How neurochemicals can help you lead and be innovative

Welcome back to Leadership as a Practice. I wanted to first start by sharing that I have missed writing and hearing from you about the content of this blog. I intend to be writing far more consistently and am filled with optimism as we come out from under the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, I wanted to share something I learned recently through The Innovative Healthcare Leader program at Stanford University. I found it interesting that the program was a week-long but only discussed design thinking on one day. The rest of the program was devoted to becoming an innovative leader and shifting the mindset of an organization so teams can think creatively as well.

One of my major takeaways came from Professor Baba Shiv, who spoke about a framework he developed called “The X Framework.” A version of the framework is posted online and shown here:

The idea behind the framework is that people have three neurochemicals that change their mood, behavior, and willingness to tolerate risk. Coritsol, the stress neurochemical, gives us a very low risk tolerance and low creativity. The response triggers most people to recoil, shut down, or seek familiarity/status quo. Serotonin is the neurochemical that reflects comfort. Serotonin is the chemical that gets released when you kiss a significant other, for example. Finally dopamine is the neurochemical that activates excitement or creativity.

Much of these neurochemical concepts and how they relate to leadership are covered by authors like Simon Sinek. Shiv’s contribution has to do with the conditions needed for innovation and creativity. In organizations that are high stress, creativity tends to be very low because levels of cortisol are high. When cortisol levels are high, dopamine is blocked from being released. To get to a situation where dopamine can be released, people must have a sufficient amount of serotonin release first.

That is why the concept of psychological safety is so important to both innovation and leadership, more broadly. If you believe, as I do, that the people closest to the work know the work the best and are therefore in the best place to improve it, they will not be able to do so in an environment that consistently increases their cortisol levels.

During his seminar, Shiv argued that one of the primary human motivations is “Social consequence,” which is the need to save face and maintain social standing. For example if a superior calls you out or humiliates you in a meeting with your peers, that would be a negative social consequence and produce a significant cortisol release leading to de-motivation.

According to a recent survey by McKinsey and Company, Psychological safety is, “When employees feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions informally, or challenging the status quo without fear of negative social consequence.” Psychologically safe workplaces exist to keep the team’s serotonin levels high, providing abundance (think free food options at google), recognition, and gratitude. According to Shiv and the McKinsey survey, these organizations also tend to be more innovative and open to taking risks, including adapting to change.

If you are a leader looking to create change and unlock the creativity of your team, look for ways in to keep their levels of stress low and of psychological safety high. Innovation depends on a culture that can support positivity and safe-to-fail experiments.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Do you want to lead an innovative organization? Look for ways to keep your teams stress low and psychological safety high.