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Hook me up to a Dopamine Drip: The Neuroscience of Leadership

Why do you do what you do? Seems a simple enough question, but do you really know? If you are self-aware, you may know that you are honouring your personal values, performing tasks that motivate you, working to a higher goal etc. But what about mundane tasks? And what is behind motivation anyway? Article by Noj Hinkins, Director of Iceberg Coaching Ltd and Associate Consultant – LIW.
generation z

Why do you do what you do? Seems a simple enough question, but do you really know? If you are self-aware, you may know that you are honouring your personal values, performing tasks that motivate you, working to a higher goal etc. But what about mundane tasks? And what is behind motivation anyway? Article by Noj Hinkins, Director of Iceberg Coaching Ltd and Associate Consultant – LIW.

Simon Sinek’s book, “Leaders Eat Last” provides a neat explanation of behavioural drivers in the form of EDSO brain chemicals. It turns out that on a really basic level, we do stuff that makes our brain feel good and there are 4 main “feel good” chemicals that are dripped into the brain under certain circumstances: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin.

As a leader you are key factor in the presence or absence of these chemicals in your people’s brains. If your people’s brains are flooded with positive chemicals, research suggests they will be 31 percent more productive and 37 percent better at sales. However if you are unnecessarily stressing your people, then you are flooding their brains with a stress chemical called cortisol instead. Do that enough and people lose 10-15 IQ points, so you’d better know about the neuroscience if you want a truly high-performing and motivated team.

Take D for dopamine for example. Dopamine is one of the 4 main positive brain chemicals you experience as you go about your life. It is a selfish chemical, rewarding your personal performance. Assume an ancestor of yours had a compelling purpose like getting apples from a distant tree. That compelling purpose would give them a shot of dopamine. Not only that, but each time they overcame an obstacle on their way to reach the apples, they would get another drip of dopamine. I’ve crossed the river, drip. I’ve climbed the opposite bank, drip. I’ve scaled the tree, drip. I’ve picked the apples, drip.

We crave the sensation dopamine gives our brain.

A lot of the work I do is focused on helping leaders create Positive conditions that hook their people up to a dopamine drip and there are 3 steps to doing this.

1) Have a compelling purpose (Why)
The key here is to think beyond just profit (which is uninspiring). Simon Sinek describes it as a belief or a cause. Something that makes a difference that people care about. For example a building company that exists, “To create spaces that enable people and organisations to reach their full potential” rather than, “To double profit in the next 5 years”. If you focus on the former, the latter will come.

An often-cited example here is the janitor who was asked by JFK what his job at NASA was and replied, “To put a man on the moon.” Now there’s an employee with a compelling purpose, flooded with dopamine.

Having a purpose beyond profit acts as a dopamine drip. It’s always there. It plays to the emotional limbic system in our brains. It keeps our brain motivated.

2) Create a strategy with achievable milestones to get there (How)
Of course most of the organisations we work for are not charities, so there is usually a profit number close behind the compelling purpose. That’s OK, but what is often missing is clarity of strategy and milestones to get there. It often seems as if people are scared to put pen to paper and commit. Maybe they fear they will be “on the hook” for something and would rather fudge it, just in case they fail. But nothing is going to encourage failure more than lacking clear milestones to success. It cuts off the supply of dopamine and increases levels of cortisol because people don’t know where they stand. Managers who do this are actually reducing their people’s brain effectiveness and impeding their chances of success.

A senior exec was recently frustrated when his people kept saying they didn’t understand the strategy. “I don’t understand it! I’ve told them time and time again!” he ranted.

“Well stop telling them and start asking them,” I told him.

Involving your people in designing their own plan to get there, in line with the strategy, creates both clarity of understanding and a sense of ownership. When you see what they come up with, you can see what they understand and what they don’t, you can then work together to build the plan. It is hard not to understand the strategy when you have created your own goals to deliver it because you can see exactly what the priorities are and what you need to do to reach success.

A 2-way objective-setting discussion like this also demonstrates how to cascade the strategy in a meaningful way that actually creates meaning and momentum at each level through the whole organisation. It is time for managers to stop seeing objective setting as a time-consuming, HR-driven, compulsory process and start seeing it as their main tool for success. Creating SMART milestones to an achievable goal that is in line with the organisation’s purpose, sets out a Dopamine Highway. Just having it is motivating and releases dopamine. Driving down it is even better.

3) Positive follow-up (What)
I reckon every organization could put 5 percent on its bottom line if people followed-up effectively on everything people said they were going to do. If managers are not sitting down regularly with their people and reviewing their progress along the Dopamine Highway, then just what are they spending their time doing? It is the most important part of their job.

Regularly catching your people “doing it right” confirms progress and is yet another source of dopamine as our brain sees that we are making progress towards our goal.

Even better that that, if a target is missed, it is spotted early and something can be done to help. An assertive and Positive 2-way conversation moves the focus beyond the short-term disappointment (which could be a source of cortisol and stress if left unattended to) and back to the Positive, future-orientated action plan that oozes dopamine.

For me “positive” with a little “p” is pretending everything is OK when it isn’t (which has limited use) and Positive with a capital “P” means being honest about where we are, but pretty quickly moving the focus of the conversation on to what we are going to do about it.

In my sales career I took over a failing national team and instilled a discipline of Positive follow up. Every manager had a 15-minute conversation around results every week with every sales rep. I had a 2-hour conversation with the managers every month. I had a half-day with my boss every quarter. The focus was feedback and coaching.

A hundred people across the country knew everyday what was expected of them, how they were doing and were clear about their own plan for what they could do to improve. We must have been doing something right as we hit our AOP target for the first time in 5 years… and there was a positive feeling about the place that hadn’t been there before… and people seemed to be enjoying themselves more. The dopamine was flowing.

“So what?” you might think. Who cares about dopamine? People are here to do a job, we’re not here to create a “cranial-spa”; it’s not a brain retreat just to make people feel good.

But when we are Positively hooked up to a dopamine drip, we feel happy and it can become addictive, making us better at work. Our brains at Positive are flooded with dopamine, which also turns on all our learning receptors allowing us to adjust positively to new situations. When we are involved in creating our own plan how to deliver the strategy and setting out our own milestones, we become engaged and engagement in the workplace, it turns out, is actually quite rare.

Gallup do an “engagement in the workplace’ s survey every year and although it fluctuates slightly, the results are that about a ¼ of employees report they are engaged at work, ½ are not engaged and ¼ are actively disengaged. I have a colleague who describes this as like being the cox of a rowing eight and having 2 rowers pulling in the right direction, 4 without oars and 2 trying to sink the boat. If you have an average workforce, then this summarises your people’s engagement. The results you got last year were achieved with a team like that. Gallup reckon it costs the US economy $500bn every year.

Imagine an alternative team that was engaged by being hooked up to a dopamine drip. Imagine what you could achieve if you had 8 people with oars rowing in the right direction.

It’s time for leaders to reflect:

1) How clear are your people on your organisation’s purpose beyond profit?

2) Can they tell you the strategy and outline their Dopamine Highway to get there?

3) How often to you catch someone doing it right and recognise them for progress? Are your performance conversations Positive (dopamine-inducing) or negative (cortisol-inducing)?

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