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Better Leadership through Brain Chemistry

Leadership is so elusive.  If you search “leadership” in the search bar of Amazon you will find over 110,000 books on the topic.  Yet, organizations continue to seek ways to lead in their industry, leaders themselves seek new leadership strategies and skills, employees site “lack of leadership” as the reason for their unhappy workplace, and when businesses fail, we often say it was because of poor leadership.

What do we need?  Why do we perceive some organizations as leaders and others not?  What makes one person a leader and another not?  The answer is brain chemistry.  In recent years, research in the area of neuroscience and its effects on human behavior has been published and discussed at great length.  This information is fascinating and illuminating but hard to turn into actions that benefit our performance or quality of life.

Brain chemicals (known as neurotransmitters), four of which are the feel-good hormones and Cortisol, the stress hormone.  Balancing these brain chemicals provides the feelings we need for great performance and collaboration.

The feel-good hormones each have a purpose.

Endorphins – Their purpose is to mask physical pain.  This hormone served a great purpose back in caveman days as hunters carrying a deer (twice their size) on their back to the cave.  It is what masks pain so injured Olympic athletes achieve great feats.  It is likely what keeps those with jobs requiring physicality heading off to work each morning.

Dopamine – Is the chemical that provides a feeling of accomplishment.  It is what provides us with the feeling of happiness when we check off our “to do list”.  This hormone offers a rush of pleasure from visual cues such as finding something on the internet.  Or rush of accomplishment from solving a problem at the office.  It may be what inspired the recent boom of agile software development methodologies,; a process  that typically includes, a daily review of the previous days accomplishments and a “to do list”  for the day.

Serotonin – Is the hormone that inspires feelings of empathy, pride, status, confidence; considered it the leadership hormone.  This brain chemical releases when you proudly receive your Diploma at graduation, or when your team releases a new or innovative product.  It is actually contagious, notice your family is also proud; and that both the CEO and the receptionist of an organization that has released a new and innovative product are proud confident.

Oxytocin – This hormone facilitates feelings of trust, generosity, kindness, and collaboration and has us feel connected and a sense of belonging.  It is also reduces the stress hormone, Cortisol.  This is why high fives in the office make us feel collaborative; why helping a co-worker finish a project on deadline has the whole team feel great

Looking at their purpose, Endorphins and Dopamine need no other human interaction to be present.  You can make your own to do list, work in a cubicle or even remotely and your brain will produce those hormones as you go about your day.

However, Serotonin and Oxytocin are a released only when interacting with other humans (or from a memory of a human interaction).  For leaders and their employees to feel connected and confident in each other, they need to be in the office, around the water cooler, in the meeting and in the conversation.

It is a primary need of all humans to feel safe.  To feel safe we need to feel trust and to be trusted, confident that others “have our back”.

These qualities are present in our leaders of the companies considered “The Best Companies to Work For”.  Zappos, Google, Genentech, are a few of the places people love going to work work.  Zappos employees deliver “wow” service in an environment that embraces whatever uniqueness they bring to work. Google employees are provided an opportunity to be innovative and are supported by an environment allows for new ideas.  These organizations provide an environment of trust, pride, confidence and generosity, inspiring performance and satisfaction.

So, leaders who wish to invoke the feelings necessary for great teams and extraordinary results, need  to consider the amazing impact brain chemistry provides.  Leadership means inspiring the people we work with through acts of true humanity and caring.  To get a sense of the effects of engaging with all of your organization’s teams with empathy one can watch the popular television show Undercover Boss.  Remember that observing these great moments evokes the same brain chemicals (and the feelings) so watching the television show will have you feel the effects of empathy, and compassion.  The ROI of your empathy is trust, confidence, collaboration, and happiness from your employees.

 Here are some actions leaders can take to generate Serotonin and Oxytocin to balance brain chemistry and inspire their employees:

•    Offering appreciation specifically, directly and frequently in person in order to support pride, accomplishment and continued generosity. If you work in a virtual environment a voice mail may be the best alternative,

•    After a conflict, address hurt feelings and disrespect to restore relationships and to inspire trust, confidence, and collaboration.

•    Provide clear accountability and the tools and space needed to  accomplish them in order to instill trust, confidence, pride, generosity, and collaboration.

Are you up for better leadership through chemistry?




Meetings that Matter. Why even Hold a Meeting?

Last month we looked at how and what creates an engaging and delightful meeting by creating a culture that works for your organization. Meetings that Matter. Creating Engaging, Productive, Delightful Meetings

The Question

Now, as you considered what would work for your organization, the question may have occurred to you, “Why even have a meeting? Maybe I should just send an email?”

Before we answer that question, for the purpose of this discussion, here is an excerpt from our last posting that will provide a definition and context for this topic.

The Meeting Culture

If, for this discussion, we define culture as the full range of a learned human behavior including beliefs, customs, inventions, language, technology and traditions in your organizations, then culture also applies to our meetings.

