By: Judith E. Glaser MS, MA, Marcia Ruben, Ph.D., Sandra Foster, Ph.D., & Debra Pearce-McCall, Ph.D.
What is distinctive about this blog post are the actions a boss can choose to directly impact their own neurochemistry, behaviors and words that promote a climate of trust and encourage co-creation among the team. 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, whether you’ve been the team member or the boss: all the teams reporting to business unit heads, including you, have been gathered by the boss 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 is well meaning and wants to move the company past stagnant sales and poor customer feedback. Yet he has his favorite BU’s and can exclude other groups with his judgmental comments. He dictates the format of the meeting and how the discussion will be handled.
You know you must 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 have been encouraging you 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. 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 non-consciously (Liddell et al., 2005), and then consciously, by our perception, and fear, that our competence, or even our very being, is under threat.
Our nervous systems are constantly evaluating the environment and making neurochemical adaptations that impact our range of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. This automatic and out-of-awareness process has been termed neuroception (Porges, 2003) describing the instant reading of cues and corresponding physiological shifts to neural states that support safety and connection, defensiveness, or immobilization. The quality and potential for meetings are affected by the neuroceptions of the participants. Even having memories of “power-over” comments, a disregarding tone of voice, and a felt sense of exclusion can create a nervous system response to threat while anticipating the next meeting, one we are likely to bring in with us.
In addition, the neurotransmitter cortisol is being secreted in response to our fear or even self-appraisal that we will be judged as wrong, or worse as stupid and not valued (Thagard & Wood, 2015). 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), 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 front area of the brain essential for our best work. A face that we perceive as untrustworthy can trigger even higher levels of 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. Unwittingly, they shut down the creativity and ideas of their team and sabotage the results that they so desperately want. 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 welcome to assertively offer their ideas - an environment where conversations consistently develop into co-creating solutions? They 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.
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. These hormones, cortisol and oxytocin, work in balance almost like a see-saw, corresponding to stress or a positive state, respectively (Heinrichs, Baumgartner, Kirschbaum, & Ehlert, 2003). A leader’s stance and behaviors can increase (up-regulate) cortisol and decrease (down-regulate) oxytocin when those around the leader feel stressed (McEwen, 2006). Additionally, 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. Those qualities describe the neural state that could help leaders and teams create great meetings!
Up-Regulate – Down-Regulate
One of the most fascinating mechanisms we have discovered about how the brain works to facilitate change, is that the brain responds to contrasts (Glaser & Rozman, 2016; HeartMath Institute, 2016). For example, we notice when someone is appreciative of our work rather than judgmental of our work, we instantaneously notice the contrast. We notice when people share rather than withhold. Our brain is very sensitive to these changes and when we author or activate these changes, we bring energy into the change process. When we do less down-regulating through behaviors that feel like power-over, and we shift to doing up-regulating behaviors that feel like “power-with” others, we activate the potential for healthy change actually taking hold in an organizational culture, and as we practice this shift the behaviors become sustaining.
Below are seven types of changes that leaders can practice which are so powerful they can actually change a culture almost overnight. When leaders down-regulate the behaviors that activate cortisol and up-regulate the behaviors that activate oxytocin, the culture of the organization ‘feels’ co-creative, and trusting, and people experience and respond to the contrast in very profound ways.
The acronym CHANGES describes the seven shifts that help promote a thriving, productive workplace and the key associated leader behaviors to ensure those shifts. Leaders who consciously focus on shifting and demonstrating these behaviors help team members’ neurochemical states shift toward those supporting the feelings of safety and trust:
C is for Co-creating. This is a shift from excluding certain employees to including all. Leaders can involve every team in the activities of creation of a new direction, brand, or other important organizational initiative. They can give time and provide a forum for co-creation that facilitates working together in what feels like an equal playing field. They can set the stage for co-creation by asking discovery questions, listening, and taking others’ views seriously. The end result is well worth the additional time spent.
H is for Humanizing. The leader shifts from demeaning and judging to appreciating. The leader invites others’ differing views and listens respectfully. They are able to offer feedback in a non-defensive manner and are comfortable with their own human vulnerabilities. This greatly increases a sense of connection and reduces the fear of reprisal for opinions that contradict the leader’s view.
A is for Aspiring. The leader shifts from limiting aspirations to expanding aspirations. They can inspire others to reach for their aspirations, by welcoming opinions and encouraging debate around what is possible, and more so about how to make the impossible possible. This also helps reduce fear. It enlists others to explore and define priorities for achieving success, and encourages members of their teams to experiment and take risks.
N is for Navigating. The leader shifts from withholding vital information to sharing openly with the teams. They encourage others to take ownership for making and carrying out decisions and make clear the benefits of team members cooperating in discovery of the way forward. They can also humbly learn to recognize and then manage their own fear of loss of control and power by focusing on sharing rather than withholding, remembering that sharing brings greater value to the organization.
G is for Generativity. The leader demonstrates their own personal shift from a “know it all” mindset to a “discovery” mindset. They do this by truly believing and then behaving in ways that enable employees to not only be informed and part of decisions, but also to be open to novel and new ideas. They ask “what if” questions and reward the experimentation of “what if” scenarios. If the risk taken does not yield the intended result, instead of blaming, they ask “what can we all learn from this?”
E is for Expressing. The leader shifts from dictating how things will be to helping others in developing their own perspectives. They actively invite and reward others for making decisions, especially around tough situations, and encourage team members to assertively voice their views. They offer feedback to encourage growth for the entire team and even can embrace the ritual of giving space by saying, “you decide.” They also help open cross-functional and cross-divisional borders and create opportunities for others to express themselves in an atmosphere of trust.
S is for Synchronizing. Here the leader moves from criticizing to celebrating progress, learning from setbacks, and successes. They can demonstrate confidence in themselves as leaders and stay calm. They inspire commitment to accountability and excellence in effort even in the face of difficult challenges. With synchronizing, leaders and teams create an ongoing flow of adapting and developing, a process that builds on itself.
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, resulting in down-regulating, 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 shift from down-regulating cortisol producing behaviors, to up-regulating oxytocin producing behaviors, real significant and powerful changes occur not just in one leader but also in whole teams and organizations.
Leaders who consciously practice down-regulating and up-regulating behaviors can and will experience greater productivity and results within their work units. They enable healthy conversations and changes to emerge and drive success. Innovation flourishes, employees find their voice, and fear is replace with trust and co-creation.
About the Authors
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 www.conversationalintelligence.com; www.creatingwe.com; email firstname.lastname@example.org 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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