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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Jenkins

Want to get the best out of people? Do these four things

Falling into leadership

A friend was talking with me the other week about how he felt he’d accidentally fallen into leadership. He’s a teacher and held a position as deputy head, a position of huge amounts of pressure and stress for sure. In talking openly, he shared that looking back over his career, it was “teaching” that he set out to do in his career, yet these days, he didn’t get to do any of that, his life at work had become about meetings, budgets and “management things”. Very little of which was what he would call “fun” or in line with what he set out to do when leaving university with his teaching qualifications — inspire the lives of those under his tutorship.

Teaching is stressful, I have no doubt. You only need to look at the increased pressure that schools are under right now to know that leading a school must be tough. Is it any different to leadership positions in every day businesses though? And like my teacher-friend, how many people actually set out in life to become a “middle manager”? I’m pretty certain that middle management isn’t something that sits very high on the list of aspirations school kids reel off when asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?”. It begs the question, how many people “fall” into positions of leadership out of expectation to climb the corporate ladder or because they want to progress and develop only to subsequently feel like they are in a role that they aren’t equipped for or properly understand? Its likely more common than we might think. In a 2016 study of 500 managers, research found that almost half had received no formal “management or leadership training before taking up a leadership position” and that almost 90% felt they weren’t “appropriately prepared for the role of leadership or what it entailed”.

Leadership comes with responsibility though and much like my friend saying he set out to be a teacher to inspire the lives of those under his tutorship, leaders can achieve similar for those under their care regardless of their position in the overall hierarchy of an organisation. Much of the challenge for people struggling with what it means to be a leader is down to the fact that we often put leadership on a pedestal, something for only a few select people to achieve at the very top of an organisation. As Drew Dudley said in his 2006 Ted Talk, “we’ve elevated leadership to something almost superhuman, something that requires us to try and change the world”. Leadership is much simpler than that though. In simple terms, leadership is as much about having a mindset that values particular things as it is about the ability to create a strategic plan. Fundamentally It’s about being able to give people what they need in order to get the best out of them. The great part in all this is that we’re literally wired to do these things, it why we refer to “natural leadership” and how in certain situations, in times of crisis, people just “step up” and lead.

Align your leadership to how people are wired — in other words, do these four things!

The human brain is one of the most sophisticated tools on the planet, how it has evolved over the last 2,000 years is something few things can rival. We already know that many leaders don’t get any formal training on what it means to be a leader and I’d hazard a pretty good guess in saying that very few leaders get taught or educated in understanding the human brain when they do attend leadership sessions. Yet if we simply understand how people are wired, there are things anyone can do that will automatically get the best out of people. We’re literally wired to respond positively to certain types of things.

Chemicals in the brain drive many of our feelings, reactions and motivations to how we operate at work. Four chemicals in particular, if understood by leaders, can drive a pathway to higher performance just by tapping into what they are there for. In essence, if leaders prioritise doing these four things they can get better outputs from their people and build a higher performing workplace.

* Play to our ‘pack’ mentality — foster trust based relationships. Humans are pack animals and since human-kind began, we’ve roamed around in groups happy in the safety that being part of a group can provide. Oxytocin is responsible for the feelings surrounding friendship and trust. It’s triggered when you are around people you like and respect and it drives acts of generosity and empathy in people. Humans have a natural desire to be social, even those with introversion preferences like to be around people and feel “safe”. If a leader creates, first and foremost, an environment of trust then selflessness and teamwork will naturally follow. Making time for relationships to develop and creating spaces where people can be physically around one another, have time to chat and get to know one another, triggers shots of oxytocin through the human body which in turn creates a healthy culture driven on working together and caring for each other. How can that not be of benefit to an organisation in pursuit of its goals?

