The Best Way to Drug Your Employees

Last Updated Oct 21, 2011 2:39 PM EDT

I would have been on time but an employee stopped me with a legitimate safety concern, so I walked into the meeting five minutes late.

My boss had his back turned as he wrote on a whiteboard, so I slipped quietly into a chair and made a cringing, lips pursed, "sorry..." face to the group.

"Glad you could grace us with your presence," my boss said, without turning around.

"I'm sorry, I --"

"I don't give a crap what you're sorry about," he interrupted. Voice rising he said, "Don't want to hear your excuses either. If you can't be on time don't show up at all... hell, come to think of it, why don't you just leave."

I was shocked. He was often volatile, but never like this -- and never towards me. As I started to apologize again he whirled around, pointed to the door, and said, "Seriously. Get out. Now!"

When I still didn't move he held out his hand, palm down, and flicked his fingers towards me as if to say, "Shoo."

So shoo I did: Embarrassed, angry, humiliated, ashamed, outraged... you name it, I felt it.

For the next few hours I was worthless. I fumbled from task to task and struggled to stay focused with employees who needed me. I kept trying to pull myself together but couldn't -- and I felt like a failure since I couldn't just suck it up and move on.

As it turns out, I shouldn't have felt like a failure. My inability to move past the incident wasn't completely my fault.

My boss had drugged me.

"A disrespectful behavior automatically triggers a squirt of cortisol into our brains," says Paul Meshanko, founder and Managing Partner of Legacy Business Cultures. "Cortisol shuts down the prefrontal cortex and triggers the flight or fight mechanism. So our focus turns inward and we lose the ability to fully engage with other people, to help other people, to be creative and energized and motivated -- because our body automatically concentrates on surviving, not thriving."

Disrespectful behaviors come in all flavors and generate different size doses of cortisol, of course. Getting tossed from the room was fairly extreme (at least based on what I was accustomed to) and as a result so was my physiological reaction.

It can take between three and four hours for a sizable disrespect "injection" to wear off. A sneer or a snarky comment would have generated a smaller squirt of cortisol and less of a physical reaction, and the effects would have lasted for a shorter period of time.

"But even when the initial effects finally go away, the process isn't over," Paul says. "When we think about a particular incident later we receive another squirt of cortisol and feel similar effects. Disrespect is like the anti-gift; instead of the gift that keeps on giving, it's the 'gift' that keeps on taking."

It doesn't have to be that way, though. When we are treated with respect, a dose of serotonin and oxytocin is squirted into our brains.

Encouragement, praise, appreciation... even the smallest behaviors that help create a more respectful workplace can automatically trigger a powerful biological response, leading to:
  • Improved self esteem
  • Greater job satisfaction
  • Better cooperation and teamwork
  • Higher productivity
  • Greater customer satisfaction
Hard to believe? It's not: When we feel better about ourselves -- and we feel better about the people who lead us -- we try harder. And we treat others better, too. Think about the best boss you've ever had; he or she made you feel capable, respected, and valued. We will run through walls for those leaders.

And it doesn't take much on your part. Say an employee deftly handles a customer complaint. You praise her and squirt! -- she's more motivated, more enthusiastic, shows more initiative... all because she feels good about herself and the job she does. Studies show that something as simple as a sincere compliment makes it much more likely a behavior will occur again in the future and much more likely that behavior will occur without prompting.

Your interactions with employees -- in fact with everyone -- trigger biological responses. That's just how it works; in simple terms, our bodies automatically react to certain stimuli, so we in effect drug each other through our actions, at work and elsewhere. Sincerely compliment your significant other and the response is automatically positive; yell at your children and they naturally shut down. They can't help it.

We can't help it. It's how we're made.

So you have a choice:
  • Treat employees with indifference or, worse, a lack of respect and their performance suffers, often for hours; or
  • Actively treat employees with respect so they will be happier, healthier, and much more productive.
The choice is always yours, and here's the great part -- it's a choice you get to make hundreds of times a day.

Read more: Photo courtesy flickr user insouciance, CC 2.0
  • Jeff Haden On Twitter»

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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.

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