Afraid to try? What a toxic culture does to your brain…

Pixabay – intographics

As a leader, you have the opportunity and responsibility to shape the culture and environment in which your team functions. From experience, I know first hand the joys of working for a leader that values your effort and encourages innovation.  It’s energizing and fun.  It’s where you want to be and you’ll give more effort toward reaching the goal than money can buy. You are a part of the story that’s making a difference for others. You are inspired to make the vision a reality because you know what you do matters and you believe in the vision.

On the other hand, when the leader changes and connections diminish.  You lose the passion for the career you chose and it simply becomes a job.  You only stay because you’re not sure what else is out there and you hope if you just keep your head down and don’t make eye contact that it will get better.  It often doesn’t and those leaders don’t tend to move on quickly. Not only does trust fail, but the damage that working environment or relationship does to your mental and physical health is disturbing.

What happens when fear becomes toxic?

As Simon Sinek (2014) discussed in “Why Leaders Eat Last, “we are hardwired to ensure our survival.  Our primitive brains haven’t caught up to cultures that we live in.  Our legacy survival systems, as Sinek, pointed out continue to ensure that whether something is life threatening or just stressful our bodies respond in the same way.   The problem is that stress at work isn’t life or death, but our body releases cortisol regardless of the difference.  So when our Circle of Safety begins to fail and we begin to fear what’s happening, our body releases more cortisol (p.55-56).  In turn, cortisol inhibits oxytocin, the trust and empathy hormone. So we devote even more energy towards being suspicious of those around us at the very time we need more support from the group.  It make us more vulnerable to outside threats, less productive and startlingly less healthy.

Sinek (2014) recounted that cortisol isn’t meant to be released on an ongoing basis.  It’s meant for a short release to help you survive a dangerous time and then the system is meant to reset.  Unfortunately, work stress continues and as a result prolonged cortisol works against us.  Sinek explained that cortisol:

  • affects glucose release
  • increases blood pressure and inflammatory response
  • impairs cognitive ability
  • increases aggression
  • suppresses sex drive
  • it prepares us for fight or flight and in doing so it shuts down digestion, growth and the immune system.  It makes sure all energy is redirected toward only essential fight or flight systems.
    (p. 56)

Guess what that does to your long term health… It’s not good.

So does the culture and environment of your workplace matter?


Workplaces that foster connections and increased trust decrease cortisol release and let oxytocin and serotonin work to foster cooperation (p. 58).

It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it…

Knowing that our brain is impacted by our primal instinct for survival means that we not only pick up on what is said, we notice how the body says it.   Over the past year, I’ve attended sessions and worked 1:1 with Carla Gradin, body language trainer.  She referred to the fact that our primal brain is designed to ensure our survival.  As a result, how our brain reads body language also impacts our response. She explained that the first part of the body our brains notice is our hands.  Where you put your hands tells us if you are a friend or foe. If the palms of my hands aren’t visible during an interaction, your brain is questioning my motives.  If I reach to shake your hand palm down, your brain is considering whether or not I’m concealing a weapon.  If you want to build positive connections with people, your body language needs to say the same thing you are (Speak up and Stand Out, Carla Gradin, p. 8).

Cloud (2013) noted “research suggests, people don’t leave jobs — they leave bosses” (Boundaries for Leaders, p. 56).  He too drew the connection to our primal brain and stressed that it’s not just what a leader says, it’s how a leader communicates that causes our brains to revert back to fight or flight (p. 56).

Pixabay – Counselling

Covey (2006) cited John Gardner, “One of the reasons people stop learning is that they become less and less willing to risk failure” (Speed of Trust, p. 178).  So what’s one reason we fear failure?  To be honest, failure – trial and error, is how we learn.  We try it one way and when it doesn’t work we learn from what we did and try again.  Why is it that some teams become stagnant and stall out rather than take a chance?

Cloud (2013) explained that it’s all about the right kind of fear.  There’s positive stress that helps you get your taxes in on time.  The stress that helps you meet the deadline, yet in the process you never lose sight of the goal.  It helps us focus on closing the gap (p. 65).  If you cross over into the realm of toxic stress as Sinek (2014) and Covey (2006) also mentioned, then your primitive brain takes over and productivity decreases (Boundaries for Leaders, p. 67).

