This past year has made us very aware that dangers constantly exist all around us. Whether it’s a virus, an up and down economy, acts of terrorism, a slippage in market share, or threatened loss of a job — the world seems to be full of dangers. However, this lack of safety should not extend into our internal work environments.  When leaders take care of their team first, their team feels safe, and when individuals on a team feel safe, they have the energy to put toward innovation, collaboration, and productivity — not to mention being able to build sustainable relationships with team members and customers alike.

In a well-regarded book by Simon Sinek titled “Leaders Eat Last”.  Simon very artfully intertwines anthropology and psychology to make the case that dangers found within the culture of an organization can cause havoc to individuals, teams, and the company as a whole if leaders aren’t attuned to it:

“Truly human leadership protects an organization from the internal rivalries that can shatter a culture. When we have to protect ourselves from each other, the whole organization suffers. But when trust and cooperation thrive internally, we pull together and the organization grows stronger as a result.” 

In our work with teams, we often talk about the fact that throughout history the human race has utilized living in tribes and relying on other people, to our advantage to survive.  Truth be told, there is actual biology that hardwires us in this way.  As a leader, being aware of this “nifty nugget” of biology will help you create a circle of safety for those whom you are privileged to lead.

We have four chemicals in our bodies that work towards driving our behavior: Endorphin, Dopamine, Serotonin, and Oxytocin.  The first two, Endorphin and Dopamine are often referred to as the “Selfish Chemicals”, while Serotonin and Oxytocin are the “Selfless Chemicals”.  So how do we, as leaders, create a positive environment where good things happen, where creativity thrives, and where people work together to fight for the company? Simon says it all comes down to creating an environment where our two “selfish” chemicals – Endorphin and Dopamine – are kept in check, and our two “selfless” chemicals – Serotonin and Oxytocin – are fully activated.

Endorphins (Masks Pain) + Dopamine (Goal Attainment) are the chemicals of progress, as they make us feel good when we achieve goals and accomplish various tasks.   We don’t need anyone to get these chemicals activated – just ourselves!

1. Endorphin was useful back in the Paleolithic era when hunters would work all day long in brutal temperatures and conditions, hunting for food… Endorphin would kick in at just the right time to mask the pain and make them feel good enough to get their bodies to keep moving, and eventually, to capture prey.   In today’s terms, one example of this is a “runner’s high”.  Simply put, this is Endorphin surging through our body helping us succeed. It’s there to mask the pain we’re putting our bodies through when we beat up our muscles in the gym or run for long periods of time.  It is also the chemical that kicks in at the end of a hard day’s work and gives us the stamina to meet a deadline or endure during the difficult times to complete an important task even when we are exhausted.

2. Dopamine was put into place by Mother Nature to incentivize us to move forward by giving us little “hits” of dopamine whenever we take a small step towards achievement.  Back in the caveman days that meant the joy they felt at being able to provide dinner for their family or the satisfaction they felt in sewing up a new loincloth.  Do you know what sends Dopamine through your system in today’s terms?  Goals and tasks. The gratification of crossing off that loaf of bread on your grocery list or that awesome feeling you get when you click that little box and see the check ­show up your favorite productivity app.  However, this little chemical can be highly addictive and in today’s world can show up as workaholism, and even drug/alcohol addiction.

There are benefits to both of these “selfish” chemicals – it kept the caveman hunting and keeps the exhausted marathoner focused on the finish line. However, it can have its downsides in business. If your company’s culture is metrics and performance-driven to the point where it’s acceptable to sacrifice others to make the numbers or possibly to “numb out with work”,  likely you are creating an environment that activates these two selfish chemicals to the extreme and causing damage to those working within that culture.

Serotonin (Contribution and Belonging) + Oxytocin (Friendship and Trust) jump in here for a 4­-way cocktail, with the result being a healthy synergy that results in more cooperation and more collaboration.  We actually need others to have these two chemicals activated!

3. Serotonin is a chemical that is released when you’re feeling valued and a sense of pride. An example of this is college graduation. Why does it feel so good to walk across that stage?  Universities could just send an email with our college degree attached. But instead, we have commencement ceremonies, our friends and family come, and graduates feel really good – they are getting their shot of Serotonin. Even parents get a boost of Serotonin because they are excited and proud of their graduates. In turn, the kids’ desire to make their parents, and others, proud is driven by Serotonin.

Serotonin also comes into play when we look out for others. When we do this, others, in turn, look out for us. In a business environment, Serotonin is considered the “leadership chemical” because it essentially says, “I’ve got your back”.  In companies that embody this leadership style in their culture, as Simon points out in his book, it is one where the company’s leaders are generous and follow the spirit of the Marines motto, “Officers eat last.” In this culture, leadership is viewed as a responsibility, not a rank, and others become generous and feel responsible for their colleagues and the company.

4. Oxytocin is the chemical that’s activated when we experience friendship, trust, and even physical touch.  It’s also activated through acts of kindness, including simple gestures such as writing a note or picking up the phone instead of sending an email. Even though the exact same words can be in the email, the handwritten or verbal message means more because the receiver knows it took more effort.

In businesses, Oxytocin is powerful because it fosters generosity. And even better – you can get Oxytocin by witnessing an act of kindness. When leaders are generous, trustworthy, and kind, it sets the tone, and others become generous too. In this type of generous, high-trust environment, “selfless” Serotonin and Oxytocin chemicals run high, leaders rise up to look out for their team, and in turn, people feel valued. The result is magic…and company performance far exceeds what individuals working only towards their specific goals can achieve.

Attempting to create a circle of safety within your work culture will naturally produce a positive ripple effect.  However, as we all know, leaders are only able to give their energy to so many people – even the best leaders have limits.  So how can you “up” the selfless chemicals and limit the selfish chemicals in your organization?

  1. Measure what is important.  Production metrics are important, however, make sure that your managers are not unwittingly putting so much pressure on your teams that they are willing to do “whatever it takes” to meet the numbers.  Measure behaviors you want in your culture to balance the scale.
  2. Ensure that your employees are taking care of themselves.  While this can mean through diet, exercise, and downtime – it also should mean taking care of each other!  Instill in them the understanding that everyone who works there has the right to be healthy, happy, and fulfilled.  Plus having one another’s back is a good thing.
  3. Continually emphasize trust. This should be a foundational principle within the company.  Trust is created through the work that is done – make sure people are competent, they follow through on what they say they will do, and that individuals in the company always act with positive intent (no gossip!).
  4. Feeling valuable is a huge deal Be sure that everyone in the company is “known” on a personal level, understands the relevance of how their work is contributing to the overall vision and realizes what they need to do to get even better.  Knowing you are a valuable part of something special activates generosity and team spirit.
  5. Servant leadership is key.  Leaders must show their team (leading by example) how to put others first.  This will facilitate team-members in developing the instinct to do the same for all stakeholders including colleagues, customers, vendors, and associates — everyone who touches the business.
It is from this place where true change can begin to occur…when people within a company feel safe and secure, the sky is the limit in terms of personal and professional growth.

In a future blog, we will talk about one other chemical that can impact your ability to build safety in your work culture – the stress hormone – Cortisol.  Stay tuned and have a great week!