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The Neurochemistry of Power Conversations - Leaders Who Activate Trust

This distinctive article highlights the actions a boss can choose to directly impact their own neurochemistry, behaviors and expressions that promote a climate of trust and encourage co-creation among the team

By: Judith E. Glaser MS, MA, Marcia Ruben, Ph.D., Sandra Foster, Ph.D., & Debra Pearce-McCall, Ph.D

The reader will discover straightforward explanations of the interplay of two crucial hormones – ‘oxytocin and cortisol’, supported by the latest research on the neuroscience behind conversations. The terms up-regulate and down-regulate clearly guide a boss in establishing the conversational intelligence that benefits partnerships, teams, business units, and can be socialized within an entire organization.

You will recognize this familiar situation:The boss has gathered all the teams reporting to business unit heads, including you, for a meeting. The boss wants everyone to “brainstorm” ideas that will eventually result in a major shift in your organization’s product focus. You dread this encounter. Your boss dictates the format of the meeting and how the discussion will be handled by speaking only to his favorite Business Unit Heads. He excludes other groups with his judgmental comments, even though he is well meaning, and wants to move the company past stagnant sales and poor customer feedback.

Put yourself in the shoes of one of the leaders who is being overlooked as part of the ‘inner circle’. You know you have to be at the meeting, and although you have a terrific idea to suggest you again remind yourself not to speak up. You know from past experience the likelihood is high that your boss will sarcastically belittle the recommendations that come from your group. Your colleagues are encouraging you to speak up but you feel truly threatened. You expect that your boss will just exert his influence of “power-over” everyone and he’ll run his own agenda and your opinions will not be received very well – if at all. You feel very unsettled and anxious (your heart is pounding and you have a knot in your stomach) and this seems to override your intuition that your idea would be an important contribution.

What’s going on here? You have a good idea; your colleagues support you bringing it up; and yet when you anticipate or encounter a “power-over” boss, you shut down. Many people react to “power-over” communications by going into some version of fight, flight, or freeze, because they are experiencing a threat. Our body’s neurochemistry is activated first unconsciously (Liddell et al., 2005), and then consciously, by our perception, and fear, that our competence, or even our very being, is under threat.

The Neuroscience of Conversations

At our CreatingWE Institute, we have studied what is going on behind the scenes and in our minds when we engage with others in conversations. Our nervous systems are constantly evaluating the environment and making internal neurochemical adaptations that impact our range of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors – and most of all impact our conversations.

This automatic and out-of-awareness process has been termed “neuroception” (Porges, 2003) and describes the instant reading of cues and corresponding physiological shifts to neural states that support safety and healthy connection and conversation with others (associated with producing more oxytocin), or those neural states of defensiveness, or immobilization where unhealthy conversation is almost inevitable (these states are associated with higher levels of cortisol).

The quality and the impact or potential of the meetings we attend are affected by the neuroceptions of all the participants. Even having memories of “power-over” comments – which are often experienced as a disregarding tone of voice, and a felt sense of exclusion – can create a nervous system response to these feared future threats while simply anticipating the next meeting. And since we are social beings, automatically responding to perceived cues of relational safety or danger, we are very likely to carry this feeling and anticipation with us into the next meeting, influencing how we show up, how we influence and what we take away as our ‘beliefs’ and our ‘judgments’ about what ‘is true’ and ‘what will happen next’.

When we are connecting with others in non-judgmental ways, we are exercising higher levels of Conversational Intelligence® and a healthy balance of our connecting neurotransmitters emerges within us – including oxytocin, the bonding hormone. When we feel we distrust others, and are not connecting in a healthy and non-judgmental way, we see an elevation in different hormones, for example, the neurotransmitter cortisol, considered the stress hormone, is secreted – and we may activate more cortisol by having the ‘self-appraisal or self-talk’ that we will be judged as wrong, or worse as stupid and not valued (Thagard & Wood, 2015).

Impact of Cortisol

Elevated levels of cortisol can exert a detrimental effect on the prefrontal cortex which mediates judgment and decision making, thus interfering with our ability to think clearly and express ourselves with confidence (Diorio, Viau, & Meaney, 1993), just when we need to do so most. Just the act of imagining ourselves being criticized publicly, in front of colleagues, elicits fear and a neurochemical shift. When we feel threatened and our thinking brain closes down, we are in what Daniel Goleman (1995) labeled an “Amygdala Hijack.” The amygdala (which alerts us and in this case signals “be afraid!”) exists in an ongoing dynamic interplay with the prefrontal cortex, the evolutionarily newest, and front and center areas of our brains, essential for our best work. Just seeing a face that we perceive as untrustworthy can trigger even higher levels of cortisol and amygdala activation (Said, Baron, & Todorov, 2009). The team member, the boss, and the organization all lose when a good idea gets lost due to an amygdala hijack!

