We are designed to cooperate
According to Simon Sinek, in his excellent book Leaders Eat Last, "every single human on the planet, regardless of culture, is naturally inclined to cooperate". Sinek argues that the human brain evolved so that we work together in teams (the modern version of ancient tribes) to achieve common goals. In fact, we thrive when we feel safe among our team and devote time and energy to protecting ourselves from each other when we lack a senses of belonging.
Sinek writes that the "goal of leadership is to set a culture free of danger from each other. And the way to do that is by giving people a sense of belonging by offering them a strong culture based on a clear set of human values and beliefs. By giving them the power to make decisions. By offering trust and empathy. By creating a Circle of Safety".
It turns out that the best leadership practices that we in the leadership development community have preached for years are in tune with our biology. Sinek postulates 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".
The Neurochemistry of Leadership
Mother Nature has equipped us with neurotransmitters in our brains that are essential for our survival. Sinek identifies the four primary neurotransmitters that receive, process and transfer information between neurons.
The first two neurotransmitters Sinek refers to are endorphins and dopamine, that he labels "selfish" chemicals. These drive us to achieve our personal goals. Endorphins are, according to Sinek, "often released in response to stress or fear and they mask fiscal pain with pleasure". We get endorphin hits from exercise, manual labor and laughing. Dopamine is "responsible for the feeling of satisfaction after we've finished an important task, completed a project or reached a goal".
The other two transmitters, serotonin and oxytocin, Sinek calls "selfless" chemicals because they exist to motivate us to work together and develop feelings of trust and loyalty. Sinek writes that "when we cooperate or look out for others, serotonin and oxytocin reward us with the feelings of security, fulfillment, belonging, trust and camaraderie...
Oxytocin and serontonin grease the social machine".
The True Cost of Toxic Work Environments
Sinek correctly points out that "when the leaders of an organization create a culture that inhibits the release of these chemicals (serotonin and oxytocin), it is tantamount to sabotage - sabotage of our careers and our happiness and sabotage of the success of the organization itself".
Toxic work cultures produce significant feelings of stress and anxiety in employees because they run contrary to our natural biological need to cooperate. Feelings of a lack of support from senior managers literally are scary to the human brain. The resulting stress results in the release of a neurotransmitter called cortisol that, according to Sinek, "is designed to alert us to possible danger and prepares us to take extra measures to protect ourselves to raise our chancers of survival". Toxic work environments put employees in 'fight or flight' mode - resulting in high levels of disengagement. Furthermore, a constant flow of cortisol is a major threat to our physical health.
Whether being part of a tribe in the savannah in caveman days or being part of a team in a modern organization, we were designed to work together in harmony. This is a biological fact that leaders can no longer ignore.
Image: Wharton Magazine.