Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

Does physiology affect our propensity for change? A sneak peek at Simon Sinek’s latest book “Leaders Eat Last”

Are we just “ugly giant bags of mostly water”?—alien’s description of humans, Star Trek, The Next Generation, “Home Soil”

physiology of changeThis may be a contentious topic. Are we servants to our base instincts or are we higher, sentient beings capable of controlling our instincts with intellect and morals? Or, on any given day or situation, somewhere in between?

When we better understand why we, as human beings, “do the things we do” we are all better off. We can be more conscious of our personal choices. In our role as strategy execution and change management leads we can help people navigate their reactions to change more consciously.

Proceed at your own risk: this post includes serious thinking (Simon Sinek’s) mixed in with liberal doses of “mesearch” (observations based on my own experience) and (hopefully) thoughtful reflection.

Do you know when you are moved?

A couple of days ago I was moved by a YouTube video called “The Bullying Experiment,” shared by a friend in my Facebook network. I don’t mean that I thought it was intellectually smart or effective (though it was that too). I mean that I “felt” something. In some moments I was shocked, then relieved and curious; in others a bit scared, and finally somewhat frustrated and yet impressed with the producers. It inspired me to change the world…so I passed the video along in my network.

This got me thinking. What are those feelings? Why was it satisfying to pass it on? Why was I compelled to watch the next video or read the next post, even while it is a shallow substitute for real experiences?


It was Facebook again, of course, that provided a very interesting answer it’s a chemical addiction. Sheesh. Really?

Simon Sinek’s speech, “Leadership Is Not a Rank, It’s a Decision” explains many behaviors and raises questions about many more. It might shed light on why such videos, as an example, might have impact on us. It seems to me that these insights might be relevant to how we facilitate people through change. If we understand what “moves” people we can be more thoughtful about their experience through change.

This speech is a preview of content in Sinek’s new book, “Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t” (just released Jan 7 2014) and it explores “the hidden dynamics that inspire leadership and trust.” Allegedly, some of these dynamics are driven by the chemicals in our “bags of water.” Sinek talks about the biological purpose of these chemicals (survival, procreation), the effects of each (physiology), and connects some dots that might be relevant for us to consider as change agents.

Chemicals that act in our best interest

At about 5:05, he begins talking about the chemicals that work inside us to shape our behavior:

  • “Inside our bodies are chemicals that are trying to get us to do things that are in the best interest of us. If you’ve ever had a feeling of happiness, joy, pride, love, fulfillment—all of these feelings that we have are chemically produced feelings.”
  • “And they are produced by four chemicals predominantly. These are basically responsible for all of the feelings I would generically call happiness. They are endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.”

Throughout the speech, Sinek covers the attributes of each chemical and punctuates with great stories.

I will highlight a few sections and observations as to how these might be relevant to our work.

Making corporate visions addictive

At about 9:27, Sinek talks about why corporate visions must both be “visible” and include “tangible goals.” He notes that we need to “feel” like we are making progress toward the vision—that the momentary recognition of progress generates dopamine in our bodies.

It strikes me that if we understood this better we could do a better job of articulating corporate “visions,” of making them more realistic, and in inspiring (hopefully not addicting) people to progressing toward them.

This might be why gamification holds such potential. When we can show people that they are progressing toward their goals they might even experience dopamine.

Sinek goes on:

  • “Dopamine is highly, highly, highly addictive. Here are some other things that release dopamine: alcohol, nicotine, gambling, and…your cell phone.”
  • “Oh, you think I’m joking. We’ve all been told that if you wake up in the morning and crave a drink, you might be an alcoholic. If you wake up in the morning and check your phone before you get out of bed, you might be an addict…if you walk from room to room in your apartment holding your phone, you might be an addict.”
  • “And for all you Gen Y’s out there who like to think you are better at multitasking because you grew up with the technology, then why do you keep crashing your cars when you are texting? In fact you’re not better at multitasking—you’re better at being distracted…It’s the addictive quality of dopamine.”

Whoa! Maybe dopamine has something to do with why I am into being connected. What if employees could feel that connection with their organization, not purely for manipulative, efficiency, or productivity reasons? Wouldn’t work just be that much more of a win/win?

The leadership chemical

At about 17:50 Sinek hits on serotonin:

  • “Serotonin is the leadership chemical. It is responsible for feelings of pride…and status.…We are social animals. We need the recognition of others.”
  • “This is why we have commencement for graduation. I mean, think about it. What does it really take to graduate college? You need to pay your bills, fulfill the minimum requirements, and collect enough credits. That’s it—it’s a formula. You could get an email that says you fulfill all the requirements for graduation, enclosed please print the pdf of your diploma….Wouldn’t feel so good, right? So instead we do a big ceremony to recognize the accomplishment…and in the audience we put our families….
  • “And here’s the best part about serotonin—at the exact moment that you took your diploma and you felt that surge of serotonin through your body, at the exact moment your parents also got a shot of serotonin and also felt an intense pride watching you take your diploma.…
  • “This is what serotonin is trying to do…trying to reinforce the relationship between parent and child…coach and player…
  • “Great teams don’t want to win the trophy. Great teams want to win one for the coach. They want to make the coach proud… and we, in turn, will look after others so that they can accomplish the same.”