People can’t learn from mistakes if they are too “afraid of what you might do to [them]” (Boundaries for Leaders, p. 74).  People need to know that their leader is there for them during times of success, but more importantly, a true leader stands by them and helps them learn from their mistakes (p. 71).

It’s a fine line between healthy, motivating stress and debilitating, toxic fear.  The first step as a leader is reflecting on the culture you have created and realizing that a team united on the same path with healthy brains will always out perform a team paralyzed in fear.

To fail is to begin again knowing one more way that doesn’t work.  It’s a culture shift worth pursuing because the resilience of our students and teams depends on their ability to learn from their experiences rather than being derailed by them.  And that begins with you!

Resources Referenced: 

Other articles:


Why does who eats first or last matter?

An Overview of
Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t
By Simon Sinek

Sinek explored not only the idea of why some teams pull together to become stronger and more successful, he also examined the brain chemistry behind it.  As a former Biology teacher, I’m intrigued by the number of times during my quest to learn more about leadership that hormones are referenced.  As a leader or a follower, our bodies respond chemically to our experiences.  It turns out how we feel affects how we trust and in turn the leader or the follower we become.

Sinek uses moving real life examples to thoroughly engage the reader.  One of my most striking memories of the book is about the circle of safety. When our leaders create a safe, trusting work place, we can all work more effectively with our teams and achieve greater overall success.  Remove the circle of safety and out of our evolutionary need to survive our primal brain takes over and we are forced to spend our energy looking out for ourselves rather than contributing to a team. Sinek explained that you can feel the circle of safety  – you know what you do is valued, your leaders have your back and you know you belong. Leaders, Sinek emphasized, “are responsible for how wide the Circle of Safety extends” (p. 23).  It’s only effective if everyone is included.

Endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin are the four primary chemcials that contribute to our body’s positive feelings or happy state as Sinek referred. The first two are the selfish ones designed to ensure your survival as a person, wheres, the second two, serotonin and oxytocin, help you to socialize and cooperate with others (p. 37-38). Endorphins mask the pain and enable you to keep going while dopamine gives you the feeling of accomplishment and makes you want to do it again (p. 41).  Serotonin, on the other hand, helps us work hard to give back to the group.  The more you give back the more you are seen as a leader (p. 49). Oxytocin is the trust hormone, “it makes us social” (p. 49). Mix in a little cortisol to up the stress and anxiety factor and you have quite a cocktail depending on the culture that you create.

Sinek explained that overtime alphas emerge in our social hierarchies and we follow because these leaders are expected to protect us.  It’s part of the social contract. Great leaders do what they need to help those in their care.  The accolades and spotlight continue to be offered by the people as a thank-you for their leadership. Leaders who forget that won’t lead for long.  As Sinek noted, “the people always have the power” (p. 67) and the true power lies in realizing that we are all responsible for protecting the circle of safety.  While increased authority enables formal leaders to do more. Leadership is about the responsibility to do more for others, it’s looking after those in your care.  Sinek concluded it’s something we can all do regardless of rank.  Look after those in your circle (p. 215-216).

Leadership Connections: 

  • Sinek offered biological connections to explain why we respond the way that we do.  He also noted the impact our small choices have on whether or not we rise as leaders or fall from grace.   As formal or informal leaders, it’s important to consider the type of working environment that we create.  I’ve worked for both types of leaders and can tell you it’s exhausting when the circle of safety is in jeopardy. When people are reduced to numbers and the toxic fear begins to spread, no one wins.  Your primitive brain takes over in an attempt to ensure your survival.  All your energy goes into managing your stress and protecting yourself and your work suffers.
  • As leaders, we need to step back and consider the environments that we are creating and consider the needs of our followers.  The more I learn about leadership the more interconnections there are between different leadership theories. They all share similarities, but what makes a good leader great is not a simple as it seems.  It’s how you put all of that knowledge into action each day that determines the difference you will make.

You may also want to check out his TED Talks: 


Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t. New York : Penguin.



Summary by Key Takeaways –

10 Big Ideas from Leaders Eat Last –