps the most widely know of these chemicals. They block physical pain signals and are responsible for producing a feeling of happiness and euphoria. Although very few office jobs have a need for blocking physical pain signals, everyone can benefit a great deal from a reduction in stress. The easiest way to access the release of endorphins is through laughter, which is normal in a healthy corporate culture. Remember, boat loads of research confirms that happy people are productive people, which is perfect for companies that want to be industry leaders and make money.
Dopamine is a hormone and neurotransmitter that produces that wonderful feeling when we reach a goal. In caveman days, dopamine would help motivate us to continue hunting and overcome adverse conditions to secure food by increasing the level of concentration and motivation necessary to help us persevere and successfully reach our goal.
Sinek compares dopamine to a shot of “instant gratification.” If the upside is perseverance, the downside is addiction. Addictions to social media and alcohol may be fueled in part to the shot of happiness we received when we hear a text message ding or when we anticipate a drink. He notes that caution should be used in the promotion of “hitting one’s numbers,” as people can become ruthlessly addicted to achieving their goal at the expense of the long-term goals of the company.
Sinek calls endorphins and dopamine “selfish” chemicals because the focus is on the individual. Now for a look serotonin and oxytocin, the “selfless” chemicals.
Serotonin, on the other hand, is what Sinek considers a “Circle of Safety” or a collaboration chemical. In order to understand what serotoin feels like, Sinek suggests that you recall a time when you crossed a finish line in front of a crowd, rather than alone, or when you were recognized at an award ceremony. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter, is that feeling of pride you have when others like or respect you. This chemical helps in team building and collaboration because we don’t want to let others down and we really like “feeling” proud.
Oxytocin is a hormone and neuromodulator that produces feelings of “friendship, love or deep trust.” (Leaders, p. 49). This chemical helps us become more social and empathic, and makes us feel like we belong. Oxytocin is a really big deal in developing a healthy corporate culture:
“Oxytocin boosts our immune systems, makes us better problem solvers and makes us more resistant to the addictive qualities of dopamine.” (Leaders, p. 52)
“Oxytocin relieves stress, increases our interest in work and improves our cognitive abilities, making us better able to solve complex problems. It boosts our immune systems, lowers blood pressure, increases our libido and actually lessons our cravings and additions. And best of all, it inspires us to work together. ” (Leaders, p. 60-61)
“Unlike dopamine, which is about instant gratification, oxytocin is long-lasting” (Leaders, p. 49) and promotes “feelings of calm and safety.” (Leaders, p. 52)
Cortisol is responsible for stress and anxiety and is just amazingly awful. It is a steroid hormone that was extraordinarily helpful, back in the day, in fending off that tiger licking his chops. Unfortunately, our brains don’t realize that we aren’t caveman anymore and the likelihood of being attacked by a tiger, at least in an office setting, is infinitesimally small. Cortisol should not be mistaken for adrenaline, otherwise known as the fight or flight hormone. Instead, cortisol manifests a tad more slowly in the body making us intensely focused on resolving a threat, which is great if you want to figure out how to maneuver away from that hungry tiger.
Problems arise when cortisol is produced continuously, and over a long period of time, in reaction to stress produced by a perceived threat such as an angry manager, co-workers who routinely stab each other in the back, the constant threat of layoffs, a lack of resources, bad leadership, etc., etc., etc. Although you can “get adjusted to stress,” you brain can’t. You can’t trick your brain. It isn’t that stupid.
“A constant flow of cortisol . . . can also do serious damage to our health . . . It wreaks havoc with our glucose metabolism [increase in blood sugar levels]. It also increases blood pressure and inflammatory responses and impairs our cognitive ability” as we are hyper focused on our own survival. In order to dedicate mind, body and soul to resolving the danger, “cortisol increases aggression, suppresses our sex drive and generally leaves us feeling stressed out . . . our bodies turn off nonessential functions, such as digestion and growth,” and our immune systems, which makes us “more vulnerable to illness.” (Leaders, p. 57)
In stressful corporate cultures, “all the employees have a heightened sense of alertness thanks to the cortisol flowing through their veins. The stress they feel will distract them from getting anything else done until they feel that the threat has passed,” which leads to diminished productivity. (Leaders, p. 54)
To top it off, “cortisol actually inhibits the release of oxytocin, the chemical responsible for empathy.” (Leaders, p. 56) There’s more, cortisol can even be produced without a direct threat but in anticipation of a threat when we feel “vulnerable and alone.” (Leaders, p. 50)
In dysfunctional corporate cultures, if the individual doesn’t feel part of a community or team, sadly this survival instinct may kick into high gear. In contrast, members of a team perceive that stress is spread across many players and the anticipation of a solution is vested in many, where as an individual may assume all the risk and responsibility for a solution.
So what does this mean?
Reduce stress and you reduce cortisol, which mitigates awful health consequences (sick leave and high insurance premiums), reduces aggression, reduces distractions, increases empathy, trust, and collaboration, and allows the benefits of oxytocin to flow.
Promote friendship, trust and team building and you will unleash the incredibly positive benefits of oxytocin such as creating more powerful problem solvers, improving cognitive abilities, supporting health and well-being, elevating a feeling of calm, and reducing the addictive effects of dopamine.
Create a “Circle of Safety” in which people feel protected and proud of their work and team, and the release of serotonin will support collaboration, motivation, and hard work.
Recognize achievements but be cautious about the addictive, and potentially harmful qualities of dopamine on individuals, teams and the company.
Learn to laugh your company will be more productive as you experience the stress reducing and happiness producing effects of endorphins.
Creating a healthy corporate culture takes dedication and thoughtful strategy but it is easier if you harness our evolutionary biology and our understanding of the relationship between chemicals in our brain and our behavior.
Sinek, Simon. Leaders Eat Last. New York: Penguin, 2014. Print.
Nguyen, Thai. “Hacking Into Your Happy Chemicals: Dophamine, Serotonin, Endorphins and Oxytocin.” Huffington Post, October 20, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/thai-nguyen/hacking-into-your-happy-c_b_6007660.html
Klein, Sara. “Adrenaline, Cortisol, Norepherine: The Three Major Stress Hormones, Explained.” Huffington Post, April 19, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/19/adrenaline-cortisol-stress-hormones_n_3112800.html
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