In CultureTalk

A Four Letter Strategy for a Healthy Corporate Culture

At his Inbound 2014 keynote, Simon Sinek did it again. He turned the complicated topic of corporate culture into a four-letter strategy for building high-performing teams.

That’s right. Volumes have been written about culture, team building and leadership, yet Simon brought home his lesson in the letters – E, D, S, and O – each representing a brain chemical that impacts the work environment.

“Business is a human experience,” he said, “When we feel safe amongst our own, our natural reaction is trust and cooperation.”

So how do we as humans work together to accomplish a shared vision? Think back to high school biology. Certain behaviors release a “hit” of certain chemicals in the brain.


First, we have Endorphins. You know the high you get from a run? Endorphins mask our physical pain. They provide an extra shot of energy. With endorphins, we persevere through challenges. Endorphins help us go.


Next up is Dopamine, the chemical of accomplishment. It’s addictive, that euphoric feeling we get from crossing items off our to-do lists. As we head in the direction of goals, dopamine reinforces our progress by making it feel good. Dopamine helps us get it done.


When Serotonin is released, pride and joy abounds. We can stand on a stage to receive an award – or watch our kid be recognized for an accomplishment, and we’ll be steeping in serotonin. Serotonin is a “Way to go!” celebration. 


Oxytocin is all about cooperation and trust. We get a shot of it when we see or experience an act of generosity. Or when we engage in meaningful conversations. Oxytocin has a calming effect as it helps us strengthen connections. Oxytocin is a shared experience: “We did it!”

A balance of selfish and team-oriented

Simon said “endorphins and dopamine are the selfish chemicals” – we can produce them all by ourselves. They impact individual performance but not necessarily the cohesiveness of a team. These are also highly addictive chemicals. Ever ran into a “to-do list bulldozer” in your office? These are the people that will stop at nothing to feel the relief of crossing a task off their list…and might “bulldoze” others on their way. Just like an addict burning to get their next hit, if left unchecked, these chemicals can create a selfish, untrusting environment.

In contrast, we actually need others in order to get a shot of serotonin and oxytocin. These “unselfish” chemicals are released through the building of trusting relationships. Picture being at a college graduation: the student is walking across the stage with a big smile and a huge sense of accomplishment. They could have gotten the same recognition in an email. But, if they got it in an email, no one else would be there to watch. Who else in the room of a graduation is also beaming with pride? Their parents. Those who made the sacrifice also get a boost of oxytocin. We benefit from recognizing each other and receiving attention from someone else.

According to Sinek, a healthy corporate culture is one where the four chemicals are operating in balance to each other. Individuals are energized by endorphins and motivated by dopamine. Teams come together through serotonin’s sense of pride and oxytocin’s role in creating connections for the common good. But too much dopamine might mean be a sign of a workaholic – or not enough oxytocin and it’s difficult to establish friendships at work.

How can leaders foster this ideal brain balance?

  • Enhance dopamine by establishing a clear vision and an action plan for getting there.
  • Boost endorphins through short-term challenges.
  • Elevate serotonin by taking the time to publicly thank individual members of the team.
  • Optimize oxytocin by creating meaningful opportunities for employees to connect.
  • Put others first. When leaders eat last, their teams will make sure they never go hungry.

But, brain chemists beware

There are other hormones that befuddle any attempt to foster a team. For example, Cortisol – the fight or flight hormone that is released when we feel stress – actually inhibits the production of oxytocin. More stress means less trust. Cortisol actually inhibits the body’s ability to produce any of the above chemicals. Cortisol also makes us sick, breaks relationships, and makes us selfish. Stress is poison in a work environment. How will you keep it in check?

Next up, Allegory takes Sinek’s lessons to heart, developing a set of vows to keep our collective brain trust in the highest working order. Stay tuned for that!

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