Startup Guru Simon Sinek Reveals How Our Chemical Biology Makes The Difference In Effective Teams

We no longer live in tribes, hunting and gathering our food, but for author Simon Sinek the culture of companies is still ruled by the same mood-affecting chemicals that our distant ancestors evolved to have. Understanding how this works can make the difference between leading a tight, high-performing team and a sullen, dissatisfied group, he says in his book ‘Leaders Eat Last’. Here’s what RSNG learned from reading it…

1. Empathy Should Be Your Secret Sauce
When it comes to getting the best from your teams there’s one key ingredient that Simon Sinek says is vital: empathy. He gives the example of a A10 Warthog pilot, call sign Jonny Bravo who, high above the clouds in Afghanistan in 2002, was required to give top cover to a group of men he had never met before. OK, it was his job but when he heard the call ‘troops in contact’ he did not hesitate to take extraordinary risks to fly blind through cloud cover into a narrow valley full of enemy fire at 1000ft, using mental arithmetic to realise he only had six seconds before he pancaked into a mountain, laying down accurate cannon fire, and then doing the whole thing over and again, in inches-close formation with his wingman.

The reason he gave was simple: ‘One fate worse than death is accidentally killing your own men. Another fate worse than death is going home alive when twenty two others don’t.’ What turned this from philosophical musing into instant action, was that during training Jonny Bravo actively built his empathy with the men on the ground. Whenever he heard ‘troops in contact’ he visualised the desperate Normandy beach battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan.

‘Exceptional organisations all have cultures in which the leaders provide cover from above and the people on the ground look out for each other,’ writes Sinek. That is the reason they are willing to push hard and take the kinds of risks that they do. And the way that any organisation can achieve this is with empathy.’

2. Draw A Circle Of Safety
The business world, just like the wider one, can be a hostile environment. As Sinek says, the thing that makes high performing teams isn’t the raw skills they have learnt – it’s the trust required for the kind of teamwork and cooperation that gets the task done better than the competition. But building that level of trust is impossible without a strong circle of safety, which encompasses the whole group, not just cliques within an organisation. Not only is this vital for effective cooperation, it’s actually crucial for wellbeing, says Sinek, who points to a 2011 University of Canberra study, which found that doing a job you hate is as bad, or worse, for our health than not having a job at all.

‘You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time’

3. Use Cheerfulness In Adversity
When the shit hits the air circulation unit, the tendency is for teams to go into deadly serious mode, ramping up the tension in an already sweaty-palmed scenario. Just like the UK’s Royal Marine Commandos, Sinek recommends finding lighthearted moments in the teeth of a crisis, in order to make teams gel and deal with that crisis more effectively. He quotes satirist Stephen Colbert, who said: ‘You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time.’ Laughing is actually the only thing bar serious physical effort that releases feel-good endorphins into your bloodstream.

4. Set Goals To Deliver Dopamine
Successful teams often get that way because they have been successful before. The reason for this can be down to simple brain chemistry, says Sinek. Dopamine is the feel-good chemical that hits our brains when we get something done, or achieve a goal. So, by setting your team clear milestones, on the way to a larger, challenging but achievable final goal, you are wiring dopamine hits into the way you work. ‘It’s not very motivating or helpful to be told that we will receive a performance bonus for doing ‘more’. How much more? Give us something to set our sights on,’ he says.

5. Serotonin Is The Leadership Chemical
You might have heard ‘happiness’ gurus bang on about the importance of serotonin, but its role in feeling pride for a job well done, which boosts confidence and even leadership status within a group is less well publicised, says Sinek. ‘These chemicals control our feelings, which is why we can actually feel the weight of responsibility when others commit time and energy to support us.’

This makes us not want to let them down and it cuts both ways, if we are the ones giving support: ‘We want to do right by them so that they can accomplish all they set out to do. It’s because of serotonin that we can’t feel a sense of accountability to numbers: we can only feel accountable to people.’ So, it’s the person in a group who works hardest to help the others succeed, who will come to be seen as the ‘alpha’.

6. Don’t Just Give Orders
‘What happens when the leader is wrong in a top-down culture? Everyone goes off a cliff.’ These are the words of Captain Marquet, who was in charge of a US nuclear submarine. Sinek tells his story to illuminate why just giving orders is never enough. The Captain was leading a new crew on a new submarine that he wasn’t expecting to be in charge of and defaulted to giving orders, trusting to his crew’s training. He realised his mistake when ordering a crew member to make the sub go at ‘two-thirds’ speed. The officer on deck acknowledged the order and passed it down to the helmsman. Nothing happened because the sub didn’t have this speed setting. When he asked the officer why he passed on the instruction, he replied: ‘Because you told me to.’

The Captain faced the truth: ‘If everyone was going to blindly follow his orders simply because he was in charge, then something very, very bad could happen… If he was going to succeed, he would have to learn to trust his bottom-ranked crew more than he trusted himself. He had no choice.’ And he learned a useful business truth, says Sinek: ‘You need to give authority to those closest to the information.’

7. How Oxytocin Unlocks Trust
The other brain chemical you need to know about, according to Sinek, is oxytocin: ‘It’s the feeling we get when we are in the company of our closest friends or trusted colleagues. It is responsible for the warm and fuzzies.’ But it’s also the thing that allows bonds of trust to form, because it’s a ‘social compass’ that lets us decide how much we can open up to others. ‘As a species that can accomplish more in groups than as individuals, we need to have the instinct to know whom to trust… Unlike dopamine, which is about instant gratification, oxytocin is long-lasting.’ This is why building trust in teams will allow them to risk more, co-operate better and get used to succeeding, again and again.

WHAT NEXT? Watch Simon Sinek, author of Leaders Eat Last explain why a cut-throat workplace is counter-productive…

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