With your thoughtful new process of designing meetings that matter, you will cause a positive, caring, productive meeting culture that has attendees clamoring to get to your meetings and participate.

 The process of putting together your meeting may take a bit more forethought; the pay-off is creating meetings that matter.

The Answer

We need meetings (rather than email) because we need human interaction to instill trust. Leaders who create a safe environment within their organization (region, department, etc.) have the basis for engaging their teams, inspiring innovation and problem solving.

 Great leaders create environments (here we will call it culture) for all their interactions, and meetings in particular, to be inviting, productive and a place for open dialogue, disagreement and discussion. They create a place where collaborative and creative thinking can be a priority. It is a place where the inspiration and confidence to think outside the box, create better tools, products! (Meetings that Matter. Creating Engaging, Productive, Delightful Meetings from our blog last month). These meetings can be messy and confrontational and disruptive AND beautifully communicative, creative, productive and fun!

The same environment cannot be created via email or working solo. Our communications become informational, informal and many times misunderstood.

So, consider a good old fashioned, well planned, intentional and inspiring meeting; it can be just the thing to have a high performing happy team!

  original post for Align 4 Performance, Inc 2014

Meetings that matter! Check back next month to learn how…

Meetings that Matter Change your Brain


Meetings provide an opportunity to alter our brain chemistry. Really, it provides an opportunity for serotonin (an other hormones) to be activated. Simon Sinek refers to serotonin as the “leadership hormone” because it is responsible for our feelings of pride, success, accomplishment and confidence. These provide a foundation for us to work together towards a common goal, vision or outcome.

Meetings that Matter. Creating Engaging, Productive, Delightful Meetings

“Not another meeting! Ugh!” This is often a familiar cry around the halls, cubicles, and meeting rooms in organizations of all sizes. I know that in my past as an insurance executive, I have uttered those very words!

The trouble today is that leaders and their teams are expecting to do more with less. Meetings often feel like time away from “getting things done”. So, we scurry to an obligatory meeting without a clear path to having a great meeting.

What if the culture in your team is that you hold meetings that matter? What if they matter because you create a meeting that has a purpose, a process, the people attending care and contribute, and a plan to bring it altogether so everyone wins!

The Agenda

While an Agenda is important, it is not necessarily the most important aspect of a successful meeting. It is merely an outline of the topics, attendees, time blocks, and topics of the meeting. Yes, this all sounds important, however, let’s look at some often overlooked aspects of creating a meeting.

The Purpose

This is very different from an Agenda. The purpose tells us WHY we are meeting. Is this meeting for motivation, informing a team of an important deadline, brainstorming, status, or an acknowledgement of an achievement? This small but important step provides an opportunity to notice if the people who are stakeholders in the purpose and outcome attend the meeting.

The Rules of Engagement

Isn’t it nice to be a part of a meeting where everyone is attentive and not merely attending? If you are one who does not like your team to be on the phone or texting during the meeting, then be clear that phones are to be silenced or are to be left back at the desks. Outline the rules of engagement at the beginning of the meeting (i.e. how to invite comment, when to ask questions, if laptops are allowed or do you want pen and paper only, if there are to be minutes; who will record and how will they be distributed and to whom, what to do if you want to participate but have a conflict, etc…). What meeting culture are you creating? What you want the experience to be?

The Outcome

Again, this may seem obvious, but we often forget to make this point clear whether before, during or at the conclusion of the meeting. Without this aspect clarified, the complaints arise; attendees get the “Not another meeting” syndrome.

For example, if among other things, one of the outcomes is to leave with clear meeting minutes, be sure to assign someone or create a culture of the team working that out on their own, just be sure to define what ”awesome minutes” looks like and that the entire team is aware of it.

The Attendees

It is common, especially for teams who work together closely or meet frequently, to invite the entire team without considering the purpose or considering other stakeholders outside the team to support the purpose of the meeting.

Imagine and ask yourself, “Who else cares about this purpose and/or this outcome?”

The Environment

Ok, so you have your purpose, the outcome, identified the meeting attendees; it is time to consider the environment. This is not only where to hold the meeting, but also a chance to ask yourself, “What do I want the experience to be?”

Reflect and consider if you want this to be welcoming with snacks. Do you need flip charts and markers for the entire group for creativity? Do you need exercises or significant breaks to engage the group? This is an opportunity to consider, not only what you care about as the facilitator, but also what the attendees will care about and how that will serve the purpose and outcome.

The Meeting Culture

If, for this discussion, we define culture as the full range of a learned human behavior including beliefs, customs, inventions, language, technology and traditions in your organizations, then culture also applies to our meetings. With your thoughtful new process of designing meetings that matter, you will cause a positive, caring, productive meeting culture that has attendees clamoring to get to your meetings and participate.

The process of putting together your meeting may take a bit more forethought, the pay-off is creating meetings that matter.

 original post for Align 4 Performance, Inc 2014