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“Happy Chemicals” at Work

Happy Chems

Happy people don’t leave organizations.  Why? Because they enjoy what they’re doing with others who value what they bring to the table.  How is that relevant to the company?  Because literally billions of dollars are lost annually from attrition, gatekeeper recruiter time, interview travel costs, relocation expenses, learning curve/training time, cultural assimilation, possible visas/attorney fees, loss of productivity, and further fallout from the change of talent.  Has your company ever measured the cost of poor organizational health?  If not, be prepared that today’s talent is checking organizational culture reviews on Glassdoor before they even apply or accept interviews.

So, what is happening internally which causes people to stay?  Some companies (surprisingly) still believe it is about the money, despite several studies indicating the contrary.  Scientists across several fields of study concur that human beings strive for homeostasis, i.e. a balance, which helps us feel safe.  While we can be motivated by fear, our strong preference over “fight or flight” is to dwell and enjoy.  The four chemicals that our bodies physiologically produce when we enjoy our environment and the variables within it are the following: Dopamine, Endorphin, Oxytocin, and Serotonin.



The SELFISH chemicals are dopamine and the endorphins.  They get us to where we need to go as individuals.  The SELFLESS chemicals are oxytocin and serotonin.  They get us to work together and develop feelings of trust and loyalty.  If only one side dominates, your organization has either chaos or stagnancy.  The balance of selfish and selfless chemicals is one of the successful CEO’s primary tasks.

Let’s examine each one:

Dopamine – DOMINANCE.  This is the Incentive for progress.  The positive is it enables us to set goals, focus, and achieve.  For those who like “the chase” and the cave man feeling of “conquest,” they have to monitor a possible addiction to dopamine. How does your organizational culture promote win-win goals?

Endorphins – ENDURANCE.  These mask physical pain.  They are released during a “runner’s high” and when your stomach is contracting strongly during a good laugh. Imagine: It is impossible to simultaneously laugh and be afraid. What keeps your office smiling?

Oxytocin – AFFECTION. This forms bonds of love and trust.  Oxytocin is produced through acts of service, sacrifice, and selflessness on behalf of others. Organizational cultures which implement these behaviors into a daily practice have a high chance of pre-empting the emergence of toxicity in the workplace.

Not only does oxytocin keep us healthy (no sick days), they make us better problem solvers. It is #10 on the Gallup Q12: “I have a best friend at work.”  This means someone who we can trust as an ally.  This chemical makes it more about “us,” instead of the addictive quality of “me” that dopamine fulfills.  When we share joint challenges, our bodies release oxytocin, which forms bonds.  Leaders must offer talent a reason to grow.

Serotonin – PRIDE.  It’s the feeling of pride and leadership.  Serotonin is produced when those we lead in the workplace develop into more skilled professionals under our guidance.  True leaders are supportive and do not undermine their direct reports.  (Managers do).

Serotonin only exists in symbiotic relationships – each person feels like s/he is gaining a benefit from their association.  Much like Confucianism’s five bonds (father to son, elder brother to younger, husband to wife, ruler to ruled, friend to friend), a burst of serotonin provides the feeling that others like or respect us.  This is why time is allowed to each Oscar winner at the Academy Awards, before the symphony plays them off stage…the winner feels like s/he couldn’t have accomplished what they did without the support from others.



When I was young, I was told “stress will kill you.”  This never made much sense to me until more recently.  Cortisol is the chemical that is produced by our bodies when our workplace offers a constant state of fear and/or anxiety.  This chemical, cortisol, has the potential to reconfigure our internal systems, cause lasting damage, and shorten our lives.  One of my clients ended up in the emergency room, only to be told by her doctor that she was experiencing work-related stress.  She had an interim boss who was a corporate bully.  He did not recognize that fear and/or lack of homeostasis inhibit(s) productivity.

For our own health reasons, we must never accept toxic environments, whether they be inside or outside of the workplace.  Do not attempt to fool yourself that you can become accustomed to the stress.  Low, regular levels of stress (i.e. cortisol) can no only break down our internal organs, it can activate dormant cancer cells.

What constitutes a toxic workplace?  Basically, values which are not being supported from the top-down. Author Simon Sinek: “Hypocrites, liars, and self-interested leaders create culture filled with hypocrites, liars and self-interested employees.  The leaders of companies who tell the truth, in contrast will create a culture of people who tell the truth.  It’s not rocket science.  We follow the leader.”

Mimicry begins in infancy.  Leaders know when to make it stop, and that includes you – know when to walk away from those who have a toxic abundance.


Rossina Gil, MSOD, MAIS, is a Global Leadership and Organization Development Practitioner, and the founder of Corporate Looking Glass, LLC – a diverse consultancy of OD experts and strategic thinking partners. She is the author of The Corporate Looking Glass: Using Culture for Your Competitive AdvantageWe increase retention. Visit



Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D. Habits of a Happy Brain

Simon Sinek. Leaders Eat Last



50 Shades and the Workplace

Originally posted on


People often say, “Talent joins organizations, and leaves bosses.” The chemistry, synergy, feel—or whatever you wish to call it—of the organization is not sufficient to retain the recruited talent. While the onus of retention falls on both boss and talent, the subordinate often ends up in a relationship with a boss that just doesn’t fit. This leads the subordinate to decide whether s/he must leave the organization or try to adjust to the boss’s demands. This dilemma mirrors the one examined in the story 50 Shades of Grey.

