Chemistry Lessons for Leaders

Chemistry Lessons for Leaders 640 433 C-Suite Network

by Judith Glaser

chemistry bottles with liquid inside

We are all familiar with the “chemistry” factor in relationships and the “chemical attraction” metaphor; now, we are learning that such insights are more than metaphor — they are reality!
I’ve long been intrigued by the chemical impacts — both positive and negative — of conversations. I married a biochemist, and for decades we’ve shared conversations about our work. Positive comments and conversations provide a temporary chemical “high,” while negative ones languish longer. A critique from a boss, a disagreement with a colleague or a fight with a friend can make you forget praise. If you are called lazy, careless or unprofessional, you are likely to remember it and internalize it, easily forgetting all the past compliments.

Chemistry plays a big role in this reaction. When we face criticism, rejection or fear, or when we feel marginalized or minimized, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking center of our brains and activates conflict aversion and protection behaviors. We become more reactive and sensitive, perceiving greater negativity than what actually exists. These effects can last for days, imprinting the interaction on our memories and influencing our future behavior. Cortisol functions like a sustained release tablet: The more we ruminate about fear, the longer the impact.

Positive comments and conversations also produce a chemical reaction. They spur the production of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that elevates our ability to collaborate, communicate and trust others by activating networks in our prefrontal cortex. But, since oxytocin metabolizes faster than cortisol, its effects are less dramatic and sustainable.

Chemistry of Conversations

This “chemistry of conversations” necessitates being more mindful of our interactions. Behaviors that increase cortisol levels reduce your conversational intelligence. Your C-IQ your ability to connect and think empathetically, creatively and strategically with others. Remember: behaviors that spark oxytocin boost C-IQ.

When we partnered with Qualtrics, the online survey software company, to analyze the frequency of negative (cortisol-producing) versus positive (oxytocin-producing) interactions, we found that managers use positive, oxytocin and C-IQ elevating behaviors more often than negative ones. Survey respondents acknowledged all five positive behaviors, such as “showing concern for others,” more frequently than all five negative ones, like “pretending to be listening.”
However, about 85 percent of respondents also admitted to “sometimes” acting in ways that could derail not only specific interactions but also future relationships. When leaders exhibit both behaviors, they create dissonance or uncertainty in followers’ brains, spurring cortisol production and reducing CI-Q.

If you tend to tell and sell your ideas and challenge people to produce results, your negative reactions could easily outweigh positive ones. Instead of asking questions to stimulate discussion, showing concern for others and painting a compelling picture of shared success, you enter discussions with a fixed opinion, determined to convince others you are right. You are not open to others’ influence, and you fail to listen and connect.

Three Chemistry Lessons

When managers and leaders understand the chemical impacts of their behavior, they tend to make changes. For example, they learn to deliver difficult feedback inclusively and supportively, thereby limiting cortisol production and stimulating oxytocin instead.
Awareness of the behaviors that open us up and those that close us down, along with their influence in our relationships, allows us to better harness the chemistry of conversations. Conversations are the source of energy that transcends doldrums, the power that launches transformational products, and the golden threads that create trust. Conversations are the way we connect, engage, navigate and transform the world with others.

The quality of our culture depends on the quality of our relationships, which depends on the quality of our conversations. The most powerful “leadershift” anyone can make is to realize that each person has the power to create the conversational space that creates deeper understanding and engagement rather than fear and avoidance.

Remember these three chemistry lessons:

  1. Be mindful of your conversations and the emotional content you bring.
    Pain closes the brain, while pleasure opens it. Are you sending friend or foe messages? Are you sending the message “You can trust me to have your best interest at heart,” or “I want to persuade you to think about things my way”? When you’re aware of these meta-messages, you can create a safe culture that allows everyone to interact collaboratively while sharing perspectives, feelings and aspirations and elevating insights and wisdom.
  2. Conversations trigger emotional reactions.
    Conversations carry meaning, and meaning is embedded in the listener even more than in the speaker. Words allow us to either bond and trust more fully, thinking of others as friends and colleagues, or break rapport and see others as enemies. Your mind will open as you see the connection between language and health, and you’ll learn how to create healthy organizations through your conversational rituals.
  3. Note that the words we use in our conversations are rarely neutral.
    Words have histories informed by years of use. Each time a new experience overlays another meaning on a word, the information collects in our brains to be activated during conversations. Knowing how you project meaning into your conversations will enable you to connect with others and, in so doing, let go of much of the self-talk that diverts from effective co-working.

Judith GlaserJudith E. Glaser is the CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc. and the Chairman of The Creating WE Institute. She is the author of the best selling book, “Conversational Intelligence” (Bibliomotion, 2013), an Organizational Anthropologist and a consultant to Fortune 500 companies.Visit her at; or contact her at Follow Judith on Twitter @CreatingWE.