Happy Chemicals For A Successful Team


Published: 10 July 2016

One of the functions of leadership, according to Simon Sinek, is to create a ‘circle of safety’ for the work group.

This reduces stress and allows them to function at their best as individuals and as a team. He refers to ‘happy chemicals’ that make us feel good about ourselves and others. However, he divides these ‘happy chemicals’ into two pairs.

The first pair he calls ‘selfish chemicals’, because they make us feel happy and good about ourselves and our personal achievements without regard for our fellow team members. These chemicals are important but need to be kept in check for the benefit of the team.

The next pair are called ‘unselfish chemicals’. They build friendship and collegiality. They make us bond together and work towards the success of the team.

It is perhaps the presence of too many ‘selfish chemicals’ and not enough ‘unselfish chemicals’ that create an atmosphere of bullying and intimidation that affects too many work teams.

Cortisol levels rise in response to stress. Cortisol is released from the adrenal glands and is responsible for our fight or flight response. Cortisol also rises when we don’t feel safe or when we perceive danger – real or imagined. Elevated cortisol levels are the number one enemy of creating a high functioning team.

Chronically Raised Cortisol:

  • Decreases ability to perform tasks well
  • Makes us ‘jumpy’
  • Suppresses the immune system
  • Affects memory and learning
  • Enables mood swings; and
  • Reduces motivation.


Selfish Chemicals

  1. Endorphins

    Endorphins are neuropeptides that help us to go the distance when the going gets tough. They are endogenous morphine. When we achieve things for ourselves after working hard, endorphins are released and we feel great. The sense of elation, or ‘runners high’, depends on endorphins.

  2. Dopamine

    Dopamine keeps us on track when we set goals or tasks that we want to achieve. When we make a list and tick off each task achieved it is dopamine that gives us that sense of satisfaction. Dopamine is also the chemical that keeps us coming back for more. It is the primary neurotransmitter involved in addiction. When we experience something that makes us feel good, dopamine is released and this urges us to seek out that experience again.

successful team

A graphic representation of the value ‘unselfish chemical’, serotonin, creates by activating more parts of the brain than the ‘selfish chemical’, dopamine.


Unselfish Chemicals

  1. Serotonin

    Serotonin is released when we feel good about the achievements or good fortune of others. When we see someone doing a good deed for someone else, we feel good. That is serotonin at work. When we feel pride because someone we care about is getting deserved recognition, it is a release of serotonin that makes us enjoy the experience.

  2. Oxytocin

    Oxytocin is the hormone that allows us to bond with others. A review by Inga Neuman suggests that oxytocin contributes to relaxation, trust and psychological stability. Oxytocin is the ‘love’ chemical. When we care about the people we are with and we feel safe and supported, oxytocin has a chance to do its magic.

Reducing stress by promoting opportunity and engaging in scenarios that allow ‘unselfish chemicals’ to flow has to be a priority for leaders in all work teams.

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      • Macgill, M 2015, Inga Neuman in Oxytocin: What is it and what does it do?, Medical News Today.com.
      • Sinek, S 2014, Leaders Eat Last, Penguin Random House Australia, Docklands, VIC.