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High-performance teams: Using neuroscience for team development

Learn how to use brain science and a culture of learning to foster high-performing teams, effective collaboration, and psychological safety.

Jan 16, 2024 • 5 Minute Read

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  • Business
  • Team Development
  • Learning & Development

Medical review completed 1/1/2024 by Gretchen Yungen, MSN, PMHNP-BC.

Did you know that work performance is deeply rooted in the intricate mechanisms of our brains? By understanding how the human brain responds to different stimuli, we gain a profound advantage in how we approach performance.

We can use neuroscience as a scientific lens to assess organizational learning culture, create an environment that aligns to the brain’s natural processes, and, ultimately, help our teams thrive.

In this post, I focus on four neurotransmitters and their effect on the human brain and behavior.  Read on and get the insights you need to empower your team in today's dynamic work landscape.

Register for our webinar and learn how to cultivate a workplace culture that boosts performance.

Table of contents

What are neurotransmitters, and why should they be part of your team strategy?

At the heart of every interaction, decision, and experience within our organization lies the intricate world of neurotransmitters—chemical messengers that orchestrate the symphony of our brain's responses. These tiny molecules wield profound influence over our emotions, behaviors, and, ultimately, our performance.

Understanding the role of neurotransmitters and human cognition in the workplace allows us to tailor our strategies, enhance the employee experience, and foster a brain-friendly workplace where our teams can thrive.

Cortisol: The stress neurotransmitter impacts burnout and effective collaboration

Cortisol, often referred to as the stress neurotransmitter, plays a pivotal role in our survival instincts. When our brains perceive a threat, the amygdala releases cortisol. This prompts the body to redirect blood flow and prepare our bodies for confrontation or escape. 

Non-essential functions, such as hair and fingernail growth, temporarily pause to channel all our energy toward addressing the perceived threat. Once the threat subsides, our cortisol levels return to normal, and regular bodily functions resume.

Reducing feelings of stress, anxiety, and fear in the workplace

In the workplace, threats like overloaded schedules can increase cortisol and affect team development. Luckily, there are several things leaders can do to reduce these risks.

  • Establish realistic workloads: Evaluate and adjust workloads to ensure they’re realistic and manageable. Overloaded schedules elevate cortisol levels and decrease well-being.

  • Encourage breaks and downtime: Promote the importance of downtime and taking breaks during the workday. Encourage employees to step away, recharge, and engage in activities that reduce stress.

  • Recognize signs of burnout: Learn to recognize signs of burnout and chronic stress in team members. Promptly address issues and offer support to prevent prolonged stress.

  • Implement flexible schedules: Offer flexible work schedules or remote work options to accommodate individual needs and reduce stress associated with commuting or rigid work hours.

  • Build supportive teams: Foster a supportive team environment where colleagues assist each other through effective collaboration. Team support can mitigate individual stress and contribute to a healthier work atmosphere (read more on oxytocin below).

  • Model healthy work-life balance: Lead by example and demonstrate the importance of setting boundaries, taking breaks, and prioritizing well-being.

Serotonin: The feel-good neurotransmitter affects work-life balance

Serotonin, often dubbed the 'feel-good neurotransmitter,' influences our feelings of contentment and overall mood. It also contributes to vital functions such as sleep, digestion, learning, and memory. 

Improving contentment and well-being at work

Because serotonin is primarily produced in the gut during sleep, leaders who help team members lead balanced lifestyles will be more likely to boost serotonin and build high-performing teams. 

  • Offer flexibility: Provide flexible work arrangements when feasible. This enables employees to manage stress and contributes to serotonin balance.

  • Evaluate organizational norms: Reflect on organizational norms and practices that may impact serotonin production. Consider the adverse effects of norms such as mandatory after-hours meetings, which disrupt family lives, sleep schedules, and overall employee performance.

  • Promote work-life balance: Emphasize the importance of work-life balance and discourage toxic norms that may negatively affect serotonin levels. Encourage leaders to evaluate and modify practices that compromise employees' well-being. Actively model these behaviors and advocate for your team to do the same.

Dopamine: The brain’s reward system relies on goals and a culture of learning

Dopamine activates the brain's reward system, making it a performance management go-to. When we achieve a goal or encounter something our brains perceive as beneficial, dopamine is activated and creates a surge of positive feelings. 

