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Career Conversations: A Chemistry Experiment

In their recent HBR blog post, Judith and Richard Glaser explore the neurochemistry of conversation. They explain that:

“When we face criticism, rejection or fear, when we feel marginalized or minimized, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking center of our brain [… causing us to] become more reactive and sensitive.”

They go on to explain that positive interactions and conversations also create a chemical reaction:

“They spur the production of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that elevates our ability to communicate, collaborate, and trust others by activating networks in our prefrontal cortex.”

The nature of the conversations we have with others activates chemicals in their brains that result in a range of reactions and emotions. This applies to all conversation; but overlay the context of career (which taps into our hopes, fears, ambitions, sense of self, level of respect, not to mention money), and you have a complex cocktail of chemicals with which to contend.

That’s why taking an intentional and constructive approach to career development via dialogue is so crucial. Handled poorly, leaders can unintentionally undermine confidence, increase stress, and generate physical reactions that reduce an employee’s ability to learn, perform, and grow. But, handled well, career conversation can create an upward spiral of positive emotions and behaviors that lead to greater success.

So, what oxytocin-generating actions can a leader take to support others in their career development?

  • Focus on strengths. Help employees understand and appreciate their unique talents and abilities. Catch people doing things well and let them know. Work with others to ensure they are using their strengths daily. Let them teach what they do well to others. This conscious attention to areas of excellence and special contributions helps to bathe the brain in helpful hormones.
  • Remove fear from the future. Work with employees to help them understand the evolving workplace and business landscape. Let’s face it… things are changing. But change doesn’t have to be scary. When we understand the forces at play and can anticipate what’s around the corner, we feel more powerful and ready to respond. Engaging in a positive dialogue about the possibilities that the future may bring will activate the chemicals designed to enable more creative and collaborative responses.
  • Reframe mistakes. When something doesn’t turn out as planned, it can be experienced either as a failure or as an opportunity to learn.  How leaders choose to perceive the situation has a powerful effect on how employees respond… chemically and behaviorally. When mistakes are accepted as a natural part of growth and development, the conversation is constructive and focused on extracting lessons that can be leveraged in the future. Resolving the situation becomes less about ‘cleaning up a mess’ and more about exploring new techniques and approaches that might yield better results. The chemistry, development and results are entirely different… and more productive… when approached like this.
  • Find steps forward. In today’s flatter organizations, promotions and moves are frequently less plentiful than in the past. It’s easy for employees to adopt scarcity-based career beliefs, thinking that opportunities are not available to them. The discouragement and fear associated with these reactions generate chemicals in the brain that heighten sensitivity and reactivity. Keep employee brains working creatively and productively by focusing on possibilities. If the promotion someone wants isn’t available, explore what enhancements could be made to current responsibilities so they might enjoy some of what the other position might have entailed. Help people find ways to mine their current jobs for ongoing growth in-role or as a stepping-stone to something else.

Leaders in organizations today will perform better with the understanding that they are also chemists – that the way they choose to interact with others generates not just psychological but also physiological reactions. So, do your own chemistry experiment by engaging in a positive career conversation.

What about you? What ideas do you have for helping the hormones with positive career development?

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