A Leader's Lifehack:  The Dopamine Effect

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A leader sets the tone for creativity, innovation, and critical thinking.  They understand how to create an environment that positions the team in a way that is right for productive work.  I don’t remember where I heard this phrase, but I use it all the time; “We celebrate before we evaluate.”  This is easy to do when you recognize people are good, have a strong desire to be successful, and want to contribute to the organization’s success.  Leading with recognition of success sets a happy tone and puts the team at ease and in a good mood.

That is where dopamine and serotonin come into play. These neurochemicals are released when we are being recognized for our successes (serotonin) or discovering something new and being inspired to go forward (dopamine).  Starting your meetings with a genuine assessment of individual’s or team’s success creates a positive mood in the room.  It allows your team to think honestly about areas where they are hitting home runs. It also creates a cross-functional appreciation within your team.  Marketing gets to hear about sale’s successes, and communications get to hear about operation’s successes.  It doesn’t take long before each of the teams begin celebrating each others’ contributions.  Celebrating successes builds mutual respect among your team by allowing them to appreciate just how hard everyone is working and the results they are achieving.

Next, allow your teams to think out loud during your meetings.  Allow them to discover new ideas and solutions that will help achieve the inspiring mission you have set.  Resist the temptation to open the meeting with your thoughts before asking for their ideas.  Send the message that their ideas are more important than yours.  The dopamine and serotonin will flow, and the good ideas will follow.  You will have the privilege to sit back and ask questions that spur more great ideas.

It is not just a mushing love fest.  There is a purpose to the process.  According to Shawn Achor, CEO of Good Think and an expert in the field of positive psychology, people are more intelligent, more creative, and ultimately more productive when they are happier and more positive in the present. The dopamine release activates the learning centers in our brains. He goes on to say, “those moments when we feel positive and happy are also moments when our brains are most capable of taking in information and adapting to changes in the world around us.”

By way of example, I was recently asked to step into a situation where we had hundreds of employees spread across five offices in four countries.  As the outsider, I could see how hard everyone was working to keep the ship on course.  As an insider, the team could only see how hard their department was working and was quick to point fingers at other teams, especially when the other team was thirteen time zones away.  Cross-functional teams were highly critical of each other and performance was lacking.

My first step was to give them an appreciation for how hard their counterparts were working.  I needed them to focus on the success of the larger team.  I did this through the “celebrate before you evaluate” process discussed above.  I asked each one of them to recognize a legitimate success their teams had during that period and talk about it publicly.  The discussion created a bombardment of support from the others in the meeting.  Team members began to add their support and validation to the success stories.

It took several months of this type of meeting before the real change began to take root.  The tone of the meeting became lighter and friendlier.  There was palpable happiness within the team, and things started to change.  The team generated creative solutions to problems tolerated previously.  They started to work with each other to create cross-functional solutions.  We saw a 56% improvement in their ability to solve client problems, and client escalations dropped by more than 80%.

Leaders, model this method with your immediate team members and require them to use it with theirs. Focus on valuing your team’s happiness by giving them meaningful reasons to feel happy at work.  Celebrating their successes and allowing others to recognize them in the present will create that happiness and the dopamine effect will kick in.  Their critical thinking, creativity, and productivity will increase, and they will become the high performing team they are capable of being.


Bowen,John J.,,Jr. (2012, 11). C'mon, get happy! Financial Planning, 42, 33-n/a.