Understanding how the human brain works, and how the hormones it produces affect our actions, is a key tool in fostering healthy relationships and positive attitudes

While chatting with a senior engineer about his safety strategy I noticed that he was completely distracted. Clearly something else was bothering him. I paused the conversation to ask what was wrong. Emotionally he blurted out how he could not deal with his boss’s aggressive, unsympathetic and demeaning manner.

He admitted that, despite wanting to be committed to safe production, he had come to a point that he had had enough. Here was a person who loved his job and believed in the importance of safety yet, despite this, he was resigning for a lower-paying job for one reason only – to get as far away from his boss as possible.

How we lead our people has a tremendous impact on their emotional well-being, loyalty to the company, commitment to quality work and focus on working safely.

The good news is leaders can intentionally interact with their people in a way that builds healthy relations, dedication, promotes a positive attitude and helps reframe workers’ mindsets towards safety.

Now, the dynamics of the brain’s functioning is more complex than what is outlined in this article. However, by understanding just a little of what is happening in their peoples’ brains, leaders can dramatically improve their ability to influence the mood, performance and decision-making of their teams.


Amongst other things, serotonin plays a key role in balancing our mood and social behaviour. If a person is feeling good, it is primarily because of serotonin. Loneliness and depression are often the repercussion of low serotonin levels.

Serotonin is released when one feels important. Since that sensation is enjoyable, the brain will search for ways to repeat the behaviours that brought about that result.

Listening to people’s ideas, inviting suggestions, being respectful and demonstrating care are all easy and potent ways that send signals to your people that you don’t take them for granted and that they are valuable to you and the company.

Bolstering people’s self-worth and confidence by appreciating them and setting them up for success are excellent ways of discharging healthy doses of serotonin in their brains.

We have the privilege to influence our people in such a powerful way. The question we should be asking is how often are we doing this proactively and in a positive way?


Dopamine gives us the drive to take action. It provides us with the energy to reach our goals. When we accomplish these goals, we receive a pleasure rush so that we are enthused to do it again. Dopamine is discharged when we expect to achieve a target or receive a reward. It gives us a boost of energy to keep going. Procrastination and a lack of eagerness are often symptoms of a lack of dopamine. 

Leaders can help their workers by setting them up for regular small wins as they move towards the bigger goal. It is imperative that, as each goal is met, there is some sort of celebration (not necessarily a reward or bonus) or recognition of the success. This increases motivation.

So-called stretch targets usually don’t work. If workers do not believe the targets are achievable, they will become demotivated as they feel they are being set up for failure. Another question we should ask regularly is: how am I motivating and making my team feel like champions?


Oxytocin is emitted when there is a connection and positive interaction with others. It is essential for galvanising relationships, better-quality social interactions, loyalty and trust. Having social moments like sharing lunch and celebrating important events such as birthdays go a long way to accelerate oxytocin.

When someone feels betrayed, relational expectations are not met, or trust is broken, then the brain withholds oxytocin.

Getting everyone involved in the toolbox talks is an ideal time for a team to bond. Having passive participants is missing a prime opportunity. In what ways are you connecting and creating community with your crew?

Adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol

These hormones are the body’s natural warning system and are primarily secreted in times of stress. They are connected to our fight or flight reactions and are vital in times of emergency.

When the brain perceives imminent danger it jumps into action. If we encounter a lion charging us, there is no time to analyse the situation. Without thinking, the brain gives us a burst of adrenaline to run away as fast as possible.

This can be very concerning when it comes to safety. In times of stress, the brain quickly wants to respond to the threat and will literally bypass the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that deals with our higher thinking processes. It is responsible for planning and judgment.

Prolonged stress impairs brain function, dulls our memory and clouds our judgement. That is why we sometimes do “silly” things.

As leaders we cannot afford having our people working with impaired judgment. Prolonged stress can produce the same effect as being intoxicated. Using techniques to reduce stress and defusing the fight/flight response is crucial.

Barking out orders, especially in a threatening tone, to get people to spring to attention is one of the worst things we can do from a brain perspective. The work needs to get done and problems need urgent attention. However, communicating in a calm systematic way is considerably more beneficial.

As leaders we have an abundance of chances to influence people’s attitudes, moods, motivation, as well as the ability to focus and work safely.

How many times are we doing this in a destructive way? How often do we miss opportunities because we are not as intentional as we could be? What can we do this week to deliberately interact with our people in a more effective and brain-friendly approach?

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