When I entered the room, I could tell that my CEO client was agitated. After customary greetings, I asked, “So…how is business?”
“Lousy!” he replied. “We’re not hitting our numbers, and it’s clear that no one around here really cares. Everyone is letting me down! I’ve been here in my office since 6am today—and I’ve made a list of everyone who has failed to do their job.” He motioned to his whiteboard and, sure enough, all 23 of his employees’ names appeared, along with several suppliers. In looking over the list, I did a double-take; my name was the last on the list.
I must admit that I was shocked, even a bit angry, at this reproof. I could feel my own defense responses beginning to boil up. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my client had just given me a substantial dose of cortisol, and he was well into distributing this drug to his entire company!
Cortisol is actually a hormone which is released during times of stress. It increases the heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose, respiration, and muscle tension. Anxiety and depression are often linked to high cortisol levels. Judith and Richard Glaser of The Creating WE Institute note the following: “When we face criticism, rejection, or fear, or when we feel marginalized, 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. We often perceive even greater judgment and negativity than actually exists. And these effects can last for 26 hours or more, imprinting the interaction on our memories and magnifying the impact it has on our future behavior. Cortisol functions like a sustained-release tablet: The more we ruminate about our fear, the longer the impact.” (page 62, Harvard Business Review Special Issue, January 2019)
Contrast this with a second CEO client. He had completed a “time audit” over a two-week period where he shared how he was spending his waking hours. In revealing this information, he confided that he was a bit embarrassed. Virtually every workday, he spent the first hour walking the plant floor, chatting with his employees. Over the course of a week, he managed to have these informal chats with nearly every one of them. When asked why he did this, he responded that it was “selfish,” that he just enjoyed connecting with everyone. Then, he said, “I know it’s a waste of time, and I must stop doing it…but I will miss it.”
I was not prepared to suggest that he drop this practice without more discussion, so I asked, “Can you tell me more about the nature of your chats?” He responded that, for the most part, it was just an opportunity to connect, to express his interest in each employee as a person, to learn how they were doing in various aspects of their lives.
I then asked, “Do these conversations ever have to do with their work?” “Of course,” he responded, “I almost always ask how things are going on the job, and how the company can help them succeed. They seem to appreciate that, and we sometimes solve some problems as a result. But I have to admit that most of the time I’m just indulging my desire to stay connected to them.”
I suggested that my client withhold any changes until he could compare his time log with his fellow CEOs in our monthly CEO Forum. When he did so, his peers noted that he seemed to enjoy unusually high engagement and productivity from his employees. Virtually every one of them decided that they needed to fit “daily chats” into their busy schedules.
Clearly, this second CEO was not distributing cortisol, but he was distributing another drug, or more accurately, another hormone: oxytocin. Oxytocin is often referred to as the “feel-good hormone;” it bolsters individual and social trust. It strengthens communication and collaboration, and contributes to optimistically viewing problems as opportunities. It is an antidote to anxiety and depression.
The realities of leading any organization will occasionally present us with lousy days like my first client. They are inevitable. But as a leader, you can choose to approach such situations with anger, criticism and blaming, thereby distributing cortisol—or you can exhibit optimism, trust, and a collaborative problem-solving attitude that will distribute oxytocin. The choice is yours; what drug will you distribute?
Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.