I have been designing and facilitating leadership workshops for more than two decades and those of us in the leadership development community finally have scientific research to support the effectiveness of best leadership practices. Simon Sinek has written a thought-provoking book called Leaders Eat Last that refers to the neurochemistry of leadership. It turns out that our brains were designed to get along with each other. This is critical for the survival of our species. In caveman days, the ability of tribes to cooperate was necessary so that tribe members could work together to fend off the threats in the environment such as sabre tooth tigers.
The modern day equivalent of Neanderthal tribes are organizational teams. And while company teams don’t face physical threats such as sabre tooth tigers, they face social and emotional threats from each other and from toxic managers. In fact, the neural mechanisms in the brain related to physical pain are the exact same ones as for social pain. Team members feel the same pain from feelings of rejection, social isolation, being treated unfairly, having one’s status threatened and not feeling part of the team as they would from being stabbed in the back (physical pain).
Simon Sinek writes in Leaders Eat Last that, “In the case of our biology, our bodies employ a system of positive and negative feelings – happiness, pride, joy or anxiety, for example – to promote behaviors that will enhance our ability to get things done and to cooperate”. Mother Nature has equipped us with neurotransmitters in our brains that are essential for our survival. Sinek identifies four primary neurotransmitters that receive, process and transfer information between neurons. The first two neurotransmitters, dopamine and endorphins, are “selfish chemicals” that bring about short term bursts of pleasure from doing things such as accomplishing a goal. The other two neurotransmitters are serotonin and oxytocin, that are “selfless chemicals” that motivate us to work together and develop feelings of trust and loyalty.
Therefore, those of us who continue to preach best leadership practices can take solace in the fact that the human brain functions best when we are working harmoniously with each other and when we are treated with respect, fairness and dignity. Conversely, when managers treat employees negatively and they feel threatened, the brain releases cortisol to the rest of the body to prepare it to deal with the threat. Those who work for toxic managers who continuously feel demeaned and degraded experience a continuous flow of cortisol – resulting in anxiety bouts, feelings of high stress and burnout. This results in bad morale, high levels of disengagement and turnover and a negative impact on the organization’s business results in the longer term.
It is imperative that Boards of Directors ensure that those responsible for leading their organizations incorporate best leadership practices in their management styles. The human brain was not designed to function effectively when feeling a constant level of threat. Leaders beware!