Q&A | November 19, 2013

IT Nation Keynote Combines Brain Chemistry With Business

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By Bernadette Wilson, associate editor, Business Solutions magazine
Follow Me On Twitter @bernadeditor

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Simon Sinek’s keynote at ConnectWise's IT Nation 2013 was part science lesson and part primer in what to include in your business philosophy. The author of Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action spoke at the conference on November 15, 2013, pointing out that leaders at successful businesses understand people on the most basic level — even a molecular one — and create an environment in which their companies function at an optimum.

According to his website bio, Sinek has held a life-long curiosity for why people and organizations do the things they do. Studying the leaders and companies that have made the greatest impact in the world, he has defined patterns that they share. He is best known for discovering the Golden Circle — a naturally occurring pattern, grounded in the biology of human decision making — and popularizing the concept of Why, the purpose, cause, or belief that drives each of us.  Sinek is an adjunct staff member of the RAND Corporation, one of the most highly regarded think tanks in the world, and he teaches graduate level strategic communications at Columbia University.

At IT Nation 2013, Sinek explained how a variety of events lead to the production of different chemicals in our brains. Humans produce endorphins that mask pain while dopamine plays a role in reward-motivated behavior and is highly addictive. These two chemicals have effects that are more selfish in nature. Serotonin, a “social” chemical is more associated with leadership, feelings of pride and value, satisfaction, and contributes to a feeling of well-being. Oxytocin, the second “social” chemical is associated with love, trust, and friendship. The feelings build up over time with kindness and generosity, and makes people want to return the favor. Sinek called it the “pay it forward” chemical.

Sinek pointed out that people value when someone gives them their time and energy, referring to these things as “nonredeemable commodities.” “As human beings, when people give us their time and energy, we pay them extra respect,” Sinek said. He added that as business leaders, taking extra time with an employee or a customer will make a difference — asking what the response is to writing handwritten note of thanks versus sending an email. He also suggested making phone calls. “They’re more efficient, you’ll spend less time, you’ll get more information,” he said, “and you’ll begin to develop a bond of trust.”

He said that paying attention to people and engaging in acts of generosity and kindness not only makes you and the recipient feel good — a result of the oxytocin production — it can also have the same effect on the brain chemistry of people who witness it.

In your business, people who are more are a part of giving and receiving kindness are healthier — including having a healthier balance of chemicals in their brains — which makes them perform better. Sinek says as a team, they will be more likely to feel safe and “work together, “watch each others’ backs, face the danger outside, and seize the opportunities.” He added, “Your customers will never love you until your employees love you.”

Business leaders get to set the criteria for employees, establishing the standards a prospective employee must meet to be hired — which he said should extend beyond their college transcripts or business experience to their character. He also said leaders decide how far to extend the “circle of safety” in an organization, commenting the most successful businesses extend it to the lowest level employee, letting everyone know they belong, they are valued and they are safe.

“The result is everyone wants to work for the greater good,” he explains. The alternative, an environment the employees perceive as unsafe causes a different response — cortisol production, on a chemical level — that causes stress, the “fight or flight” response, and over time makes people less empathetic, less apt to care for one another, and more concerned only about self-preservation.  Additionally, people who experience long periods of low-grade stress tend to have a weaker immune system.

Sinek challenged his audience to look at their own business environments and their roles as leaders. “Leadership is a choice,” he said. “Give help. Don’t ask.”

Sinek’s next book, “Leaders Eat Last,” will be released January 7, 2014.