50 Shades is a story about how one (psychologically tormented) person offers a less experienced person a contract to sign as an agreement to fulfill certain tasks. The subordinate is lured by the branding—the attractiveness of the package (i.e. Christian Grey). Ultimately, while it is the first part of a trilogy, the subordinate (i.e. Anastasia) is constantly questioning herself as to whether she should stay within a relationship that doesn’t feel entirely “right.”

In every relationship (e.g. professional, personal, or in commerce), we are faced with the decision as to whether the engagement, partnership, or transaction works for us and/or benefits us. We as consumers and employees vote with our dollars, just as we vote with our feet. We don’t spend money on widgets which are uninteresting. We leave places which don’t “tickle our fancy.”


And, since time is money, we are most productive and thrive when we earn our money by spending our time doing what we do best, and by enjoying what it is that we do. That is our passion. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (551-479 BC) said: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

Which brings us to choosing a job/relationship we love in an environment where we feel safe. A safe workplace is one where the job description is specific, individual expression is appreciated, the leadership is authentic, no harm is done (verbal, physical, emotional, etc.), and the organizational culture is transparent—not simply rhetoric or plaques on a wall.

An unsafe workplace is one where the job description shifts with each quarter, conformity is expected, the leadership is withholding, co-workers are abusive (verbally, physically, emotionally, etc.), and the organizational culture demands adherence to top-down structural office politics.

50 Shades exposes us to how susceptible we are to the dangers of living in an unsafe environment. These unsafe environments also creep up all the time in the workplace. Therefore, leaders must be aware that creating unsafe workplace environments puts employees in predicaments, which force them to choose between steady work and sound emotional health.


In an unsafe work environment, the following behaviors result:

  • No Corporate Policy on Sexual Discrimination. E.g. Court fines paid on sexual harassment while the harassers keep their jobs.
  • Leader-Member Exchange Theory. E.g. Strategic inquiries are taboo.
  • “Right to Work.” E.g. People fired for having personal lives or speaking up.
  • Traditional Cultural Schemas. E.g. No paternal leave policy.
  • Unconscious Bias. Promotions based on personality; not on tenure or merit.
  • Insider/Outsider Dynamics. HR turns a blind eye on discrimination/bullying; or, they are the perpetrators of discrimination and bullying.

In an unsafe workplace environment, employees typically develop four types of coping strategies. The first two of the employee types below co-align with the 50 Shades protagonist.

Employee Type in Toxic Organization Relationship/Description (& extra movie example)

  1. Denier- This type of individual believes that the dominant culture is correct. What is practiced is okay, sanctioned, acceptable, and is clearly a “success” because there is money to endorse whatever behavior is practiced. There is little to no need to change anything; in fact, the culture should be strengthened and perpetuated by any means possible. Any exception made is a means to obtain the end goal. (50 Shades protagonist makes minor changes to the contract demands, and acquiesces).MOVIE: The Reader
    “You’re not guilty of anything merely by working at…”
    “The question was never ‘Was it wrong?’ but ‘Was it legal?’ and not by our laws?”
  1. Sympathizer- This type of individual understands that what is practiced within the workplace (see concrete list of behaviors above) is not completely ethical and/or acceptable. While the practices may not illegal, they do not sit well with the individual; however, the money/attraction is there, so this type keeps his/her mouth shut, and stands silently by as others are ushered out. They typically also excommunicate those who are not a part of the inside circle of practices (50 Shades protagonist did this with her flatmate).MOVIE: Jobs
    Bill did not agree with Steve Jobs decision to fire their best programmer just because the programmer dissented – the programmer had asked for clarification on the decision to delay the deadline just to add fonts. Nonetheless, Bill only offered passive resistance and a lot of grimacing.
  1. Survivor- This type of individual knows exactly what is happening within the workplace, yet continues to work at the company until s/he can find something better. S/He has adequate knowledge and experience, but is not out to rock the boat. In the meantime, covert outreach is made to reach out to those who have been unjustly treated.MOVIE: The Help

    “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
    Aibileen reassures little Mae that she has value, despite being put down repeatedly by Aibileen’s employer (the girl’s mother).           

  1. Change Agent- This type of individual is ready to speak out against unhealthy practices, for him/herself and others. S/He may try to subtly redirect the culture towards organizational health, but, ultimately, this person either walks or is let go/fired.MOVIE: The Bourne Identity.
    Bourne’s official resignation: “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Supervisor Conklin scoffed at the notion, for nobody quits in his CIA…they were killed – either by him or by the enemy. Bourne stated emphatically that such an arrangement was unacceptable.                                                                                                                                   


Because organizational culture trickles down from the top, it is imperative that talent understands “the way they do things around here” before joining. Otherwise, talent may find themselves in toxic relationships, and be placed into the position of one of the above-described types. Unhealthy situations also have a ripple effect that extends to those at home.

What’s your safe word?

Rossina Gil, MSOD, MAIS, is based in Nashville, Tennessee.  She is a Global Leadership and Organization Development Practitioner, a “dot” person, and the founder of Corporate Looking Glass, LLC – a diverse consultancy of OD experts and strategic thinking partners.

© Rossina Gil, 2015


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