Simon Sinek on Oxytocin: The Leadership Chemical

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What exactly is oxytocin? What role does oxytocin play in leadership?

Oxytocin controls feelings of trust, empathy, and bonding. According to management theorist Simon Sinek, oxytocin is the glue that holds a team together. However, oxytocin takes time to build. For this reason, as a leader, be patient and consistently prioritize your subordinates’ needs: You’ll prove yourself trustworthy over time and your subordinates will start innovating and collaborating.

Read about the role of oxytocin in leadership.

Oxytocin Takes Time to Build

Your brain produces oxytocin slowly. Rather than being produced in a single, large dose, it builds over time, and people’s empathy increases accordingly. This can be discouraging for leaders of organizations because it means supportive environments (and their greater collaboration and innovation) take time to form and become profitable.

(Shortform note: Sinek says your brain produces oxytocin slowly, but this isn’t true in all situations. Research shows that oxytocin is produced immediately in large amounts during childbirth, sex, and breastfeeding. However, this doesn’t negate Sinek’s point: These three situations are instances where immediate and strong bonding is very important—if you didn’t immediately bond with your child after birth, for example, you may neglect them, which would be bad for the species’ continued survival. As such, humans evolved to produce a large amount of oxytocin in this situation. However, in situations where immediate bonding is less important, like at work, oxytocin takes longer to build.)

Oxytocin’s slow-building is an evolutionary defense mechanism, Sinek says. For early humanity, trusting the wrong person could result in their death. So, humans evolved to take their time when forming connections, giving them the chance to determine whether the people around them were trustworthy.

Oxytocin: More Complex Than Empathy and Trust?

According to Simon Sinek, oxytocin is released when you feel empathy, which makes you feel happy and trusting. While this used to be the accepted understanding of how the neurochemical works, experts now know that oxytocin changes its functions depending on your environment. If you’re in a safe, low-stress environment with people you have social connections with, oxytocin does release positive feelings of happiness and trust. However, if you’re in a high-stress environment or with people with whom you don’t have social connections, oxytocin can increase negative feelings like suspicion and aggression.

Scientists posit that this increase in negative feelings is oxytocin’s true defense mechanism: It encourages you to form strong connections through both positive reinforcement—safe feelings when you’re with people you have social connections with—and negative reinforcement—unsafe feelings when you’re with people you don’t have social connections with. These unsafe feelings encourage you to spend less time with people you don’t share social connections with and more time with those you already trust.

This negative reinforcement can be problematic, as it encourages the formation of sub-groups, where people trust some people in their organization but not others. This leads to in-fighting, competition, and the destruction of supportive environments. You can reduce negative reinforcement by reducing the stressors people experience and emphasizing that they’re all part of a united whole. In addition, simply allowing your team to bond over time can increase positive reinforcement: As strangers gradually become socially connected, oxytocin begins providing more positive than negative reinforcement.

Simon Sinek on Oxytocin: The Leadership Chemical

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Here's what you'll find in our full Leaders Eat Last summary :

  • Why a leader must prioritize her subordinates’ needs above her own
  • How empathy and support can be strong managerial tools
  • Why you must see your customers, suppliers, and employees as people

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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