Chemical Charisma: How Neurobiology Can Make You a Better Manager — Part II

Smart managers and leaders are always on the hunt for deeper explanations for mystifying employee behaviors, both positive and negative. To that end, threekey neurochemicals govern complex emotions, like the “natural high” of victory and the jittery anticipation of future success. In Part I, we discussed how dopamine and adrenaline hormones create and augment those types of emotional states.

In this post, we will discuss a nasty (well, in some contexts!)third neurochemical — cortisol, responsible for negativity — and tie everything together into a lesson about effective management and leadership.


Cortisol is an all-too-familiar neurochemical responsible for causing stress and anxiety as well as negative feelings towards the self or a situation. We produce cortisol to help us avoid danger. It motivates us to extricate ourselves from pain as soon as possible — a “flight” response. Optimism goes down, and we become highly-averse to risks or socialization.

Worst of all, cortisol’s effects can be delayed and long-lasting. Compared to the brief but intense optimistic feelings induced by dopamine — which last two to four hours at most — cortisol’s effects can last 24 hours or longer to wane. Dwelling on a bad workplace situation later makes us produce even more cortisol, prolonging the intense negativity.

Leadership Skills Mean Out with Cortisol, in with the Dopamine

Since cortisol is at least six times more intense than dopamine, employees who experience an unbalanced ratio of fewer than six dopamine-inducing experiences to one cortisol-inducing one are prone to unproductive behaviors. They exhibit introverted, cautious behavior focusing on averting danger rather than pursuing success.

In other words, employees terrified of their bosses and trying to save their own skin typically deliver unfocused work in which they derive no pleasure. On the other hand, employees who have regular access to dopamine-delivering successes actively pursue challenges, work closer with their teams and pay attention to details to make their successes all the more perfect.

Effective leaders must leverage natural neurobiological processes by posing criticism as motivational challenges rather than threats. They must also point out successes, so the employee experiences enough dopamine to process the difference. Ideally, the employee will be aware of six minor victories or satisfactory accomplishments for every rebuke.

By the same token, managers must recognize their own cortisol-driven habits of “cracking down” on employees when feeling threatened. True leaders feel motivated by challenges, and they want to work with their teams rather than letting negativity drive them to be bullies.

Be a More Effective Manager, and Learn Leadership Skills with More Lessons Like These.

Aspiring leaders who want to improve their skills can call for more insight at (01) (604) 576-4970, email me, or contact me using our on-site form for a free consultation.


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