Leaders, stretch your brain for a change

Carton of four men stretching a brain
Posted on: Saturday 24, June 2017
Category: Thought Leadership

This article shows you four remarkable and easy ways from neuroscience how to hack into your brain's secret force to spur you on towards success. Five practical tips for leaders included. 

[Originally published in June 2016 under a different title - this is an improved and updated version and follows on from its recently released sister blog, Learn to dance in the rain.]

We are all creatures of habit. Averse to change, we enjoy being in our comfort zones. But, paradoxically, success, doesn't arrive if we just sit on our butts. We have to get off the couch first and stretch out towards our ambitions.

Good news, bad news

“In any given moment we have two options: stretch towards growth, or step back into safety."(Abraham Maslow.)

Recent brain research suggests we have an endless capacity to change and we can learn new ways of being. Neuroscientists term this: ‘neuro-plasticity’.

So, on the one hand, that means you can choose to:

  • Learn how to fight adversity.
  • Re-code old thought patterns.
  • Change innate habits into proactive ones that help you succeed in life.
  • Hack into parts of your brain that spark you into action.

The good news is these intentions prompt you to deal with your problems and achieve your hopes. It also motivates you to move away from your comfort zone towards your stretch zone.

However, on the other hand, you can choose to depend on your innate, built-in responses instead. These are your habits and behaviours that limit and condition you. Over time, these start to get in more and more your way. For example - doing nothing, dullness, stalling, worry, anxiety, avoid risk, blaming others, control, resentment, regret, using others and becoming easily stressed. 

The drive behind these basic habits is fear, survival, defensiveness and protection. Relying on these constructs ultimately produces a potentially limiting fixed mindset. It is a fixed mindset that stops you from fighting for what you want. Also, conditioned habits are hard to re-code and update. So it's easier to stay in your comfort zone or worse still, you tip into the panic zone instead.

That’s the bad news. But we can stretch and grow beyond this. Yes, in the first instance, will take some effort and planning ahead. It's about deserving the right. Read on to find out how:

Hack into your happy chemicals

So, how can you expand beyond your old habits?

How do you stretch towards a growth mindset?

How do you plan ahead to get what you want and desire from life?

Neuroscientists have discovered that our brains use four neuro agents that spark you to take action. They spur you on and give you hope. They can raise your performance and let you feel good. In short, they lend a hand to stretch you and motivate you to get results. 

These neuro agents are dopamine, serotonin, endorphin and oxytocin. 

Professor Loretta Breuning Ph.D. neuroscience expert, author, and founder of the Inner Mammal Institute has done a lot of research in this area. She calls these your happy chemicals.

Here are four simple hacks that use these happy chemicals and you can easily apply these to your everyday leadership to boost your performance.

Reach your goals one nudge at a time

From Loretta's research, a lack of get up and go, stalling and low self-esteem, and so on limit the flow of dopamine. These states of mind occur if you spend too much time on the couch - in your comfort zone. However, dopamine is a reward and pleasure neuro agent. A blast of dopamine motivates you to get off your butt and move towards your stretch zone.

Dopamine flows as you work towards your goals. It makes you feel proud and pleased with your achievements. Loretta suggests you should break down big goals into a series of smaller goals. By tackling each goal, one at a time, means you can celebrate reaching each one. In this way, you get a spurt of dopamine and better still; your levels get topped everytime you achieve each step goal too. Nudge by nudge, stretch by stretch, step by step you to remain motivated to keep going in your stretch zone for longer periods.

In contrast, a focus on a big goal can often have the opposite effect. That is because big goals can feel huge, and therefore overwhelming. That then leads to a spike of cortisol  - the stress hormone releasing into your body. That will put you straight into your panic zone. Or you stall, as an antidote to your fear. So you stick around in your comfort zone instead.

Our body always triggers cortisol when we feel in panic, overwhelmed or, out of control. It gets your body ready for fight or flight. Large doses of cortisol are counter-productive, as it bumps you out of stretch into the panic zone.

Here is an example of breaking down goals:

In my 40’s I set myself a big goal. I wanted to get to 1st Dan black belt in Karate within six years. To do that you have to grade for each coloured belt grade first - one after the other.  I had a photo of myself wearing my Karate Gi on my vision board - it hangs on my office wall. I started with a white belt. Each new belt I aimed for, I coloured in on my vision board. The visual reminder of me progressing through each coloured belt spurred me on. I felt proud to earn each belt, and I celebrated achieving each too.

Tip one - praise based feedback

Well to start with, recognise the day to day efforts of others. Genuine praise-based feedback hits the sweet-spot of everyone’s self-esteem. As dopamine flows, it impels each of us on to raise our game. It will make you feel good about yourself too, and that will prompt a flow of serotonin. We'll talk about that neuro agent next.

