Over the last few decades Business Leaders and HR professionals have been trying to unlock the secrets to creating high performance cultures. The field of neuroscience is now giving us answers to what happens inside our brains and bodies in different environments and cultures. Although the neuroscience is still in its infancy, the insights we now have can transform your culture from driving to thriving through simply changing the way we behave.
1. High testosterone environments are contagious
Businesses with a culture based on targets, competition, hierarchy and status have traditionally been the standard model. We have seen highly driven, risk-taking, ambitious and competitive people rise to the top, and many board rooms are filled with dominant characters, and their businesses used to dominate the markets. Now we are seeing some of the negative consequences arising from these cultures.
As we see executive burn out, stress and depression increase we look for antidotes – but neuroscientists are now understanding the causes. By looking in the brain we can see the impact of high performance driven cultures and why it has been so difficult to combat. The reason is that testosterone is contagious.
Both men and women produce the hormone, men generally 10 times more, but research shows that in high testosterone or “Alpha” cultures, everyone’s levels are increased. The level of drive, pressure, competition, dominance and “power over” behaviours increases until such point that the culture becomes toxic, every man (or woman) for themselves. This is where we see performance drop off as distrust, silos, politics, fear and ego become further embedded, and so the drive continues.
2. The amygdala hijack shrinks the brain
When people are in fear their brains operate from the amygdala, and we go into fight, flight, freeze or appease mode. Our bodies are flooded with cortisol which sharpens the senses for immediate danger. Since the hormones have a negative relationship, cortisol (stress hormone) is essentially released to reduce the negative effects of too much testosterone.
As cortisol dominates our brains, our brains start shutting down and we reduce the ability to think logically or long term and we go into protect and survive mode. If you have ever been asked to do mental arithmetic in a meeting you will know exactly what I am talking about. Research is now showing us that when we are in long term stressful environments our IQ reduces – we are shrinking our brains. Driving high performance could actually be reducing the capability of your people, your greatest asset.
3. Oxytocin activates the executive brain
The good news is that there is a hormonal antidote to stress, but it takes a change in behaviour to activate it.
Oxytocin is commonly known as the hug hormone, because it is produced when we feel secure and safe in a relationship. It helps us bond and feel connected to others, and has the opposite effect of cortisol. Whereas mistrust lives in the amygdala and is activated by cortisol, trust networks operate in the prefrontal cortex (executive brain) where creativity, logic, reasoning, strategic thinking and connection are activated by oxytocin.
In the western world, most people are employed in roles where they are required to use their minds. We ask people to solve problems, design, innovate, create or think strategically, you are essentially employing the pre-frontal cortex. Put in these terms is seems logical that as a leader, you would do everything possible to nurture and develop that asset and this can be achieved by creating an environment of trust, openness and safety.
Google wanted to know what was the secret to creating successful, high performing teams. Project Aristotle sought to see if there was an increased IQ in successful teams and what caused it. What they discovered was the secret was Psychological Safety, the ability to create a safe space where team members felt secure enough to be open, transparent and float ideas without fear of being shamed, judged or without retribution. Had they studied the neuroscience what they would have discovered was that oxytocin was dominant over cortisol.
4. Success breeds success
When we work in high performing, trusted teams, we feel rewarded and our bodies are flooded with dopamine, and it feels good. In fact, it feels so good we want more and more of it, so in return we do things that will reward us. What is interesting is those “rewards” come from human interaction more than external stimuli. One client recalled some 10 years earlier where he had gone over and above on some project or another. His boss approached him personally, shook his hand and told him he was so pleased that he was going to nominate him for an award. That one interaction made such an impact on him that he still smiled as he recalled it 10 years later, and yes, he wanted to get that feeling again so continued to go that extra mile.
5. It’s simple but oh so hard
The reality is that we already know that being open, honest, authentic and treating people with respect gets results. Now we have the science to prove it and it starts at the top. If the leaders in your business have got to the top by being authentic then I bet the culture is already opening people’s brains and is rolling in creativity, innovation and success. For those leaders that still operate in the testosterone fuelled cultures then change could be hard. Every time we try to change we encounter the amygdala hijack and our saboteurs pounce and tell us to stay safe and protect. Stepping into the fear, overcoming their own barriers to building trust and being authentic is the key. One step at a time can have transformational effects in your business performance.
Her clients are market leaders in their field across many different industries but all have one thing in common - they believe that people are their greatest asset, but can be the biggest barrier to success.
Creating a safe space for clients to gain clarity on the key blocks in their business, Lucy and her team create solutions for high performance including coaching, behavioural profiling, consultancy and team development.
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