As leaders in today’s business world, we may or may not realize how deeply the our followers’ neurochemistry dictates how well our coaching and direction is received.

My daughter used to play competitive AAU Basketball. Her coach was great at the details and fundamentals of the game, but was a very intense fella with a strong tendency to be a screamer. He rarely screamed at the girls in practice, but something changed when it came game time. Time after time, I watched as he screamed at the girls in the middle of the game when it wasn’t going the way he thought it should.

There is one game I will never forget. He went into his usual tirade and then called a timeout just to yell some more. When the girls were gathered around him in the huddle, my daughter, who was known as the “princess” on the team (the sweet, kind type), spoke up. “Coach,” she said, “when you yell like that, my brain just shuts down and I can’t even remember what I’m supposed to be doing.”  A wry smile came across my face as I listened in from behind the bench. The red in the coach’s face slowly faded back to normal pink and he took a deep breath. Calmly, he said, “Ok…you’re right. Let’s talk about what we’re doing right and what we learned in practice that we need to do differently today.” He now had all the girls’ attention. The “stress” from the moment was reduced drastically. The girls left the huddle, went out on the court, and executed flawlessly.

So what does my daughter’s coaching moment with her coach have to do with neurochemisty? Quite a bit, actually. When the human brain is under stress, it triggers the release of cortisol. The basic reason for this release is meant for good, but generally leads to bad outcomes. When the right amount of cortisol is released in the right moment, our body uses it to help with all sorts of good and necessary functions, such as metabolism and immune response. But when cortisol gets out of balance, it becomes significantly debilitating to our entire body. Most specifically, it has detrimental effects on our brain.

The reasons cortisol is Enemy #1 to a leader are many, but let’s tackle the top five.


Reason #1: Cortisol induced stress reduces our ability to connect

Oxytocin is the neurochemical involved with care, connection, empathy and trust. Research shows that when we are under stress, cortisol production is high and oxytocin production is low. In essence, simple biology tells us that when we stress out our teams, they stop trusting us.


Reason #2: Cortisol induced stress actually kills brain cells

Yep, you heard that correctly. When you stress out your people, it actually aids in the production of free radicals that attack the cell walls of your brain cells, causing them to prematurely die. This leads to your employees experiencing forgetfulness, irrational emotion and illogical decision-making. Not good if you’re the leader.


Reason #3: Cortisol induced stress halts the production of new brain cells

As a sales leaders, we are trying to teach, train and equip our people. By placing them under stress, we actually inhibit their ability to learn new tasks and skills.


Reason #4: Cortisol induced stress makes your people sick

Literally. Cortisol can actually aid in the breaking down of the brain’s primary defenses against pathogens and toxins. This results in a stressed-out team that actually gets sick more often. It should be clear that sick days do not lead to higher productivity.


Reason #5: Cortisol induced stress actually makes your people more stupid.

Believe it or not, stress shrinks the size of the brain due to its inhibitory effect on cellular production. Our brain will seize up at critical times due to the survival mechanism when under stress, leading to faulty memory, irrational reactions and reduced overall cognitive function. This can subside in the case of acute stress, but in the case of chronic stress it can become permanent. Did you know that your stress induced tirade at the last team meeting actually made your team collectively dumber? You may have thought they seemed dumber…you probably didn’t stop to think that you caused it.

When you place your people in an environment of stress, their survival mechanisms are activated and they go into “escape mode.” They no longer have the biological ability to even hear what you’re saying. Just like my daughter expressed in the middle of the stressed out basketball huddle, their brains “shuts down” and they can’t remember what they’re supposed to be doing.

When you speak to your team, it’s imperative to remember that every word coming from your mouth is generating a neurochemical response in their minds. Sales results may be down and there may be a need for major changes in your business, but how you communicate this information as a leader will determine whether your team responds favorably and rallies behind you or responds with self-preservation and becomes even less productive than before.