Your Neural-Network Plays a Role in Leading and Team Dynamics: Get Out of Reacting, Move into Responding

Perceptions form our reality and interpretations become the guide post in how we interrupt that reality. Leaders often come into their roles from various social, cultural and educational backgrounds, which are predicated on values, experiences and a library of beliefs, attitudes and successes. The leader funnels all of these unique experiences into their decision making, rationales and choice outcomes.

Silently in the background is the signaling of a symphony of neurotransmitters influencing the leader’s thought formations, reactions and behaviors. This quiet “humming” of the orchestra of biochemical changes can be very insightful for emerging and senior leaders in understanding communication dynamics, interpersonal and/or team-based situations. Whether the leader knows it or not, their interactions with others create a release of neurotransmitters, such as Cortisol and Oxytocin, sometimes in concert, in the midst of many other biochemical releases.

You may be pondering: What do neurotransmitters have to do with my behavior? I would say everything — especially as a leader and having team involvement. As an illustration, you just had a meeting where a team member publicly embarrassed you in a staff meeting or in an auditorium full of your colleagues. You said nothing at the time but you, unknown to others, was boiling inside. Or in another instance, you were approached by a direct report or colleague who made a rude and sarcastic comment to you and you made a flip remark back to make sure you put the person in his/her place. Each of these were behaviors you consciously or unconsciously decided to engage in. But, what drove the behavior?

Simply put, Cortisol, when released, is the fight, flight, fright and/or appeases aspects shown in our behavior and verbal expressions and shaping our perceptions. It contributes to avoiding situations where potential conflict(s) can occur or moves toward aggressive responses when we feel endangered. It usually lasts in our system much longer than we would like, even to the point of experiencing difficulty with concentration.

We tend to avoid things we don’t like and approach those things we enjoy. Joy and connection can bring the release of Oxytocin, creating greater opportunity for a leader’s behavior to be more receptive, open, calming and pleasurable and increasing the likelihood of asking inquisitive questions to gain understanding, instead of critical, judging, condemning statements, which leave most people feeling attacked and defensive.

Cortisol Release Oxytocin Release
Avoiding behaviors Approaching or Receptive Behaviors
Fright and Appeasing Behavior Connecting
Negative Attitude or Mood Positive Disposition
Judgmental or Overly Critical Engaging and Inquisitive
Reactivity – Impulsivity Proactive Responding

When leaders become combative or those around the leader are negative, an environment of naysayers can be created; potentially resulting in diminished productivity, increased competitiveness, disengagement and conflicts, because of the release of Cortisol, creating constriction and aggressiveness and perceived danger. The leader and team have moved away from working toward a common goal but instead engaging in self-preservation, which is an attribute of that fight or flight release of cortisol.

When a leader is able to shift mindset to producing Oxytocin by asking questions, being aware of tone and approach in conversations and shifting the culture of the team, then the leader is leading, instead of reacting. When the leader learns to hone certain skills, which we call “LEAD success factors,” a bridge is built and a conducive atmosphere for intentional responses that fuel cohesion, creativity and team synergy.

Research has shown that people and situations that allow those in it to feel comfortable or at ease, such in meetings where the leader and team finds the conversation interesting and free flowing, creating a sense of partnering in achieving common goals which feels better to all; thereby creating group receptivity to hear counter arguments, because there is a sense of shared direction and respect.

LEAD coaches believe that a critical factor in working with successful physician-leaders, nurse-leaders and emerging leaders is supporting them in understanding their biochemical triggers and blind spots and learning to cultivate responses that lead to greater collaboration, understanding and proactive action toward creating and achieving effective interpersonal, team and/or organizational outcomes.


For more information please visit the Duke Professional and Personal Development Program (PPDP) and Leadership and Enhancement Development (LEAD) Coaching and Consulting Services website or contact Program Director Judith Holder at Judith.Holder@duke.edu or (919) 286-1244.

Articles are written by experienced executive, leadership, performance, communication, interpersonal, wellness and life coaches with behavioral health backgrounds and training in social and emotional intelligence, work-related stress and life span development.