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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?