The Chemistry of Conversation

In today’s competitive business world, middle and senior leadership staff are constantly looking for way to inspire employees to be original, innovative, and collaborative.  Teams that collaborate using open dialogue and discussion tend to form more innovative ideas and have higher productivity than a single individual could achieve so it would make sense that encouraging this type of interaction would not only be good for business, but could in some cases be the best case scenario.  But what if I told you the easiest and most cost effective way to inspire your employees to achieve this dynamic was to change the way YOU speak and act in relation to them?


            In any given conversation, there is a chemical reaction that takes place as a by-product of the subtle psychological clues our bodies exhibit in language.  Positive conversations produce oxytocin, which activates are prefrontal cortex enabling us to better communicate, collaborate, and trust others.  Conversely, negative conversations produce a stress hormone, cortisol, triggering our brains protective behaviors making us more fearful and less able to trust.  Additionally, cortisol is a sustained release hormone that can stay active 26 hours or more allowing the impact of a negative encounter to effect us for much longer than those of a positive, oxytocin producing conversation.


            This effect helps explain why we can remember and focus on negative interactions far more than we can positive ones and its implications for business leadership are vast.  According to Judith E. Glaser and Richard D. Glaser who conducted the research on the neurochemistry of positive conversation, most mangers do use positive conversation triggers, however 85% of managers also said they “sometimes” use negative conversation triggers.  Overtime, the effects of the negative conversations will vastly outweigh the positive ones.  Take for example an employee who receives equal amounts of positive and negative interactions with a supervisor.  Even though numerically, the number of positive conversations is equal to those that are negative, the effects of the negative conversation last much longer and over time can not only create an employee incapable of trusting and communicating with management or peers but who could also develop actual health issues as a result of sustained stress triggers.  That becomes bad for business on a multitude of levels.


            Triggers that activate cortisol can happen as fast as .07 seconds shutting down the prefrontal cortex and limiting our ability to think strategically, exhibit empathy, connect with others, be innovative, and trust, all of which are key factors in creating collaborative work teams.  As managers, it becomes imperative that we are consciously aware of and intentional in our interactions with others, and specifically with employees.  When we make a conscious effort to use positive conversation as a motivator, we are not only increasing the productivity of our teams, we are helping to ensure the physical well being of our employees also.  Additionally, employees who trust their leaders and are happier at work tend to stay with those companies longer, which leads to less employee turn over and ultimate less cost to the company in the long run.


            So what can you do as a leader or manager in your company?  How can you ensure that you are creating oxytocin conversations?  According to Glaser and Glaser managers should focus on 5 key behaviors that produce oxytocin conversations while limiting 5 key behaviors and mindsets of cortisol conversations.


Positive Oxytocin Behaviors

  • Show concern for others
  • Be truthful about what’s on your mind
  • Stimulate discussion and curiosity
  • Paint a picture of mutual success
  • Be open to difficult conversations

Negative Cortisol Behaviors

  • Don’t trust other intentions
  • Focused on convincing others
  • Others are not understanding
  • Pretend to listen
  • Emotions detract from listening

            Ultimately, modern leadership should shy away from the days of complete emotional detachment in the workplace that focused on convincing your employees to follow your idea without regard for the ideas your team has brought to the table.  After all, didn’t you hire your employees to bring ideas to you not the other way around?  Isn’t business about being cutting-edge and thinking outside the preset limits of what is working now?   When leadership shows a genuine interest and concern for its employees it allows a mutual trust to be developed with in a team.  Combine that trust with an open and honest space for dialogue and a mutual success mentality and you will find yourself with a team that is thriving on collaboration, innovation, and creativity and isn’t that what any good business is really about?

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