Using Brain Chemistry For Building High-Performance Teams


The Leading Brain and Flawless Execution 

Flawless Execution is a methodology born from the application of real-world lessons that, through advancements in science, continues to be validated over and over through the latest research in the cognitive and social sciences. The Leading Brain, by the neuropsychologist Friederike Fabritius and leadership coach Hans W. Hagermann, PhD., provides a wealth of complimentary guidance to those practicing Flawless Execution to lead their organizations and teams.

The authors compile a vast amount of research that is based, primarily, on findings in neuroscience advanced by the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). What was once guesswork about human temperament and motivation, can now be literally seen through the use of fMRI scans and a clearer understanding of brain chemistry. “The ways we act, react, and interact, are all products of distinct cognitive processes,” write the authors (Pg. IX).

As the audience of this summary is probably aware, Flawless Execution was developed and refined predominately by adrenaline-junkie fighter pilots who, without a refined process for continuous improvement, would likely fly themselves right into the ground. What strikes the reader in the first chapter is the tale of ‘Gordo’ Cooper, a fighter pilot and the sixth man to be rocketed into orbit in 1963, who, awaiting the launch of the Atlas 9 rocket he was strapped into, took a nap. A nap!? Even the physicians monitoring Cooper’s vital signs were dumbfounded at his calmness in spite of the extraordinary danger of his undertaking. But, Cooper wasn’t just calm, he was bored.

There are three neurotransmitters in the brain that matter most for building high-performance teamsdopamine, noradrenaline, and acetylcholine. Dopamine, makes us feel good and gives us focus; we’re having fun. We want more of it, so we start to push ourselves which prompts the release of noradrenaline. Noradrenaline helps us respond quickly when we are slightly over-challenged. When we are bored, noradrenaline is at a low and our mental acuity diminishes. Acetylcholine helps us learn. It helps us ‘rewire’ our neurons and, therefore learn new things. So, when noradrenaline is at an optimal level, acetylcholine helps us retain what we learn as we work to solve a new challenge. This is called neuroplasticity – the ability to form new neural pathways and, therefore, physically change and develop our brains. Human infant brains remain in a near constant ‘bath’ of acetylcholine. Thus, they learn very rapidly.

“So how do we adults flip the switch that turns on acetylcholine? Once this critical period is over, there are only a handful of ways we can do it: when we make a conscious effort to pay attention, when we get physical exercise, or when we are exposed to something important, surprising, or novel – in other words, when our brain releases dopamine.” (pg. 11)

Together, these three chemicals work to create peak performance. The authors call this brain chemistry recipe the DNA of Peak Performance for the three neurotransmitters dopamine, noradrenaline, and acetylcholine. But, this recipe for performance differs in its operation between two polar extremes. On one extreme is the thrill-seeking Gordo Cooper that needs risky behavior to provoke the DNA cascade in his brains. At the other extreme, the authors use Louis Pasteur, a plodding thinker of quiet demeanor that eschews the thrill-seeking of a Gordo Cooper, but nonetheless produces the DNA chemical cascade in his brain to achieve remarkable breakthroughs in science. The chemistry is the same but the stimulus is different. We all fall somewhere in between these extremes. But, focus is required for both.

Much of the content of this book regards how we can best manage the DNA of Peak Performance in ourselves. The greatest enemy of such performance, particularly in the modern world, is multi-tasking, and what we at Afterburner call Task Saturation. Task Saturation compels us to prioritize inappropriately and attempt to do more than one thing at a time, to multi-task. Multitasking is nearly impossible to achieve but we fool ourselves into believing we can do it and, therefore, destroy focus, the key ingredient of peak performance. The author’s provide a lucid argument for focus and many practical tactics or techniques to improve it.

This book is a treasure trove of good advice to be absorbed and put in to practice as best it suits the individual reader. It deserves to be absorbed in its entirety and deeply considered. But, there are some notable concepts and strategies that validate the Flawless Execution model. The first regards the effects of goal definition on focus. In other words, the significance of determining mission objectives and the High-Definition Destination (or HDD) in Flawless Execution terms. “You have to be working toward something specific,” write the authors, “and you need to have a strong sense of where your efforts are leading.” (Pg. 109) “Once your goal is clear,” they continue, “it becomes easier to differentiate between distractions and those things that are essential to reaching your target.” (Pg. 110) In fact, research demonstrates that when you envision an achievable goal with clarity, then you get a dopamine hit that initiates the DNA neurotransmitter sequence toward peak performance.

Another important discussion surrounds how diversity actually works in teams by introducing a new personality-tying system to replace the now antiquated Myers-Briggs and other similar systems. Coincidentally, a discussion on the system that was developed by biological anthropologist Helen Fisher can also be found in the March-April 2017 Issue of the Harvard Business Review.

What distinguishes Fisher’s personality (or temperament) model from the multitude available on the market today, is that it is actually backed by brain chemistry. It proposes four basic personality types, each related to one of two neurotransmitters or one of two hormones. The first, the thrill-seeking Gordo Cooper’s of the world, are called “explorers”. Explorer’s primary neurotransmitter is dopamine, which they crave, which is followed by a hit of noradrenaline. Next are the “Builders” that are oriented towards serotonin. Serotonin causes them to avoid thrills and seek stability and routine. Then come the “Negotiators” that orient toward estrogen. So, yes, women tend to be more prone to the negotiator temperament, but men can be oriented toward it as well. That leaves a final category, Directors, that are competitive and decisive. You might guess that their predominating hormone is testosterone. The point of all of this is that a high-performing team needs all of these personality types to achieve peak performance.

The Leading Brain is a valuable resource for leaders to develop themselves and their teams. It possesses convincing power to transform how you view yourself and your behavior while respecting and valuing the differing talents teams require for success.

Are you ready to turn your team into a high-performance group? Contact us to discuss how.