However, dopamine is a fleeting neurotransmitter, and the euphoria it brings is short lived. As the dopamine rush diminishes, we're left craving more. Remember that sources of dopamine like social media, online shopping, or food are easily accessible in the modern landscape, so a successful performance management system must encompass more than dopamine.

An intricate relationship also exists between dopamine and cortisol. Dopamine has a cortisol feedback loop. Whenever we get dopamine, we get a small amount of cortisol in return. Cortisol, our stress hormone, can significantly impact employee enthusiasm and concentration. Prolonged stress will worsen these effects. Because of this, the rewards system in our organizations must encompass more than dopamine to be successful.

Creating a rewards system and motivation at work

These tips can help leaders create a sustainable rewards system that nurtures high-performance teams:

  • Set clear, achievable goals: Clearly define individual and team goals to provide a roadmap for accomplishments and trigger dopamine release upon achievement.

  • Recognize progress: Celebrate small victories and milestones to acknowledge and reinforce positive behavior (and boost dopamine levels).

  • Provide varied challenges: Offer diverse and challenging tasks that engage employees' skills. This keeps the work environment stimulating and rewarding.

  • Encourage autonomy: Allow autonomy and decision-making within defined parameters to empower employees and promote a sense of accomplishment.

  • Offer growth and learning opportunities: Provide ongoing learning and development opportunities to engage the brain and create a continuous cycle of goal setting and achievement.

  • Implement incentive programs: Use incentive programs such as bonuses, recognition, or other rewards tied to performance to motivate employees and activate dopamine responses.

Oxytocin: The love hormone fosters connection and collaboration in the workplace

Oxytocin, often referred to as the love or cuddle hormone, is released in our brains during moments of deep and meaningful connection. This release occurs through physical touch or even the simple act of making eye contact with our furry companions. Unlike dopamine, oxytocin exhibits a prolonged presence in our systems, contributing to lasting feelings of trust and security. 

Oxytocin is a competitive binder to cortisol. In other words, when our brains release oxytocin, it reduces cortisol levels and establishes a sense of relief and calm. This explains why seeking a hug from a loved one becomes a natural inclination after a particularly stressful day at work.

Building trust, safety, and belonging

Certain actions in the workplace can promote oxytocin production.

  • Foster connection: Encourage team-building activities and initiatives that promote meaningful connections among team members.

  • Embrace recognition: Acknowledge achievements and milestones with personal and thoughtful gestures to enhance the sense of connection.

  • Promote inclusivity: Create an inclusive environment that fosters a sense of belonging and camaraderie among team members.

  • Encourage collaboration: Facilitate opportunities for collaboration and interpersonal interactions to naturally boost oxytocin levels.

  • Demonstrate empathy: Display empathy and understanding in leadership interactions to contribute to a positive and supportive atmosphere.

  • Recognize oxytocin's impact: Understand that oxytocin has a lasting presence in our systems and enhances our capacity to trust others. By prioritizing employees' family lives and safeguarding non-working hours, leaders protect a crucial source of oxytocin and contribute to a positive and trusting workplace environment. 

Nurture high-performing teams with brain science

Creating a brain-friendly workplace is not just a goal; it’s a strategy to unlock the full potential of our teams. By embracing this scientific lens, we can transform our work environments into spaces that inspire, elevate, and, ultimately, thrive.

Ready for a deeper dive? Check out my interactive workshop Using Neuroscience to Create a High-performing Culture.

Jessica Billiet

Jessica B.

As a Principal Consultant on Pluralsight's Workforce Transformation team, Jessica Billiet enjoys empowering individuals to reshape their organizations. Her background in psychology enriches her approach to driving positive change. At the core of Jessica's professional philosophy is the belief that talent is everywhere, but opportunities are scarce. This belief led her to join Pluralsight in 2022, where she is committed to advancing the global technology workforce. Jessica is the founder of Excelsior Ranch, a non-profit organization committed to aiding individuals dealing with the impacts of trauma, addiction, and PTSD using equine-assisted psychotherapy. With a heavy focus on management and organizational psychology, Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree and an MBA through Western Illinois University. She is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) through the Project Management Institute (PMI).

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