Business Unusual

The chemical equation for good business

Simon Sinek is an author of four books on business function. He is often cited for his first book, “Start with Why”. His TED Talk about it is one of the most popular to date and his most recent “Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team” was published in September.

This looks at a part of his second book “Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t”.

He notes the vital roles certain chemicals play in regulating the function of our body and equates them to the functions that business should seek to both mirror and balance to achieve business success and sustainability.

There are five substances he mentions. Two are obtained by our own actions and two require the interaction of others. The last, if present for prolonged periods, can be dangerous.

Consider how well they relate to you and the business where you work.

As a starting point he points out a striking difference between military principles and business ones. The military fosters the sacrifice of yourself to protect the group, while business rewards the individual even sometimes at the expense of the group.

He argues that our natural order is to care socially for each other, at least in so far as to create safety in numbers. A group that does not feel safe can’t function above very basic needs and this, he saysm is typical of how many businesses structure their reward and punishment principles.

Humans use dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin and cortisol for regulating our biological processes. Business can regulate them too and the business that can regulate them well will benefit from happy and engaged staff with the best probability to succeed sustainably.

Here is how.

Endorphins allow the body to mask physical pain. If you have been attacked, and are injured, endorphins allow you to ignore the injury while you escape. If we did not have them, even a small injury could result in your death. In business, being able to soak up some pain for a short while in order to achieve time bound goal would be worth suffering in the style of the old adage “no pain, no gain”.

Extended suffering, or not addressing a chronic issue, is very bad as it not only limits you ability to recover, it very well may make things worse. So too in business; not addressing an issue will only let it fester, potentially becoming an even bigger problem.

Dopamine is our chemical critical to activating brain cells. Generally they trigger a reaction that relates to our reward and pleasure stimulation. It is the essence of our sense of pleasure and can be triggered by both positive and potentially negative rewards. Completing something will trigger it and winning something will trigger it, but it can also be triggered by winning a bet. Winning based on a specific outcome that essentially you do not control, but the urge to win may compel you to play. On the occasions you succeed you are keen to get the feeling again, despite the odds decreasing of you doing so.

Similarly, a sales target that is met releases dopamine, or completing a project on time. The downside is that the desire to repeat the feeling may see you use unacceptable methods to achieve it and despite the likely feelings of guilt it would create, it could easily be washed away by the euphoria of winning.

Addictions appear to use the same pathways, causing us to engage in behaviour we know to be detrimental and unsustainable, but ignored in order to feel the brief, but pleasurable, effect of dopamine.

Sinek makes the point that social media and its rewards for what we share and say online can trigger it too. For some the rush of a 'like' or a new follower can be all consuming and wholly negative in the long run.

These two he describes as the selfish chemicals as their effect is principally for our benefit and created by our actions. The next two he considers the social chemicals as their effect is on the group and requires social activity to be produced.

Serotonin is the best proxy for the feelingd of happiness and contentment. It might be surprising though that its principal effect is on the digestive system and regulates our moods, appetite and sleep. When we are sure of the provision of food, physical safety and social acceptance in our environment we sense the effect of serotonin and it allows us to feel pride, loyalty and fulfillment.

No guesses that this would be great in a work environment and so the issue is not the presence or excess of serotonin; it is the more common scarcity of it that is the challenge to manage. Allowing staff to feel safe and appreciated makes it more likely they will perform for the benefit the group rather than protect themselves. It also allows them to respond to changes that may be required or modify behaviour when it does not align with the group. Its absence may lead to a distrustful and acrimonious environment where people are neither willing not able to change when it is required.

Oxytocin is principally responsible for our behaviour and responses relating to reproduction and child rearing, but its impact on wanting to nurture and protect is a large part that fosters our social structure to create and maintain relationships and do things for others with potentially no benefit to ourselves. Actually when we do things for the sole benefit of others we do also benefit. It appears that just observing someone doing something for the benefit of others may benefit us by making us feel drawn to the people in that group and them to us. That sets up the feelings of trust and safety which in turn enhances our serotonin levels which leads to happiness.

Once again in business the act of service for others is not natural as we typically expect, if not demand, a reward for help. In a business with little trust, staff will not help each other and very likely only do the bare minimum for clients. Hardly a recipe for growth and success.

The final chemical is cortisol and, like the others, it plays a critical role in protecting us from harm by priming us to be highly alert and ready to respond. This is part of the adrenal system that manages our fight or flight response. Suspending non-critical functions to ensure the short term threat can be dealt with as effectively as possible. The impact of this is to put stress on our body which, like the endorphins, are very useful, but only if used for a short time.

Unfortunately, in a business context, the heightened alert states caused by pressure to perform in an environment that does not feel safe, causes a sustained state of cortisol release which we know simply as stress. Stress not only can, it will kill you. It's very action is to suspend growth and healing in the body, to suppress the immune system and drastically slow digestion.

It creates the perfect storm that allows the worst forms of all of the states that dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin can provide.

Given that you now know how negative the stressed, unsafe and distrustful environment is for our physical well being, how is it all possible that we are happy to work in and sometimes contribute to business environments that have the exact same effect?

You can say want you like about management theory, but this is basic chemistry and too many businesses may be attempting to motivate staff with money when they should be focussing on getting rid of a toxic environment and creating enabling ones.


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