* Paint a picture — help people visualise the goal. Humans are visual animals, we process things we see as much as 60x faster when we can visualise things rather than simply seeing text on a page. We are also programmed to retain as much as 90% of information we see or can see in our minds eye. Dopamine is the reason for this. It is triggered when people complete something of importance (aka a goal) and triggers a feeling of satisfaction in people. It literally makes us “goal-oriented” and is why we seek out progress and want to achieve things. As long as we can see something clearly in our minds eye, understand its value and visualise what it needs to be considered done, dopamine pushes people on their way. If a leader paints a compelling “vision” of what the goal is and why its important, our brain is wired to make us response to deliver on that as we get a natural rush when we deliver on that goal — a dopamine hit! A leaders ability to communicate effectively what the goal is for someone to achieve, literally impacts on a persons ability to deliver on that or not.

* Say “thank you” more — build a culture of recognition. Humans are emotional beings, we respond to the situations around us and feel good when we make other people feel good. This is Serotinin in action in our body. Serotonin is the feeling of pride we get when people like or respect us. It can make you feel strong and confident and as animals we’re built to like and seek the “approval” of those we are in a social group with — our tribe . We have an ingrained need to feel valued and when we don’t feel valued, we look for that feeling of value elsewhere — its why good people don’t leave companies, they leave managers. If a leader spent a proportion of their time acknowledging the effort people put in or saying thank you and well done for the great work being done, the resulting impact leads to greater levels of trust and respect, and higher productivity. How many organisations regularly acknowledge the effort people put in at work? The feel good factor that is triggered when someone says thank you works both ways as Serotonin is released not only in the person who is receiving the recognition but also in the person giving it (it literally feels good to say thank you) and also in those witnessing it — a sense of pride in that person. How powerful would it be to work in an environment where people feel good about the work they do. Now that’s a positive culture to harness!

* Take the stress away — make time for fun. We aren’t built to be in constant states of stress. When we’re stressed cortisol floods through our body and if present for prologued periods of time, it can have massively adverse effects on our health and in some cases can even be fatal. Cortisol is what drives our fight or flight tendencies — its born out of us trying to avoid being eaten by a saber toothed tiger — back before we had buildings for safety and zoos for the lions to live in. Endorphins on the other hand mask the feeling of physical pain and stress. They are often released when people experience stress or fear and as studies have proven, its impossible to laugh and feel afraid at the same time. Laughter releases endorphins and leaders should actively work to create moments of laughter and fun to literally get the best out of people. We live in a world full of stress and danger that is outside of our control but lightheartedness is completely controlable, its just needs to be valued and prioritised by leaders. Reducing stress (by releasing endorphins) goes a long way to help reduce tensions and anxiety so that people can focus on getting the job done. When times are tough and people need to focus, endorphins can actually go a long way to making people more productive. Leaders simply need to prioritise this and set the tone for this to happen. How many leaders lead through fear and drive their employees to a point of burn out or stress in pursuit of a goal today though?

Building a high performing team

The notion of a high performing team has been around for a long time. Multiple business books have been written on the subject, studies have been done to establish how to build one and speakers the world over have made a living talking about how to achieve it. Whilst a lot of people don’t talk about the chemical make-up of our brains when talking about high performing teams, the models they value or promote often talk to doing much of the same activity as that listed here.

It is commonly known that to get the best out of a group of people you need to focus people on a shared goal — Steve Jobs was famous for saying that people at Apple has to have a “common vision” — the very basis of a Dopamine hit. Its also highly regarded that relationships and trust are the foundation of a high performing team. Google’s Project Aristotle, a four year study into how to build the perfect team, found that trust is the number one factor in building the perfect team, exactly what oxytocin looks for in building great relationships and what endorphins and serotonin support further still.

None of this is rocket science, despite the chemical nature of it all, that’s not to say its easy though. There is clearly more to leadership and building a high performing team than these four things but if you are going to start anywhere, why not work with the fundamentals of how we’re built to respond. After all leaders lead people — and people are human which means we come with emotions and feelings and the like. If you’re a leader and not doing these things, you’re likely not getting the best out of people you lead…. Try it, you might be pleasantly surprised by the outcome it generates.

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