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Our jobs are killing us and our leaders are responsible

Leadership is about looking after those around you, standing together through the tough times. Our Creative Lead Anthony Coombes shares his experience on adversity in the workplace, creative leadership, and thriving in today’s modern world.

I’m still getting over 2016. Familiar names; Wogan, Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Victoria Wood and many more were lost. Brexit happened, and Trump happened. There was fear of terrorists, fear of technology and fear of change. Businesses held their breath and redundancies threatened. I saw people I care for burn out in an attempt to do more with less. Meeting unrealistic targets with little support and a deep feeling of responsibility.

2017 we started to fight back. We asked what was really important, we focused on our goals, who we trusted and how we might feel better about ourselves. Personally, I started running, I took on coaching a new football team and writing – helping others to think like a designer. Taking pride in the things I’d achieved and the people around me.

This morning I watched a Simon Sinek talk ‘Why Leaders Eat Last’. Professionally, his talk ‘Start with Why’ has helped me to develop brands and find a compelling sense of purpose. This new talk is more personal. Sinek explains why I had been feeling so bad in 2016. He also gave an insight into how I’d managed to fight back.

His premise is that humans are designed as machines. Our biology responds to negative and positive incentives which help us survive and thrive. Responding by chemicals: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and cortisol. Keeping us safe from danger.

Endorphins mask physical pain and help you to feel fantastic. I started running to get my highs. I look forward to a morning run and as a result I’m sleeping like a baby. I’m ready to do it all again the next day despite the sore legs.

Dopamine gives us a feeling of accomplishment and helps us focus on goals. I love to-do lists and getting to the end of the day knowing I’ve crossed things off. Dopamine does come with a warning; these mini highs are addictive. Sinek makes an interesting link to dopamine highs and why Generation Z have such a short attention span. Their addiction to mobiles and social media has trained their brains with chemical rewards. So, they become easily distracted and less able to get things done. It’s why I stopped checking emails in the evening. I wait until I am on my morning train, where I have time to make a new to-do list.

Sinek questions why businesses are so target focused. At work our dopamine reward now comes from hitting the numbers. Sinek questions if this kind of culture gives us fulfilment or earns leaders the trust they need from their team.

At work our dopamine reward now comes from hitting the numbers. Sinek questions if this kind of culture gives us fulfilment or earns leaders the trust they need from their team.

In hard times businesses who don’t look after each other start to break up. If the circle of trust only includes the c-suite then employees start to use their energy to protect themselves rather than the business.

Serotonin reinforces relationships. It helps us share pride, become confident and reinforce a feeling of status.

Displays of wealth can trick the system into giving us a serotonin hit. When we look good in new clothes and expensive cars, we feel important. Socially we give our leaders special treatment. The alpha is allowed to eat first and take more. The deal being that when danger comes they meet it first, giving up their perks and working harder for us. We don’t expect to be sacrificed or appreciate being overlooked.

Oxytocin, sometimes called the “bonding” hormone, comes from a feeling of belonging. It can come from being generous to others and makes us feel safe. It’s why I love being part of community football. I happily give up weekends and don’t expect anything in return.

Sinek’s view of email is spot on. Email is a rational tool for exchanging information. It shouldn’t be used for anything that needs emotional intelligence. I’ve had managers leave me cold with long emails that say all the right things but make me feel like I’ve been processed and part of a paper trail. The words might be exactly the same, but I respect people more if they take the time and energy to talk to me in person.

Excess cortisol is produced in our bodies when we feel stress and anxiety, or if our blood sugar levels are too low. It’s a way for the body to get us through difficult times. It has other functions too, including helping in normal food metabolism, and temporary suppression of parts of the immune system. However, continually raised levels are associated with some mood disorders, fatigue and burn-out. Our empathy skills are also hampered, which as a designer can be critical to delivering effective work.

Sinek also reminded me of a conversation I had with my then 8-year-old. “Why do people go to work if it just makes them unhappy and stressed?” my son asked. I told him that even if I didn’t get paid I’d still want to do what I do now, design things and be creative. I hope that answer gave him enough hope to find a job he loves later in life.

Sinek’s ‘Why Leaders Eat Last’ teaches us that leadership isn’t about rank. Leadership is about looking after those around you, standing together through the tough times.

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