In our rapid-change culture, whether your in a entrepreneurial venture or established niche, it can be very challenging as leaders to separate our organization’s fragile net worth and the cultural stress from our own self-worth and significance. As leaders, our fear or frustrations can often produce stress and negative emotions that in turn stimulate negative conversations within ourselves and with those we lead or serve. The result is communication, conflict resolution, collaboration and creativity are often stifled, just the opposite of what’s needed for growth and success. So what chemically happens within leaders and followers when leadership conversations turn negative?
The Conversational Chemistry of Leadership
Neuroscience is now teaching us that when we face criticism, rejection or fear, when we feel marginalized or minimized, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone triggered by the hypothalamus causing a fight or flight reaction. Cortisol shuts down our reasoning ability and can cause us to either freeze or appease” according to Dr. Richard and Judith Glasser of The CreatingWE Institute (HBR June2014).
On the other hand, positive comments and conversations produce a chemical reaction too. They stir the production of oxytocin impacting our prefrontal cortex. This feel-good hormone elevates our ability to communicate, collaborate and trust others. Yet, because oxytocin metabolizes more quickly than cortisol, its effects are less powerful and long-lasting. That’s why it takes more positive conversation to overcome the chemical reactions of a negative one.
I’m reminded of a coaching conversation with a millennial working within a two year old venture. This emerging leader shared their discouragement and growing disengagement resulting from a series of negative conversations and reviews from their boss. “I feel like I get maybe one positive encouragement amidst seven criticisms. I know I have areas I need to grow in, but the result is that I’m beginning to look around for other career possibilities.” With amazing awareness, my client sensed that beyond the negative conversations, the desire of their boss was to motivate his increased effort and commitment toward another year of engagement with the non-profit organization. Oops!
Talk about your mixed messages – you don’t have to be Dr. Phil to guess how that was working out. There is power in the tongue and even ancient scriptures warn us to bridal our conversations for they can speak life or death to ourselves as leaders as well as our associates, teams, and even our organizations. Our self-talk is the seed bed to our conversations with those we influence, for better or worse:
The tongue is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire… With the tongue we praise God and with it we curse human beings who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” James 3:6,9-11
Short-term Payoff Vs. Long-Team Success
The chemistry of our leadership conversations is vital to keeping ourselves and others encouraged and engaged. It needs to be an area for intentional growth in our personal awareness, learning to bridal our tongues to speak positively in all our conversations, even when our leadership requires we bring correction and critic to our followers or teams. One of the benefits of a leadership coach is not only a raised awareness of our own internal feelings and conversations, but a purposeful action plan to conversationally address the foundation issues stirring those feelings so we can engage well and address them positively and not create more stress.
Let me close with this, we use negative conversations because they work, at least short-term. But we need to focus our attention, and thus our conversations on what is good, right, healthy, fruitful and life-giving within our leadership that creates and shapes the culture of our organizations and thus determines our long-term success.
While a cut-throat environment and a culture of fear can ensure engagement (and sometimes even excitement) for some time, research suggests that the inevitable stress it creates will likely lead to disengagement over the long term. “ (Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive by Emma Seppala & Kim Camerson – Harvard Business Review Dec. 2015)
Healthy leadership that creates engagement and success in our organizations is the result of positive conversations — which chemically create feeling of value, security, support, and respect. May we seek to redeem each of our negative conversations with seven positive ones over the course of the next few weeks. If you and your organization needs help in this redemptive process, contact me for a complimentary strategy conversation.
Coach Dave is a Leadership Coach specializing in elevating emerging and entrepreneurial leaders. He has a Master’s Degree in Divinity and years of experience in coaching. He is a father, and husband to Coach Sue. Learn more about Coach Dave here.