Samantha Woolven June 9 2020

The not-so-secret weapon of effective leaders when faced with a crisis

An article from t-three consultant Samantha Woolven about the benefit of high Oxytocin levels to leaders dealing with a crisis, looking specifically at Jacinda Ardern and Brian Chesky as examples of great leadership.

Reading the books, doing the training, reflecting on yourself, and opening yourself up to executive development are all well and good. But how can you access all those tools in your arsenal more easily, quickly and effectively – especially when faced with a crisis?

You mentioned a not-so-secret weapon. Please do tell....

No matter how much we want it to be true, us humans are a complete mix of our biology and our brain. No matter what the outdated jokes may say, hormones rule the roost for people of every gender. The little nugget of the brain that rules these reactions is called the amygdala – it’s a sensitive little soul and its main role in life is to notice every threat and potential risk it can. It then sends our hormones running to make sure we avoid that potential threat by any means possible – that's called an amygdala hijack. You know that time when all you see is red, or the person opposite you has a seemingly unreasonable reaction to what's just been said – the likelihood is that that person is experiencing an amygdala hijack and can't see any other way. 

But there is an antidote, of a sort, to the amygdala hijack.

Please give a warm welcome to... [drum roll please] OXYTOCIN. 

Oxytocin is otherwise known as the feel good hormone, This hormone is a neurotransmitter that sends messages of trust to people, it helps us to bond, it means we want to collaborate, and it calms us down in a crisis. When it comes to leadership, being able to lead from a place flooded with oxytocin increases our trustworthiness, enhances our empathy, reduces our stress levels, and increases the likelihood that we'll be able to bring people with us as we help them dial down their own fear too.

Let's look at two leaders in the crisis we are all experiencing right now. These leaders are two individuals who I reckon have bucket loads of oxytocin. 

Leader #1: Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand and heralded as 'the most effective leader on the planet'

Now, if you’d like to see just how much respect I have for her, please read my Leadership Love Letter here. She does what she says she’s going to do. She’s consistent. She’s decisive and swift in action. She holds the health and happiness of a country in her hands and she does so with the utmost care. She uses real words designed to be understood by real people. 

This is not an article about why women make fantastic leaders - if you’re looking for one of those, please check this one out. Higher level of oxytocin is not exclusively a female trait, as we’ll see in a minute.

When the stress hits the fan, women ESPECIALLY (but not exclusively) exhibit a unique response beyond the classic fight and flight reaction. Women under stress tend to respond by protecting themselves and the people within their care with nurturing behaviours: this is called 'tend and befriend.' This is arguably a direct benefit of the higher presence of oxytocin typically found within women than in people of the opposite sex. Jacinda Ardern's attention to the care and wellbeing of her country is not limited to her time during the coronavirus pandemic - she has built her career and reputation on her strength of her oxytocin and is proud to do so. 

Research by Mayfield  finds that the three key things leaders must address to motivate followers to give their best are:

  • 'direction-giving',
  • 'meaning-making', and
  • 'empathy'.

“Ardern’s response to Covid-19 uses all three approaches. In directing New Zealanders to ‘stay home to save lives’ during a 23 March press conference, she simultaneously offers meaning and purpose to what we are being asked to do. In freely acknowledging the challenges we face in staying home – from disrupted family and work lives, to people unable to attend loved ones’ funerals – she shows empathy about what is being asked of us."

Leader # 2: Brian Chesky, CEO of AirBnB who needed to lay off about 25% of his workforce due to the Covid 19 pandemic, has managed to do this in a way that is a "masterclass in empathy and compassion"  

Emotional intelligence and the need for psychological safety are the backbone of good leadership in the 21st Century. Previously touted as behavioural traits more commonly found in women; these days more forward-thinking male leaders are equally happy to be seen as empathetic, human, and compassionate.

Building real human connections is what started AirBnB and it is arguably what will see it continue long into the future – whatever that may look like now. With global travel coming to a standstill, Brian and the AirBnB team have had to make some tough decisions, but they’ve successfully delivered these with empathy and compassion. As CEO, Brian believed in the connections he had built with his team over time, leading with collaboration, trust, and empathy – he firmly placed his leadership in the hands of oxytocin to ensure that he could continue to be the leader he wants to be, although delivering bad news. 

Many other companies have made similarly tough cost-cutting decisions – noting some of the many high profile Silicon Valley unicorns in this mix – where they have often got this message very very wrong, Chesky has got it very very right.

"I would forecast that it will become either a bar for how layoffs are measured in the time of COVID-19, or, more hopefully, a blueprint."

So, that’s all well and good you say, but how can I access this not-so-secret weapon too?

Luckily for us and our workforces, compassion is both innate – meaning we have it inside of us – and it can be cultivated - meaning we can get more of it. Yes, our genetic makeup starts us off, for some of us (especially the women) our hormone receptors pick up oxytocin more readily than others. For others among us, we can alter our behaviours to increase the amount of oxytocin we have within ourselves.

Ways to increase your oxytocin - and help your teams too:

Believe it or not, you could spray some oxytocin up your nose and feel instantly more trusting, collaborative and calm. See Paul Zak’s experiment with this use of oxytocin here. Nasal spray is not really a viable oxytocin option for most of us, so we’ve pulled together some actions you can take to boost oxytocin for you and your team:

1. Build emotionally-strong connections with those that you lead. This is more than team building activities, this means demonstrate regularly and consistently that you care about your team as individuals. Ask how they are - no really. Look for what’s important to them, ask about it and recognise it as intrinsic to their values, motivation, and sense of psychological safety within your team.

2. Listen with your eyes. Put down that phone, step out from behind that computer, turn on your video and off your notifications. The power of really paying attention and being present for another person will significantly boost your feel good hormones and do wonders for theirs too.

3. Be really you. Authenticity and showing your human side will encourage others to do the same. Show your people that it is safe to be themselves, that mistakes are there for learning, that you’re in this together.

4. Self-care helps you care for others. Exercise, healthy eating, practicing mindfulness and sending time with loved ones will all make you a better human being at work (and at home). Those around you will see the benefit and want to emulate your actions.

5. Everyday boosts for you. Stroking a pet, having a hug, or witnessing an inspiring moment (in real life or even in a movie) can all boost your oxytocin levels in seconds.

As you conscientiously work on increasing your own levels of oxytocin you will find yourself trusting more readily, seeking collaboration, and feeling more comfortable bringing your whole self to work. When you manage this in times of BAU you are better set up to lead successfully through a crisis.

In our increasingly global, multi-skilled, multicultural, and now often virtual world there is little room for the lone wolf who does not work well with others. When it comes to accelerating your leadership career, creating a sustainable culture, and leading effectively in a crisis, we all need to dial up our oxytocin and pull together to achieve our goals.

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