Excellence Essentials

By Judith E. Glaser | Personal Excellence
Published January, 2015

At the moment of contact.

SOCIAL INTERACTIONS cause us to either move toward others or move away, and each interaction has the power to trigger protection or growth.

Interactions trigger states of mind, which are driven by our millions of minute-by-minute neurochemical reactions, translating into how we build trusting relationships with others, how we communicate, and how we shape our environments for mutual success.

For example, when a leader trusts that an employee can tackle a project, and the person delivers great results something happens neurochemically in both the leader and employee. There is a shift in the employee’s confidence that can be directly connected to increases in neurotransmitters—like serotonin and dopamine.

When the leader praises and supports the employee publicly, this also unlocks another set of neurochemical patterns that cascade positive chemistry in the brain. Motivated employees describe the feeling as a drug-like dopamine state. When this positive arousal comes with appropriate, honest and well-deserved (sincere) praise, employees feel they are trusted and supported by their boss. They’ll take more risks, speak up more, push back when they have things to say, and they will be more confident with their peers.

The chemistry behind praise triggers neurochemical shifts, which positively impacts the employee’s confidence and social composure. They become more competent right in front of our eyes. And these chemicals enable the person to sustain commitment to working on projects even under stress—the person has greater intention and attention to staying on a project longer to get a result rather than bailing out midstream and only achieving a fraction of what he or she could otherwise accomplish.

How Leaders Lead

We may at times get angry or upset with employees for not delivering results. We may yell at them, ignore them, or reject them in subtle ways and not think much of it. Wrapped up in our desire to get things done, we might react judgmentally, blow off steam, and move on. Yet for the employee, that moment of contact doesn’t disappear so quickly. This triggered reaction is not momentary—it is sustained over a half-life of 13 hours or a full-life of 26 hours.

Through neuroscience, we can see inside of the brains and minds of people while they are experiencing different emotions. Avery different brain landscape shows up for people who are in fear states (vs. states of joy, happiness, and trust). This comparison is changing how leaders lead.

When employees are triggered by fear from an angry, passive-aggressive or blaming boss who embarrasses them in front of colleagues—they experience a cascade of neurochemicals that starts in the lower brain and sprays into the rest of the brain! This cortisol bath sends messages to the other parts of the brain, telling it to move into hyper-gear and protect them from harm.

If the leader continues to irritate, embarrass or outrage the employee, the cortisol and associated neurochemistry cascade through the body, and the employee enters a prolonged state of fear—an Amygdala Hijack.

Parts of the brain needed for building trust, for thinking clearly, and for social behaviors such as empathy and collaboration now close down, and the person is driven into strategies for selfprotection. They can fight with the source of fear, withdraw from the source of fear, or turn to others for help. When people feel hurt and rejected, they often turn to others who can console them, help them make sense of the situation, and work through the bad feelings.

A Change of Heart

Yelling, embarrassing, and punishing others to motivate them to action is so ingrained in us that we often don’t think about it. Yet punishment and embarrassment used as motivation to get others to perform is an outdated and harmful strategy with short-term and long-term unexpected consequences.

Leaders who create healthy cultures get better business results. Leaders who make up and apologize after they lose it do more to restore trust and health than they may realize. Moreover, leaders who understand how to sustain positive cultures motivate their employees to do more and produce more.

The more we learn about our brain, the more we realize that emotions drive our culture.We turn to those who make us feel good, and turn away from those who make us feel bad. Finding comfort from people who care about us is a healthy strategy. Learning to downregulate fear at work and up-regulate the factors that stimulate growth is a winning strategy for success.

Trust, empathy and support quell the brain’s fear state. When someone shows concern for our state of mind, or shows care for our feelings, our chemistry makes a shift. We become calmer, we can gain composure, and we can think in constructive ways.

The hormone oxytocin is a neurotransmitter associated with bonding behaviors. Oxytocin is the most prevalent hormone in the heart and brain, and drives our need for social contact. This is why isolation is so painful, why loners die young, and why rejection is more painful at times than physical pain. Some scientists call oxytocin the cuddle hormone because of its effect on making us feel cared for, and its power to create and restore a feeling of well being is as good as a mother’s hug.

Our heart conducts our states of mind. Capable of reading the chemistries of our interactions, our heart sends messages to the brain through many pathways, instructing our brains how to interpret and respond to our moments of contact with others. With this information from our heart, our brain guides us to either withdraw from others in fear or reach out to others to connect.

Leaders don’t need to hug people to produce this caring effect. Instead, they can touch someone’s heart with words of sympathy or support, or they can validate someone’s concern and trigger a more positive mental and physical state of mind. Rather than replacing employees who aren’t cutting it or punishing them for not achieving expectations, leaders can now learn new leadership practices they can use with employees to help release or trigger skill-building— propelling mediocre employees to become better and ensuring good employees to become even greater.


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