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Leaders, Hormones and Trust

A recent article by Sarah Amani, Senior Program Manager at Oxford Academic Health Science Network, beautifully distils a view on what makes for a good leader.

Sarah says; After surviving the milestone of working 10 years in the NHS, I thought I would reflect back on one of the most pivotal factors that has influenced my overall experience: Leadership. I approached the selection of this topic with some caution – I am sure most people are probably sick to death of trendy topics like leadership and the various psychosocial theories that have come out over the years. So I thought I would try to approach the topic from a slightly different angle by looking at the chemistry of leadership (bear with me here).

How Leaders are Made

There has always been a debate about whether good leaders are born or made. In a recent video by Simon Sinek titled ‘Why Leaders Eat Last’, he makes a compelling argument that good leaders are made, not born. In a compelling 45 minute video, he lays out some of the biology underpinning great leadership:

  1. A leader is nothing to do with rank.
  2. Leadership is a choice.
  3. Anyone who puts their self interest aside to protect the people next to them and improve things around them is a leader.
  4. It is therefore important to note that not all people in authority are leaders. Some are there entirely to look out for no one else but themselves. This is not leadership.

So what is it that drives good leadership? Well apparently its more scientific that I thought. Bear with me as I try to explain:

Happy Dopamine Hormone

Dopamine - Be Happy

This is the reward chemical which makes us feel good from crossing off tasks as achievements. We feel good when we cross off set goals and plans because our brains release dopamine. This mechanism is used in business and industry to motivate performance via targets. It feels good to get 100% achievement against targets and the buzz from this achievement makes us want to do it again and again to get that same buzz.

However, dopamine comes with a warning as it can be highly addictive. This would explain why the banking crisis occurred – like with all addictions the rewards for achieving targets overshadowed everything else. Bankers were willing to sacrifice everything and everyone to get that next dopamine rush from reaching targets. I can’t help but wonder what implications this has on the use of targets in our healthcare system.

Serotonin - Winning Feels Good

Moving on to another chemical and one which is coined THE leadership chemical: Serotonin is said to be responsible for feelings of pride and status. It is why public recognition makes us feel good. All those awards and public acknowledgements of achievement release Serotonin. This explains why an e-mail with a certificate attachment saying ‘Well Done’ doesn’t have quite the same effect as standing in front of your loved ones, peers and team as you are given an award.

The interesting thing about how Serotonin works in this situation is that at the same time that you get a rush of that Serotonin and fill up with confidence, your peers/boss/team also get a rush of that Serotonin and share your sense of pride for being part of that achievement. This strengthens connections, raises confidence and status but also sets into motion a cycle where we want to repeat that feeling of pride and achievement. So we seek other opportunities to get other awards – to get another rush of Serotonin. This might explain the multi award winning streaks we see with some individuals and teams…

However, the expectations laid out by the actions of Serotonin can also lead to a loss of confidence and trust in our leaders. As demonstrated above, Serotonin strengthens the social contract between a leader and their team. We have no issues with our leaders getting the bigger office or more pay. In fact, the promise of a repeat of another Serotonin rush from a team win, means that most followers voluntarily give their leaders the best of whats on offer and some special treatment too. This is not on the basis of teams believing the leader is necessarily better than the group, but on the premise that the team believes that the leader is there to shield them from danger. Serotonin (and the confidence boost it gives) drives good leaders to run towards danger in order to protect the team. The group invariably grows to believe that they are all in it together and are looking out for each other with the leader at the helm.

Fight or Flight

Saber: Fight or Flight

However, when this social contract is broken – when the person we believe to be our leader sacrifices our safety for their own gain or we feel they have failed to protect us, then this trust is lost. The result of this is a new focus on self preservation. With the trust broken, individuals feel unsafe, they stop going that extra mile to get another Serotonin boost and connections weaken. At the same time, another chemical kicks in and initiates the fight or flight response.