For me, this raises the stakes on celebrating wins together. Surely we can be more thoughtful about creating events and experiences that optimize feelings of shared accomplishment…and serotonin.

This all leads into Sinek’s theory of “leaders eat last” around optimized group systems. He notes that there is a cost to holding the leadership position; the responsibility of “the alpha” comes at a cost. It is “self interest,” (i.e., the implicit expectation of followers is that in return for the benefits of the alpha, the leaders will “run into the danger,”—will put themselves at risk to help the followers). He makes a very compelling case around the social contract and how this is NOT related to financial compensation.

This, for me, is why it is so critical for leaders to change first—and to be seen as changing. They must “run into the danger” first. They must personally have a stake in the game and protect the followers. This is not the typical corporate environment but it is the environment of great leaders and their great teams.

Why leadership must be generous

At 27:33 Sinek covers why “oxytocin is the best chemical of all.”

  • “It’s the feeling of love and trust and friendship.… It’s the intense feeling of safety, that someone has your back.”
  • “It’s why shaking hands matters.…Business, relationships, are not rational. They are about feeling safe, about feeling we belong. It’s human. And one of the ways we want to know that relationship is solidified is physical touch. Their simple refusal to touch you, to exchange that serotonin means that one of two things will happen: you will either scuttle the deal or you will go into it nervous. Human bonds matter.”

So much in here resonates for me regarding how leaders need to be present and active in leading change. If I had a dime for every time a leader said, “I have already told them/already delivered this speech a hundred times,” I’d be retired already. Great leaders who internalize the change are able to speak from the heart. They relate to their people as…“their people.” Of course, there are all kinds of reasons why leaders hold back from this level of connection but the point here is that when we feel that we “belong” we—followers—are so much more inclined to lean in.

“Ah ha”—the insight as to why we are addicted to “feel good” videos and charitable acts

How does this come back around to sharing videos? Well, it turns out that we get shots of oxytocin when we do “acts of human generosity.” Sinek says:

  • “Another way you can get oxytocin is through acts of human generosity. An act of human generosity is defined as giving of your time and energy and expecting nothing in return. Money doesn’t work, sorry. Email doesn’t work.…Leaders are the ones who give us their time and energy. Not the ones who give us their money. It doesn’t count. It doesn’t work. It just biologically doesn’t work. This is how you get oxytocin—doing nice things for people that require that you sacrifice a little time, a little energy—something you will never get back.”

And, further, he says at 33:07:

  • “…also the person on the receiving end of the act of generosity feels good, gets a shot of oxytocin. As it turns out, witnessing acts of generosity releases oxytocin. Remember, our bodies are trying to get us to do things that are in our best interests.”

So maybe I am addicted to dopamine and oxytocin. It seems that might not be entirely a bad thing.

Where do we go from here?

Advancements in various physiological disciplines are continuing to emerge. Their intersection with change management is still very fledgling. No doubt there are dozens or hundreds of brilliant research papers and dissertations on this that I have not seen yet. (Please provide links below if you are aware of some.)

Even as real science emerges, it takes us all awhile to understand it, to come to terms with it. It would be easy to go off “half-cocked,” make all kinds of rash assumptions, and experiment. Authors like Simon Sinek help to “make meaning” out of them. Personally, I am in favor of a significant period of study (including mesearch), reflection, and dialogue.

What do you think? Are you curious or interested in all this? Does it parallel your own experience?

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4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Another really thought provoking article – thanks so much for taking the time to write this!

Comment by Jeannie

Gail, I’m thrilled to hear someone else finds the cross-section between brain science and change management intriguing. I am keenly interested in understanding the various brain functions (e.g. cognition, emotion, consciousness) so that we can develop and employ techniques (e.g. awareness, imagery, mindfulness) to help ourselves and others make changes in daily life, personal relationships, teams, organizations, and society with less stress, more easily and speedily.
Thanks for introducing me to Simon Sinek. I was not previously aware of his work and was very impressed with his ability to speak about the chemicals that drive certain behaviors in a manner that was engaging and easily understood by this non scientist. His comments about why we lose trust with leaders resonated strongly with me. It’s an example of how understanding brain science can help us as change practitioners better understand organizational change barriers, what techniques will have the best chances for success, and how best to coach our leaders and influencers.
You may be interested in learning more about the research of Dr. William Seidman of Cerebyte. He has blended his understanding of neuroscience, leadership and learning to design a change management methodology grounded upon understanding what the respected positive deviants (“stars”) in organizations are doing. These “stars” are ultimately modeling desired behaviors and serve as change agents. I have not seen this model in action, but it is very intriguing and I’ve contacted Dr. Seidman to better understand it.
I appreciate your continued thought leadership in the world of change management.

Comment by Lynn Sardonia, Atlanta, GA

Gail, wow, thank you for such a thought provoking article. I love the phrase “Leaders must run into the darkness first.” At least they should. Could leadership development be a form of addiction-making?

Lot’s to reflect upon.

Thanks again.

Comment by Phi Buckley

Reblogged this on Once More Unto the Change and commented:
This is why relationship building is so important. Lot’s of good points here.

Comment by joegergen

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