Limbic Leadership: Why You Need to Fall in Love With Your Co-Workers

I’m a consultant, not a ceramist. But I knew in my gut I had to start a mug company. Well it wasn’t just my gut. There was another guy’s gut too.

My friend Blaine and I started Our Common Mug almost a year ago. The premise is simple. We are good friends who met in grad school. Our lives have taken us 2,000 miles and two time zones apart. As we struggle to stay in touch, we long for the everyday rituals we once had: like morning coffee. We made a mug, only sold in pairs, that would help remind us (and others) of our connection.

In some ways, the product that we created was irrelevant. We simply wanted to create something — a product, book, experience — together because we believed that our relational chemistry was capable of producing great things.

Many “experts” advise against this. Some tell us to avoid working with our friends and many more say that work should not be expected to feel like a family. I beg to differ. In my experience (and in a growing body of neurological research) working with those you love or loving those you work with is the key to sustainable, fulfilling work. And leaders should take note, because it may help the bottom line.

Our need to connect is biological. Just as we have a need to eat, drink, and sleep we have a need for meaningful social interaction. This need is different than those aforementioned physiological needs as it comes from an entirely different part of our brain — our limbic system.

Our brain is made up of three parts — reptilian brain, neocortal brain, and limbic brain. The reptilian brain controls our survival functions like breathing, eating, etc. The neocortex is the big grayish matter and mammals have a lot of it. This is where we form language and do critical thinking. The limbic system is our emotional center. This is the place in the brain that allows two human beings to connect. You can think of them as Eat, Pray, Love. The three systems work in harmony.

But it is the limbic brain, which lizards and other creatures lack but all mammals share, that is the hub of all of our instincts, hormones, deep preferences and deep feelings. It is the limbic brain’s chemicals – serotonin, opiates and oxytocin — that are the largest contributors to what makes us happy. And the trigger of the limbic system? Social connection.

And yet our WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) culture overvalues the neocortal problem solving brain and has given little thought or attention to our limbic needs. This is especially true in regards to the modern workplace. We work longer hours. Spend more time working alone. Tele-work more. And it’s all making us literally sick. Oh, and we hate it.

For whatever reason we have come to believe that we can enter our high rise buildings, start-up dungeons, and home offices and simply cut off our need for connection. We presume that just as we can fast from a day of meals, we can fast 50 hours a week from meaningful human connection. We tell ourselves that work is solely about getting a paycheck and adding value to the company.

Unfortunately we don’t stop being human when we go to work. Our deepest human needs are always there.

In their groundbreaking neurobiological work A General Theory of Love, the authors say,

“Even after a peak parenting experience, children never transition to a fully self-tuning physiology. Adults remain social animals: they continue to require a source of stabilization outside themselves. That open-loop design means that in some important ways, people cannot be stable on their own — not should or shouldn’t be, but can’t be. This prospect is disconcerting to many, especially in a society that prizes individuality as ours does. Total self-sufficiency turns out to be a daydream whose bubble is burst by the sharp edge of the limbic brain. Stability means finding people who regulate you well and staying near them.

Have you ever met a coworker and thought to yourself “My throbbing limbic system believes that you can be someone that regulates me!” Of course not. It is safe to say that most of us walk into our workplaces believing that it is our self-interest that will help us succeed. We rarely think of our organizations as communities that can care for us and in which we can care for in return. At best we have HR departments that orchestrate faux connection through trust falls and happy hours. When was the last time that you randomly fell backwards and your drunk colleague caught you? Exactly.

I am not suggesting that all of our social needs must be met in the context of work — our romantic interests and partners would be quite upset — but I am suggesting that if the bulk of our time is spent in the work place that we should acknowledge our deeply human needs and listen to them as opposed to pretending they are not there.

Well before we learn to hide our need for others, you can see the limbic system very clearly. Infants, without a fully formed neo-cortex (which isn’t done until 25 years of age. Now do you understand Bieber’s poor judgement?), have a limbic system that is both evolving and is their driving force. Attachment Theory is a vast body of work that looks at this time in a human’s life and at how caregivers activate the growth of the limbic region through emotional availability and reciprocal gestures, sounds, etc. Attachment theory states that everyone is either 1) securely attached (that’s what we want) 2) anxious-avoidant 3) anxious-resistant or 4) disorganized.

Why does any of this matter? Psychologists now claim that our attachment experience influences thinking patterns, physical growth, emotional capacity, life satisfaction, relationships, and work performance.

The more securely attached that a child feels to their parents — or a employee attached to a leader, coworker, or organization – the more willing they are to take risks on behalf of the whole, the less likely they are to bore, the harder they will work, and the more likely they are to defend the integrity of the organization.

I never would have started a mug venture without Blaine. But because of our secure connection to one another I felt safe to put in my own money and time to create something that were unfamiliar with. Because we were strongly attached I worked harder than I would have with others. Because of the base of trust we built, I felt confident in giving of my time and energy without concern for getting something of equal or greater value in return.

Researcher Adam Grant agrees with this. In Give and Take he discovers that doing something meaningful for others is where the giver finds happiness. In other words, happiness at work, just like happiness anywhere else, comes when we meaningfully love.

So why is it that our offices look like cubicle farms? Why is it that we’ve presumed that work is to not be like a family? That value is economic and not anthropomorhphic? By refusing to acknowledge our most basic human needs we are ensuring that for 40+ hours a week we will struggle to find happiness.

So what if instead of learning each other’s Meyers Briggs we learned about each other’s families? What if instead of just sharing our goals and objectives for our business unit, we shared our goals for our lives? What if instead of just collaborating on the next product launch, we collaborated to more deeply understand what makes one another feel safe enough to risk to design an innovative product? What if instead of trying to be Type A executive types, we tried to be more like supportive and available mothers and fathers?

Love my co-rowkers? Start something with those I love? Even as I type this I hear my inner voice saying that all of this is “soft” and irrelevant to business or our happiness. But that’s my big, squishy, culturally informed neocortex talking. And as the aroma of the familiar sumatra coffee hits me, awakening my limbic brain, I take a sip of coffee from my familiar mug, and I recall the goodness that can come when my whole brain is engaged in my work. And I realize how deeply I want the same for you.


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