That other chemical is Cortisol – the stress chemical which has preserved our species from the stone age till now and probably for centuries to come. Simon makes the important point that humans have not outlived dinosaurs or the saber tooth tiger because we are stronger or smarter but because we protected each other by working in groups and knew when to fight and when to run. Cortisol is great if there is an imminent threat as it helps us run or fight the danger. As part of our response to danger, Cortisol shuts down systems that are unnecessary for fighting or running e.g. our immune system and the system responsible for growth. This enables our body to focus on fighting or running. Once the danger passes, our Cortisol levels should subside.

However, in organisations and teams where the trust is broken and staff feel unprotected, levels of stress and Cortisol remain high. This means that our capacity for growth and immunity remain low. The result is what we see in teams with people who can’t seem to take anything in or learn anything new. This goes hand in hand with plummeting performance and a rise in sickness. It is not by coincidence that this happens, it is an indication that the environment has become too consistently stressful with no reprieve and no chance for Serotonin or indeed Dopamine to rebalance the trend.

Doing good boosts morale

Doing Good & Physical Connection Boosts Morale

But fear not, this gloomy set of circumstance can be turned around with good leadership involving yet another chemical. Oxytocin is the chemical of love. It is a feel good hormone resulting from human physical contact and connection. It makes us feel safe, valued and loved. We can get a rush of oxytocin from touch – something that explains the feeling of trust we get when we shake hands on a decision and get nervous if someone refuses to shake hands, or from simply sitting together and feeling like we are near someone who gets us.

We can also get a dose of oxytocin from doing good deeds. However, trying to game the system by simply giving money to charity or doing something that takes little time and effort doesn’t work. We don’t get the same rush of oxytocin if we try to game this system and it doesn’t feel as good. This is because the money we give is replaceable. But if we spend time – something we will never get back – then we and the person on the receiving end of that time and effort get that warm good feeling as Oxytocin is released.

The above applies to all organisations – simply telling a member of staff that you will pay money to solve a problem doesn’t make them feel valued. Responding to a call of help or distress with an e-mail saying ‘I care’ doesn’t make the recipient feel valued. However, picking up the phone or walking to that member of staff to ask ‘How can I help you?’ makes them feel valued. This is why I am a firm believer that walking the floor can never be underestimated – it puts the leader in and amongst the team and releases oxytocin – making both the leader and the team feel good. As it turns out, over time, the build-up of Oxytocin in our body protects against Dopamine addiction and improves immunity too so it’s a win-win in my humble opinion.


So what is the above trying to tell us about leadership? The messages I personally take away are:

  • Leadership is a personal choice made by those who want to improve things around them for the benefit of others -regardless of rank or position;
  • Teams and leaders do not excel in a system which relies solely on targets to drive improvement;
  • Serotonin is the Leadership chemical which primes us to repeat success by using public acknowledgement of achievements to share the sense of pride and build stronger bonds with our teams;
  • Leadership is rewarding but very challenging. Good leaders know that the perks come with many sacrifices. Those who put self-interest before the team and fail to protect their teams from harm lose trust and invariably promote an environment of stress and fear.
  • To drive performance and excellence, leaders need to remember oxytocin and be present with their teams. Take that extra effort to pick up the phone or walk the floor to build/re-build trust and promote the feelings of safety so that people can re-focus on doing their work.

So a big thank you to Sarah for sharing this insight. Interesting in the opening personal perspective and thought-provoking in the use of chemical drivers as a core medium. 

What makes a great place to work?

The question of "What makes a great place to work?" seems to perennially do the rounds. Maybe because in finding the answer we have the solution to effective organisations.

The trouble is, if it were that simple, we would all apply the 'answer' and everything would be... you get my point!

However, having just posted a comment in answer to the question I thought it might be useful to share some simple answers, with the caveat that while it may be easy to say these things, the delivery in real life is far more complex.

