Testosterone Is Killing Your Company. Here’s What to Do About It.

December 12, 2018

If you’ve ever watched a group of young children play, you will notice that boys tend to be rougher, louder and generally more rowdy than girls. Of course there are exceptions to this but without delving too much into gender politics, this is an observation which tends to be universal. Why? Some argue that boys have more testosterone (which is associated with more aggressive qualities) whilst others insist that they are a product of social conditioning. Boys are told they should be aggressive and see it around them so they behave that way too.

The truth lies somewhere in between.

Whilst boys do have more testosterone surging through them, social conditioning may in fact be responsible for part of that increase in testosterone. Studies show that in “alpha” or highly-driven work cultures, the testosterone levels of every worker is increased, both men and women.

Managers in such circumstances deliberately create a culture of competitiveness to drive performance. Workers are then constantly trying to outperform each other which, contrary to popular belief, results in worse overall performance because they also actively undermine each other’s work.

Back in the 1980’s, creating a competitive work culture worked. In fact, it was actively encouraged. Big names of the era such as Jack Welch (CEO of General Electric) lauded the benefits of an ultra-competitive work culture and his success with the growth of GE provided the evidence that other companies needed to adopt a similar culture in their own workplaces.

Jack Welch
Jack Welch, CEO of GE from 1981-2001, was known as “Neutron Jack” for his ruthless approach to ranking employees.

GE, Microsoft and other corporate behemoths of the time systematically created a culture of competitiveness by instituting ranking systems which compelled employees to work harder than their peers. The “rank and yank” or stack ranking system pioneered by Jack Welch would involve annual reviews for all employees and the bottom 10% of the pack would then consistently be fired. This approach was adopted by many of the major companies at the time but over the last couple of decades, this increasingly unpopular system has begun to show its cracks.

Denise Rousseau, of Carnegie Mellon University, reports that the benefit of the stack ranking system can quickly turn into a cost if it is done repeatedly. “You can quickly end up with the people in the bottom quartile being average performers rather than poor performers. There is nothing wrong with being an average performer in an above-average workforce. A lot of good work is done by average people.”

Naturally, this extreme selectivity means the performance of the overall team suffers. This eventually creates a high-stress, highly toxic work culture where competitiveness and dominance behaviours begin to cause distrust, silos, politics and fear which further drives this toxic culture of dominance. It becomes a never-ending cycle of negativity, and testosterone is the chief biochemical factor behind it.

One of the primary results of a testosterone-driven culture is that extreme competitiveness becomes part of the fiber of the company. This may seem like a positive outcome but as described above, it isn’t.

In addition to creating high employee turnover which costs way more than it adds, no-one really wins in the long-term because whilst highly-driven workers eventually fall prey to disengagement and burn-out. The rest of the crew would’ve burnt-out way before and are quite ready to quit by the time the company realises something’s wrong. You invariably end up with a company full of takers- the givers have usually already left.

Dr. Nicole Lipkin, an internationally recognised leadership expert, calls this lack of cooperation the "us versus them mentality," which occurs when people feel so alienated from other team members that they no longer feel they are a part of their team—despite working in the same company.

Over the last couple of decades, the stack ranking system has increasingly been dropped by large companies. GE dropped it officially a couple of years ago in favour of a system which prizes continuous feedback. Many other big companies have also relaxed their adherence to stack ranking systems and are focusing instead on systems based on giving and receiving feedback.

“The world isn’t really on an annual cycle anymore for anything.” GE’s head of HR, Susan Peters says. “I think some of it to be really honest is millennial based. It’s the way millennials are used to working and getting feedback, which is more frequent, faster, mobile-enabled, so there were multiple drivers that said it’s time to make this big change.”

Studies show that companies that foster a culture of cooperation have happier employees, higher retention rates and generally perform better than those based on ranking systems. That’s not to say that competition is a bad thing. Competition often occurs naturally because people try to "enhance the status of the group to which they belong" and in small amounts, is good for team performance. However, this divisive way of thinking should never get to a point where individuals within a team or organisation no longer feel like they are working toward the same goal. A great way to find a happy balance between competition and cooperation is to gamify individual and team performance.

According to Yu Kai, a gamification expert, healthy workplace competition is characterised by:

On the flipside, competition does not work in situations where team members are solely focused on not being the “loser”

WeQu Thaesis Theo Huibers
WeQ gamifies the team feedback experience and enhances cooperation levels within teams.

So how do you create a culture of cooperation and healthy competition?

First, you need to understand some basic neurochemistry. When people are in a state of fear, it activates the fight or flight response. Our bodies are flooded with the stress hormone, cortisol, which wreaks havoc on the body in many different ways.

Cortisol is released in response to high levels of testosterone to try and reduce the level of the hormone so the more testosterone-fueled your organisation, the more cortisol your workers are dealing with. Not only does this cause conditions like diabetes and cancer in the long-term but if it is activated too often, it has immediate effects on sleep, mood and weight control. Suffice to say, a sleepless, moody worker struggling to maintain his/her weight is not going to be very productive. So the logical strategy would be to remove any factors associated with fear within the organisation and to recreate a company culture that is based on cooperation not competition.

To create a culture of cooperation, you first need to foster a culture of trust.

Oxytocin is known as the trust or the love hormone. It’s the hormone that helps you feel close to others, care for them and want to work alongside them. Without it, mothers couldn’t bond with their offspring, romantic relationships would never last and friendships would not exist. Oxytocin is the driver behind long-term cooperation and trust. It evokes feelings of trust and also feeds off positivity in the external environment.

Paul Zak Oxytocin
Paul Zak is an expert on the relationship between trust levels and team performance. His research on oxytocin levels has taken from the boardrooms of Fortune 50 companies to the rainforests of Papua New Guinea.

One of the easiest ways to create positivity within your team is by encouraging a culture of giving compliments. Compliments and positive feedback go a long way to enhancing the morale of a team but on its own, it won’t foster trust.

People have learnt to mistrust compliments in the workplace or at least, take them with a grain of salt. They know that it usually precedes a feedback sandwich (which never works) and in the case of a previously testosterone-driven environment, will likely be suspicious of sudden attempts to be “nice”.

The best way to deal with this is by creating a psychologically safe environment where team members feel safe enough to express both compliments and constructive feedback where necessary (See how Google does). This will create a culture of honesty and gratitude between team-members and build a culture of deep cooperation. Rather than hindering competition, it will keep it in check and keep at healthy levels which will drive workers to work collectively for the greater good rather than for themselves. Instead of hiding what they truly think, team-members will feel liberated by the chance to say what’s really on their mind and to engage openly and honestly with each other. This naturally increases the levels of oxytocin, lowers cortisol and contributes to building a more productive and cooperative team.

Not sure how to start building a culture of cooperation based on psychological safety? Book in a chat with us at WeQ and we’d be happy to talk you through it.

Author

Ohyoon Kwon
Ohyoon Kwon is the Founder of WeQ. His background in design thinking has led him to explore the intersection between gamification and building high-performance teams. Ohyoon is passionate about creating amazing user experiences and bringing teams closer together.

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