So what, Now what!

Leaders like the boss described invariably mean well. They are action-oriented and have been rewarded for getting results. As they have moved up the ranks, they take their go-getter behaviors with them and can become bosses that exert “power-over” rather than “power-with” behaviors as they engage with their organizations. Unwittingly, they shut down the creativity and ideas of their team, and they sabotage the results that they so desperately want to create with others. Team members with good ideas stay silent. The team can feel stuck, stagnant, or destructively competitive.

From Power-Over to Power-With

What can a leader do to transform this dictating or “power-over” stance to a “power-with” environment, one in which team members feel safe and feel free to offer their ideas even in challenging meetings or other workplace conversations. When leaders and their direct reports work together to ‘down-regulate’ fear and distrust, and ‘up-regulate’ ‘appreciation and trust’, everyone’s internal environment and chemistry shifts and the conversational environment feels safe, so the prefrontal cortex opens up – enabling what we call Co-creating Conversations®– which foster co-creating solutions amongst the team.

Taking Next Steps…

  1. Leaders can start by understanding how their interactions with others activate neurochemistry – and how neurochemistry triggers emotions and impacts how we make decisions, how we engage with others, and the quality and effectiveness of what we can accomplish with others.

  1. Next Leaders can understand how to up-regulate Oxytocin and down-regulate Cortisol: Let’s focus in on two key neurochemicals that reflect whether people are feeling stressed and defensive, or whether they are feeling safe to engage. The hormones called cortisol and oxytocin work in balance almost like a seesaw, corresponding to stress or a positive state, respectively (Heinrichs, Baumgartner, Kirschbaum, & Ehlert, 2003). Both a leader’s stance and their behaviors can increase (up-regulate) cortisol and decrease (down-regulate) oxytocin when those around the leader feel stressed (McEwen, 2006).

  1. Next, Leaders can intentionally shift a fear-based environment to a co-creating environment: Research evidence suggests that a leader’s behaviors can also decrease cortisol and increase oxytocin (Zak, Kurzban, & Matzner, 2005). In a review of oxytocin research, Carter, Harris and Porges (2009) summarize that research suggests oxytocin not only supports our social engagement, it decreases fear and even increases stress tolerance, expanding the neuroception of safety.

Leaders who understand the shifts they need to make, to elevate Conversational Intelligence in their relationships and teams and organizations, are the ‘game changers’ of the future.

We are at a time in our evolution, where we now know how to activate the healthiest, and most powerful states in others…. Not only can this influence our meetings, it can influence how we think together, behave together, and influence together, whether we are in a meeting, or in any difficult conversation about to happen.

How can leaders activate trust?

Think back to the example at the beginning of this blog—the team member with the excellent idea who was afraid to speak up because of a boss that demonstrated power-over behaviors. In this example the impact of ‘judging others in the room’ resulted in an increase in cortisol, and the loss of a potentially golden idea. The authors have all had the opportunity to coach such leaders. We find that when they understand the basics of the brain and neurochemistry, and how to both down-regulate cortisol producing behaviors, and also up-regulate oxytocin producing behaviors, incredibly powerful and significant changes occur not just in one leader – but also in whole teams and organizations!

Judith E. Glaser is CEO of Benchmark Communications, Chairman of the Creating WE Institute, Organizational Anthropologist, and consultant to Fortune 500 Companies and author of four best- selling business books, including Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results (Bibliomotion). Visit;; email or call 212-307-4386.

Marcia Ruben, Ph.D., PCC is the President of Ruben Consulting Group, a San Francisco Bay Area firm that specializes in executive leadership development. Dr. Ruben is also the Chair of the Management Department at Golden Gate University and teaches graduate level, practitioner based courses in leadership, team dynamics, management, and executive coaching. She was awarded the Russell T. Sharpe Professorship for 2016-2018 and is focusing her research on leadership and neuroscience.

Debra Pearce-McCall, Ph.D., LP, LMFT provides personal and organizational coaching that integrates mind, brain, and relating, and is a Senior Consultant for the Creating WE Institute. Dr. Pearce-McCall helped found the Global Association for Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB) Studies as well as the first graduate certificate program in this cutting-edge field at the intersection of psychology, neuroscience, and human systems; she focuses on IPNB applications for leadership and organizations, adult well-being, healthcare, and ethics.

Sandra Foster, Ph.D., PCC is a business coach and peak performance psychologist who works internationally with global organizations as well as US based technology and energy companies. She received her doctorate at Stanford University where she served on the regular and adjunct faculty. Since 2001, she has been a member of the senior faculty of the College of Executive Coaching.


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