Paint big pictures in your head

Loretta says whenever you visualise and recall past happy events it triggers serotonin - the feel-good neuro agent. It turns out, this dramatically increases your performance too, as you will see in a moment.

You see, your brain does not recognise the difference between current and past events. The same neuro-pathways and chemicals fire.

For example, when you recall a positive event, your brain perceives it as a current experience. As you do this, you feel all the same feel-good sensations, thoughts and emotions all over again. That is the serotonin rush. The act of focusing on resourceful times in your life clears away your feel bad thoughts. Apollo astronauts used such techniques to be at their best during the space race to the moon.

Tip two - prime your success 

Say a problem occurs at work. You feel as if the weight of the world is on your shoulders. So your attention draws toward it. You feel uneasy, and you can't think straight. Here's a technique to clear your mind and refocus, psychologists call this process priming:

  • close your eyes and recall a positive past event
  • take your time - relax and connect to it
  • as you focus your attention on it, notice your mind shift to the positive state
  • with the new state of mind in play, return to your problem
  • Now, consider your issue from this new more resourceful perspective.

This simple change allows the cortisol release to wane, and the serotonin blast helps you to reset your approach towards the problem. Be warned - if you use a negative memory, it will skyrocket your cortisol levels instead and so restrict the flow of serotonin. 

As leaders, you will have to face problems and hard times that stress you. These may make you feel like you are drowning in your problem and you can't see a way out. Fear then sets in and that tanks up your cortisol levels. So, use the above priming process. Doing this empowers your mind to seek better choices and solutions.  

I regularly demonstrate this approach to large groups. I work with a volunteer and take a real world issue that represents a panic situation to them. I then show the power of priming. Promptly the audience sees the physical and facial changes in that person as the serotonin kicks in.

Tip three - plan ahead for business success

As leaders, priming is useful for strategic planning too. Ask yourselves: “What will good look like each step of the way?” This is a creative way to plan ahead for success as a team. Loretta states doing this will mean you get both a serotonin and dopamine hit. Furthermore, you produce another feel good agent called oxytocin too - a triple whammy! We cover that one next. 

The trust factor - bond with others

As leaders, it is crucial you spend time with each other team building. Bonding around a campfire goes back thousands of years to our tribal roots. Bonding as a group is as crucial for business teams too. It creates strong emotional bonds of trust. Accepting each other is an essential quality to perform at your best.

Loretta states that bonding with others releases oxytocin the neuro agent of empathy, cohesion and closeness - often called the hug chemical. It is vital for team working and to committing to each other.

Tip four - develop your emotional intelligence

Spend time developing trust and emotional intelligence skills with your team. Such skills empower you as leaders to collaborate and make decisions. Also, empathy helps you deal with one another in tricky times too.

Overcoming Difficulty

Recently smart watches and exercise bands have become popular. They remind people to do simple everyday practices. For busy people, exercise is a potent antidote to stress. Loretta says that regular exercise can emit the flow of endorphin. This neuro agent lessons pain, stress and anxiety. Marathon runners know, fighting through the pain barrier allows endorphin to flow. You gain that extra needed puff.

Tip five - learn to push through

Endorphin helps you to push through when the going gets tough as if you've hit a brick wall. That's an essential leadership quality. In moments of an extreme stretch, a flow of endorphin helps you to break through and find your second wind. Endorphin helps you go the extra mile when you hit rock bottom. 


To give you a quick reminder, here's Loretta Breuning Ph.D talking about the four happy chemicals I've been talking about and how to spark them more of the time and zip you into your stretch zone. Enjoy:


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My services

I am a skilled leadership and team facilitator and development consultant. If you're interested please contact me today to discuss how you and your organisation can benefit from developing your team in emotional intelligence development or high performance team programmes. Or you can call me direct on +44 7795 182 860 or email andrew@pdx-consulting.com to arrange an informal discussion.

I coach senior leaders and teams, practical workshops high-performance training programmes alongside emotional intelligence development, one-to-one coaching packages NLP to teach your leaders, managers, and teams these skills.

Further reading and resources

Presence, by Amy Cuddy, Orion 2015

Habits Of A Happy Brain, by Loretta Breuning, Ph.D, Adams Media 2015

The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge, Penguin 2008

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Other Leadership Blogs

High Performance Teams Fact or Fantasy - Blog Post

Leadership - Who is Pulling Your Strings -Leadership development blog from Andrew Jenkins Leadership Development Consultant and Coach

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Graphics used in the article

The heading, stretch your brain for a change, and the other cartoons are all my artwork. If you wish to download them, head over to my Infographics page. The quote graphics comes from Buffer.com, adapted and arranged by me.

Original article was called, Four brain hacks to stretch your success - it was published in June 2016

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