Archive for February, 2013

Physiology of Leadership

Monday, February 11th, 2013

Recent research in the field of leadership and organizational development (OD) has focused on our brain chemistry. Once believed to be purely a function of our biology, we are beginning to understand the interface between one’s biology and one’s environment. Leadership and OD experts are becoming increasingly interested in neuropeptides and physiological responses. What happens to our staff when they are under stress? What can we achieve when we have trust and security?

The research on stress and how we react when stressed is revealing. One major stress hormone is cortisol. When our cortisol levels are high, our executive brain functioning is diminished. When cortisol levels are high, our limbic system is activated (think: lizard brain), and our more rational and higher reasoning functioning takes a break. Many individuals work in high pressure environments, such as performing surgery for long hours, working with high-conflict situations,  or leading resistant staff. Their stress levels are very high on a regular basis.

Some of the stress levels (and consequent secretion of cortisol) can be controlled, though certainly some of it is just “the nature of the beast”. One role as a leader is to keep stress levels as reasonable as possible (your own and your staff), knowing that it will thereby improve performance and efficiency. The first step in this process is managing your own stress well. There is a lot of information about how to constructively deal with stress. Working with an executive coach can help you apply these strategies to your unique situation.

Creating a supportive and safe environment is another key action that leaders can take to decrease stress in the workplace and thereby improve the functioning of their teams. When we feel connected and appreciated, our oxytocin levels go up. When we have oxytocin, we feel some elation and security and that translates into higher levels of motivation, higher levels of energy, greater creativity, and all kinds of good things. A few behaviors that create a sense of connection and security and may translate into increased oxytocin levels include:

  • Express sincere gratitude. This goes beyond “good job” and states something specific.
  • Catch staff doing something right. Let them know when they achieve something great.
  • Demonstrate genuine concern for the person; connect on a personal level. This may include some “small talk” so you know their interests, their whole person.

It can be a bit of a “catch 22” for someone who feels her status is threatened. A person feels threatened at work when she feels micro-managed, under-valued, misunderstood, in competition with co-workers, or under a critical eye of a supervisor.  If one feels threatened, her performance will suffer as her cortisol soars and she is put into “fight or flight” mode. This reinforces perceptions that others may have of her inability to do x,y,z. It becomes a bit of a trap, or self-fulfilling prophecy, on the part of the ‘actor’ and the ‘perceiver’. A supervisor thinks a staff member is messing up, so the supervisor collects mental evidence of those mistakes. The staff member feels she’s being criticized and judged, which spikes cortisol, and diminishes her ability to perform at a high level. This reinforces the supervisor’s perception of incompetence.

There are many things that organizations can do to create supportive and secure environments. Taking a look at the performance review system and analyzing it’s impact is one major step in the right direction. Giving leaders the tools they need to be compassionate, vulnerable, open and connected supervisors is another step toward more trusting and productive workforces. Hiring a coach to work with your leaders is one of the best resources you can offer. As the saying goes “the proof is in the pudding” and as your staff begin to feel better (good bye cortisol) , they will begin to perform at higher levels  (thank you oxytocin).