Why smart people make dumb leadership decisions

Smart people who accomplish much in their chosen profession are often promoted to leadership roles under the assumption, ‘they are good at their job as a lawyer / accountant / engineer / doctor / academic, they’ll be great as team leader’. Sometimes that assumption is right. Often it is wrong.

Team management is an entirely different set of skills and awareness than what is required for execution of specific professional roles.

There are key mistakes that smart people make as leaders:

  1. Tyranny of the task and absent serotonin

Obsession with getting the job done can put blinkers on. What gets missed? The people who get the task done. When leaders get tunnel vision on task, they leave out one of the main bio-chemical drivers in synergistic, high-performing teams: serotonin.

When people are acknowledged, appreciated, recognised, they receive a boost of serotonin, the feel-good or happiness chemical. It boosts loyalty and a sense of belonging in a team.

It’s a simple fix. Each day, take a moment to acknowledge the people you work with, appreciate their efforts, and make them feel like they belong.

  1. The tyranny of targets and the addiction of dopamine

Dopamine is the chemical that gets released in the body that is related to the reward and arousal system. It’s the feeling of victory that we get when we win a game or achieve a goal. If you’ve ever cheered when you’ve gotten your inbox to zero, this is dopamine at work. If you’ve ever written a list and found satisfaction in crossing off the items, this is dopamine. If you’ve ever cheated on a test to get a better result, this is also dopamine at work.

A little bit of dopamine is a good thing. It keeps us primed and interested in our work. Too much and we become obsessed with results at the expense of process and people. When we focus on people and team, however, this generates the biochemicals that balance dopamine, endorphins, and adrenaline. Serotonin is one of those chemicals, and oxytocin is the other. Oxytocin is the feel-good chemical that occurs between mother and child, in well-bonded teams, and when we get or give a hug. It’s the chemical that occurs when we feel safe with others.

As Simon Sinek mentions in is 99u video, “If you don’t understand people, you don’t understand business” it’s easy to boost oxytocin. When we witness acts of generosity, it gives us a little surge of oxytocin. When we do the act of generosity ourselves, we also get a hit of oxytocin.

As  leader, when we share our time, energy, and focus with the people who work with us, we all get the oxytocin benefits. There is nothing more generous that sharing our only non-renewable resource: time. This is how we help people to feel safe, acknowledged, and appreciated.

  1. The tyranny of title and the cortisol effect

When leaders default to using their title and position to get their way, they are triggering cortisol, or a high fear response in others. It seems like a simple shortcut: ‘Do as I say, I’m the boss.’ Decision made.

What happens when we lean on authority is that we give up leadership. People start to obey rather than follow. They fear instead of trust. When we rule by title, we sacrifice the opportunity for self-generated performance improvements, a willingness to collaborate, and support of one another.

Cortisol is a corrosive force in organisations. It eats away willingness to go above and beyond for the sake of the organisation’s purpose. It encourages a work-to-rule environment. It fosters a ‘keep your head down’ approach that stymies innovation and risk-taking.

Relying on title is a sure sign that the leader needs to slow down, listen more, ask more questions, and invite solutions. When people feel heard, they are more likely to drop the cortisol and lean in rather than away.

The key tips for managing bio-chemical drivers in leadership are:

Moderate target and reward addiction with acknowledgement, recognition, and generous sharing of your time, energy, and focus. Bonus points for oxytocin-inducing human touch such as handshakes, back pats and hugs. The world needs more hugs.

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