Our world ruled by dopamine

What can leaders do with our chemical dependency?

I hit the post button and I literally felt the dopamine shot spread throughout in my body. Is it familiar?

As it was thousand years ago, today we are still completely and utterly chemical-dependent says Simon Sinek in his book called Leaders eat last.

Our body produces both positive and negative chemicals. The four primary chemicals in our body that contribute to our positive feelings and neuro-agility are endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin.

These chemicals that are not only influence our behaviours, our brain optimisation but our leadership effectiveness as well:

Endorphins and dopamine are the selfish chemicals. We need them to persevere, find food, build shelters, invent tools, drive forward, build something, accomplish goals and get things done. These are the chemicals for progress.

Endorphins: Mask physical pain and promote feelings of euphoria and happiness.  Physical exercise is a good endorphin-producing activity, but the positive feelings are very short-lived. It is a survival chemical. Because of endorphins humans have a remarkable capacity for physical endurance.  We not only can get endorphins rush through physical exercises but laughter as well.

Leaders to consider: Create an environment where there is a place for fun, laughter and ease. Role-model fitness and encourage others to do regular exercise and sport to develop their endurance.

Dopamine: The big boss. It contributes to the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction from completing an important task, achieving goals, or winning games. This is why checking a completed task off a list feels so good. Because we seek the positive feelings of dopamine, it can enable us to stay focused, get through difficult phases of our career, especially when we know where we want to get to. But it can be dangerous as well, because it can lead to addictive behaviours such as gambling or using alcohol, nicotine or binge eating because they all release dopamine. There is another thing that can highjack our dopamine reward system is social media for example how many likes and positive comments we can get for our posts. While in case of alcohol or gambling we are aware of but in case of our devices and social media we are less aware of our addiction. In a very goal oriented and performance driven organisation in which dopamine is the primary means of reward we can easily become addicted. Also, we live in an impatient world. In a world of instant gratification, where we are addicted to performance.


Leaders to consider: Finding the right balance of setting clear and challenging goals for people helps a leader stimulate dopamine in a constructive way but not overdo it and get your key talents to burn out. Try to resist to instant solutions, which are never long-lived and sustainable. Put your focus on boosting morale first, encourage and reward behaviours like cooperation, sharing information, cross-functioning and supporting others etc. then performance will follow, not the other way around.

Oxytocin and serotonin are to incentivize us to work together, to cooperate and develop feeling of trusts and loyalty towards others. They make us feel valued and are called by Simon Sinek the selfless, social chemicals.

Oxytocin: The trust hormone, invokes feelings of love and loyalty. This chemical drives us to be around people we like, love and trust.  Oxytocin is produced through human touch, hugs and acts of kindness and generosity. This is the feeling we get when we do something nice for someone or someone does something nice for us. Without oxytocin there would be no empathy. Unlike dopamine, which is about instant gratification, oxytocin is long-lasting. The more time we spend with someone, the more we are willing to make ourselves vulnerable around them. As we learn to trust them and earn their trust in return, the more oxytocin flows. Our brain is wired to release oxytocin when in the presence of our tribe and cortisol which responsible for the feeling of anxiety, when we feel alone and vulnerable. Oxytocin not only help us to live longer but boosts our immune systems, lowers blood pressure, increase our libido and makes us more resistant to addictions, and cravings. Oxytocin releases stress, increases our interest in our work, improves our cognitive abilities to be able to solve complex problems. And finally inspires us to work together.

Leaders to consider: Being authentic and transparent are trustworthy behaviours that can produce oxytocin. Make the other person feel safe by reducing or eliminating unsafe elements, and uncertainty. Give your people full attention. Demonstrate generosity and paying forward. Showing your vulnerability creates stronger connections, releases oxytocin, and allows open, honest dialogue. It is also ok to ask for help when needed.

Serotonin: Called the leadership chemical. It supports the sense of pride, status, respect and gratitude. We want to feel we and the work we do are valued by others, especially those in our group. It not only rewards the individual with the boost of serotonin when the person being recognized by their parent, teach, boss etc. will get the hit as well.  From a leadership lens, this means that when employees feel their leader has their back, in turn, they will take care of the leader, the company, and each other. Serotonin boosts our self-confidence and inspire us to help those who work for us and make proud those for whom we work.

Leaders to consider: It is important to remember that because of serotonin we can’t feel a sense of accountability to numbers; we can only feel accountable to people. The primary hormone that drives servant leadership (willingness to sacrifice time, and energy so that others may gain, grow and succeed) is serotonin.

There are the negative chemicals also like cortisol and adrenaline. They inhibit the neuro-transmitters and can switch off the non-dominant part of your brain.

Cortisol and adrenaline: These hormones are responsible for the fight and flight response, like a high security alarm system for protection and survival. Also, it is directly tied to the level of stress and anxiety we experience. When there is a threat adrenaline released in the body, that gives us energy and boost our strengths to tackle the danger. When there is no threat more, we take a deep breath and cortisol leaves our bloodstream.  Cortisol is not supposed to stay in our system. When cortisol lingers and adrenaline too high for a longer period of time cause lasting damage to our health and shuts down the immune system. There are many occasions for cortisol to be release in our body e.g. being constantly worried about making mistakes, fear that our boss does not like us, someone tries to stab you in the back to get ahead, pay attention to too much negative media hype, constant uncertainties etc. Cortisol inhibits the release of oxytocin, switches off your non-dominant brain and blocks the neuro-transmitters which responsible for your brain fitness.

Leaders to consider: create a supporting environment, watch out for unhealthy competition within the organisation. Allow your people to make mistakes, but make sure they learn from those mistakes as part of their progress.

It is not a perfect system as these chemicals do not fire in equal quantities and strict ration. Your role as a leader to create an environment in which the right chemicals are released for the right reasons. The goal is to find balance as much as you can as always.

Source: Leaders eat last by Simon Sinek, Neuro-Agility by Dr. André Vermeulen

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