I remember a spirited discussion with a couple of senior managers around the topic of IT governance and innovation. The organization was undergoing drastic changes to address the threats of digitalization (in terms of innovation, unpredictability and changed customer behaviour) and innovation was on the agenda and its impact on IT governance. As many times before, everyone wanted change, but nobody wanted to change. What I remember from the discussion was that in the end it was not a matter of how to improve the performance of the IT organization, but rather who was right and who was wrong. It was a battle of prestige triggered by the working of human biology. The fear of losing face, rank and prestige triggered the release of human hormones (such serotonin, adrenalin and cortisol) turning the discussion back to the stone age. It was a lost fight and I realized at that moment that digital transformation is not only about the solutions but also about a cultural and leadership behaviour addressing necessary change or in other words, keeping the biology in control. Only then can we address the true challenges of digital transformation.
Ser0tonin- The Leadership Hormone
A short introduction to serotonin, it is a biochemical and neurotransmitter (influencing 40 million brain cells) that controls feeling and emotions (such as status, pride, self-esteem, anger, and anxiety) and also sleep, appetite, and memory. It makes us feel valued and recognized. It allows us to grow with high confidence and experience flow! It is the hormone that is released when we are thanked in person (not via email) for doing something good or acknowledging that you are “right”. High levels of serotonin make you happy, proud and mighty while low levels of serotonin make you depressed, anxious, and low. Low levels of serotonin also trigger an intense craving for sugar to fake increased levels of serotonin. But fluctuations of serotonin levels in the brain, which often occur when someone hasn’t eaten or is stressed, affect brain regions that enable people to regulate anger. It is the strong chemical found (artificially) in LSD and ecstasy. It is a hormone found in all mammals and even lobsters creating a system of hierarchies and leaders, based on levels of serotonin, before humans even walked the earth.
The serotonin biochemical is sometimes called the “leadership hormone” as it creates loyalty, trust and cohesion in the organization. This is a workplace where there is a sense of trust and respect between leaders and employees and hence boosting motivation, engagement and change willingness. It is about recognizing people in person, making them proud and building their self-esteem. What is interesting about this hormone is that it helps the organization create leadership, atmosphere and culture to drive digital transformation all based on innovation and continuous change.
During the last 100 years, the idea of “command and control” has dominated the leadership and management styles to force a company or organization in a certain direction. Any source of deviation to the plan is efficiently removed. In combination with organization fatigue and stress (cortisol hormone reduces the levels of serotonin hormones in the human brain) and infobesity creates a corporate beast designed to be consumed by digital companies. The result is disengaged employees (research shows that 10% of work force is engaged at work) who basically go to work for the pay check without further ambition. What we know today is that “command and control” leadership creates a serotonin-low organization resulting in an atmosphere of mistrust, demotivation, and change resistance. It is coded in our human DNA! Who wants to change at work when you carry a feeling of worthlessness, distrust and depression?
Addressing The Issue
So, what to do? Research how that certain types of food/vitamins have a positive effect on serotonin levels (for example, vitamin B6, and healthy carbohydrates, like rice, oatmeal, or whole-grain bread) along with exercise, light therapy, positivity and intestinal bacteria. To increase the level of serotonin in the workplace is difficult and complex as it relates to the culture of a company and leadership of the company. But the first step is to create an awareness about the problem of “command and control” leadership and culture, and its biological effect on employee motivation and engagement. How do we actually view ourselves, our employees and our culture? How can we actually change to improve “happiness”, engagement, innovation and change?
- Understand the correlation between culture/leadership and the biological implications on employees and managers. Our reaction to leadership behaviour is encoded in our DNA, it is something we cannot change. We need to adjust our leadership style and culture to match our human biology.
- Define a set of policies and values that characterizes a suitable working environment and culture. What is important for our organization? How do we achieve more engaged, innovative and “happy” work force?
- Complement performance indicators and targets with behavioural indicators. How well did the leader create an atmosphere of trust and engagement when achieving the concrete targets?
- Invest in change management and coaching to lead the cultural change in addition to new technology and processes. This is the biggest challenge of the digital age! Seek expert help to give you the best support.
Reflecting on IT Governance
Back to the workplace and the IT governance discussion. The fruitless discussion about IT governance (about being “right”) is a symptom of a culture and leadership in crisis. When the level of serotonin is naturally low in the organization (lack for trust and motivation), it is more important than ever to be “right” to protect own status (level of serotonin) in the light of the leader. Leadership is not about always being right or in control, but rather to create a safe environment where motivation, empowerment and creativity grows. It is about recognizing different opinions and trusting people to make the right judgement. It is not an uncommon scenario in companies or in relationships. It is very destructive and will break down any sense of trust. How does it work in your organization?
About the Author
Hans Gillior is a founding partner of The Goodwind Company, an advisory and knowledge company in field of digital transformation. The Goodwind Company believe in the sharing economy and the power of networks across borders and cultures. The company provides a “best practice” framework (service library) supporting Digital Transformation GooDIGITAL based on the collective knowledge and experience of Goodwind partners, academia and business partners.
Hans Gillior is an experienced Principal in field of IT/Digital Transformation with both senior line manager and senior advisor positions. He has a proven track record of changing the mind-set of leadership, and implementing dynamic governance and capabilities to create a competitive advantage in unpredictable digital markets. He is a digital thought-leader part of local and global expert networks, but also a frequent speaker at conferences, management coach/trainer and author.
Cherri Holland says
Well said, Hans. These days, agile and disruptive organizations are talking more about a ‘hierarchy of purpose’ than a hierarchy of roles or status. The collective is managed by the group purpose. It is also good not to have the emphasis on Dopamine – while it is one of the feel- good neurotransmitters, it is more associated with achievement and some organizations incentivize and encourage an individual’s (or some individuals’) achievements over collective success. Overall, this does not lead to better overall results; quite the opposite as highlighted in Meg Heffernan’s TED Talk “Forget the Pecking Order at Work.”