Cortisol – the danger that keeps us alive
Simon Sinek examined comprehensively in his book “Leaders Eat Last” how hormones play a huge role in our and organisational development, including stress hormone – cortisol. Focused on leadership he has illustrated that instead of fighting the outside forces we are very often fighting against each other. Being paranoid and only watching out for ourselves we become less productive.
Cortisol in research – a higher rate of mental illness
Research conducted at Harvard and Stanford in 2012 examined the stress levels of participants in Harvard’s executive MBA program. Researchers were focused on the levels of cortisol of these participants and compared those to levels found in employees who had not made it to the top. The findings revealed that leaders have overall lower stress levels than those who work for them.
Simon Sinek referrers also to the Whitehall Studies which revealed that the lower someone’s rank in the organizational hierarchy, the greater their risk of stress-related health problems they have. In contrast, the top executives were, in fact, living longer, healthier lives than the clerks and managers working for them. The front line employees and lower management had a higher rate of mental illness and early death rate four times that of those at the top.
Simon Sinek – the real role of cortisol
Cortisol, often called the stress hormone, is designed to keep us alive and in moments of danger. It initiates the first stage of fight or flight response. It makes us paranoid by putting all our senses hyper-attuned to look for danger.
Cortisol is responsible for quick injects of glucose into our muscles making us still and ready to go in case we need to fight of flight. It increases our heart rate making us to find the threat. Cortisol shuts off growth and immune system. However, when the danger is gone we start to relax and cortisol leaves our body.
The reason you are nervous
What is interesting is we share these chemicals with all social mammals. If one gazelle senses danger it immediately puts all other gazelles on alert. Similarly, if you work in a social environment and if for some reason you are nervous others get nervous. They also start looking for the danger. When the rumour of layoffs starts spreading everybody gets nervous.
Harder to focus on important parts of our life
If we work in a place that does not make us feel safe, we get little bits of cortisol which makes us paranoid. It inhibits the release of oxytocin and biologically you become less empathetic and less generous. We do not care about each other as we become too busy protecting ourselves. If we are stressed about what is going on inside the company it is harder to focus on other parts of our life. Sinek emphasised that we can get used to living with stress and regular levels of cortisol in our bodies but that doesn’t mean we should.
Heart disease and cancer – “Our jobs are literally killing us”
Having cortisol dripping slowly into our system has a huge and harmful effect causing even heart disease and cancer. The immune system is one of the functions that the body deems nonessential, so it shuts down during cortisol bursts. Summarising Sinek’s findings, an inadequate corporate incentive system or a bad corporate culture “are literally killing us.”
What to do? – safe culture in which we work together for a common purpose
Cortisol makes us find the threat and prepare to help us stay alive. It is not supposed to stay in our systems. We need to strive to work in an environment in which leadership tells the truth, in which layoffs are last resort necessity and in which incentive structures do not turn us against each other. In the culture, where human are being brought together for a common purpose, our loyalties grow deeper and the organization gains greater stability and better long-term performance.
Next week – Dopamine and Serotonin!
Next week in “Hormones awareness Part 2” with powerful hormones: Dopamine and Serotonin! Subscribe to our newsletter to not miss it!
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