So, to some possible answer for the questions;

The findings from millions of survey questions analysed by Gallup on the subject of 'What makes a great place to work?" found it broke down into four main themes, namely;

Basic needs
Managerial support
Individual growth.
From this Gallup went on to devise 'Q12′ a simple diagnostic tool(s) that allows for insight into your team through to organisations as teams.
Each theme has detailed explanations, but fundamentally these themes do look similar to Maslow's (some things never change). For more insight into the Q12 work, there are a selection of publications of which, "12: The elements of great managing" was the first!

More recent work showed the key issues to be;

Sustainability (physical)
Security (emotional)
Self expression (mental)
I will say more in future posts, as this is a gentle starter for 10 (not 12!).

The key thing to note though is that all these themes fundamentally relate to 'people' issues and we should not be surprised.

So in answer to the question, a great place to work is as a result of the people within it.

It's probably no news to most people who work that poor leaders produce disgruntled, unengaged employees. Our research also shows convincingly that great leaders do the opposite — that is, that they produce highly committed, engaged, and productive employees.

And the difference is cavernous — in a study of 160,576 employees working for 30,661 leaders at hundreds of companies around the world, we found average commitment scores in the bottom quarter for those unfortunate enough to work for the worst leaders (those leaders who had been rated in the bottom 10th percentile by their bosses, colleagues, and direct reports on 360 assessments of their leadership abilities). By contrast, average commitment scores for those fortunate enough to work for the best leaders (those rated in the 90th percentile) soared to the top 20th percentile. More simply put, the people working for the really bad leaders were more unhappy than three quarters of the group; the ones working for the really excellent leaders were more committed than eight out of ten of their counterparts.

What exactly fosters this engagement? During our time in the training and development industry we've observed two common — and very different — approaches. On the one hand are leaders we call "drivers"; on the other, those we call "enhancers."

Drivers are very good at establishing high standards of excellence, getting people to stretch for goals that go beyond what they originally thought possible, keeping people focused on the highest priority goals and objectives, doing everything possible to achieve those goals, and continually improving.

Enhancers, by contrast, are very good at staying in touch with the issues and concerns of others, acting as role models, giving honest feedback in a helpful way, developing people, and maintaining trust.

Which approach works best? When we asked people in an informal survey which was most likely to increase engagement, the vast majority opted for the enhancer approach. In fact, most leaders we've coached have told us that they believe the way to increase employee commitment was to be the "nice guy or gal."

But the numbers tell a more complicated story. In our survey, we asked the employees not only about their level of engagement but also explicitly, on a scale of one to five, to what degree they felt their leaders fit our profiles for enhances and drivers. We judged those leaders "effective" as enhancers or drivers who scored in the 75th percentile (that is, higher than three out of four of their peers) on those questions.

Putting the two sets of data together, what we found was this: Only 8.9% of employees working for leaders they judged effective at driving but not at enhancing also rated themselves in the 10% in terms of engagement. That wasn't very surprising to many people who assume that most employees don't respond well to pushy or demanding leaders. But those working for those they judged as effective enhancers were even less engaged (well, slightly less). Only 6.7% of those scored in the top 10% in their levels of engagement.

Essentially, our analysis suggests, that neither approach is sufficient in itself. Rather, both are needed to make real headway in increasing employee engagement. In fact, fully 68% of the employees working for leaders they rated as both effective enhancers and drivers scored in the top 10% on overall satisfaction and engagement with the organization.

Clearly, we were asking the wrong question, when we set out to determine which approach was best. Leaders need to think in terms of "and" not "or." Leaders with highly engaged employees know how to demand a great deal from employees, but are also seen as considerate, trusting, collaborative, and great developers of people.

In our view, the lesson then is that those of you who consider yourself to be drivers should not be afraid to be the "nice guy." And all of you aspiring nice guys should not view that as incompatable with setting demanding goals. The two approaches are like the oars of a boat. Both need to be used with equal force to maximize the engagement of direct reports.

A good one for those who think it one way or the other – the best know when to apply the 'right' approach!

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