If there is one chemical in our body which can impact our well-being and creative performance, it might just be cortisol.
Cortisol is a natural hormone produced in our bodies with a number of functions, but one of the primary functions is to feelings of stress. This evolved hundreds of millions of years ago in order to protect us from danger.
For example, when we feel stressed, our bodies release cortisol in order to allow more glucose to be used in the body, such as by our legs to run away from danger or by our arms to fight and protect ourselves. However, at the same time the release of cortisol can negatively affect our immune system, since in the moments of danger it is more important to protect the body for immediate damage than longer term immune care.
This is why in short situations, acute release of cortisol is relatively harmless. After all, our ancestors were not being chased by predators 100% of the day. The issue is when we feel chronically stressed, and what might cause us to feel stressed.
Chronic stress levels, measured by cortisol in saliva, have been rising over time, and now a large proportion of the working population are regularly if not chronically stressed at work.
How can this be, since in developed countries there are far fewer direct threats to our immediate survival from things like predators, freezing weather, malnutrition and other things our caveman ancestors needed to worry about.
Well, it seems like one major thing which is stressing us out is the feeling we have of being judged at work or excluded from a group.
While it may not always feel like it, humans are an incredibly social animal, often having close bonds with more than a hundred other individuals, and being able to hold social connections with hundreds more. This social network is what allowed our ancestors to protect one another, which was beneficial for the group as well as every individual. It has even been shown that the security and stability that comes with being part of society is one of the key fundamental needs of humans. In our evolutionary ancestors like social monkeys, this need was especially important, and if an individual was banished from the group they would be not only less likely to breed and pass on their genes, but also be at a significantly higher risk to be killed by predators.
In fact, researchers have found that in monkeys, physical pain and pain as a result of social problems share many underlying mechanisms.
This is similar to studies in humans, which found that stress levels as measured by cortisol are significantly higher when we are excluded or feel a lack of social support.
For monkeys, and likely for humans, being excluded feels the same as physical pain or danger.
How does this feeling of stress impact our creativity in teams?
So why am I going on about hormones and monkey stress when I should be speaking about creativity and innovation?
Because this stress experience has a big impact on how innovation happens in teams and in companies.
So many people are afraid of sharing their ideas because they do not feel like the idea is perfect yet, and if they were to share an imperfect idea, the group would judge them negatively and even exclude them in the future.
As a result, millions of people, especially those whose personality is more introverted or who want harmony in the group, might never open up about what they really think, or what ideas they have.
You cannot blame them. As we just saw, the stress response just from the risk or thought of social exclusion can trigger the same stress response as physical pain. It is how we evolved.
So within a group, the fear and risk of social exclusion results in ideas never getting off the ground, or ideas being chosen which are the least risky or which offend the fewest people, rather than truly original or creative ideas.
That does not mean that all levels of stress are bad for creativity though.
While relaxed brains may be better able to think of divergent, original ideas, sometimes a certain level of stress can make someone more focused on the task they are working on.
Moderate levels of stress can lead to people being more focused and more creative, but above a certain stress level, creativity began to drop again, especially when people felt that they were not in control of the stress triggers.
One test even showed that moderate cortisol level increases helped improve creativity, but this creative performance dropped to negative again when stress triggered negative emotions.
So how do we reduce these negative stress emotions in our teams?
One of the best ways is to remove the judgement around sharing different ideas, or potential negative information, by establishing a culture of psychological safety.
Here is a list of ways which you can build a culture of psychological safety, as well as a great checklist for managers to see whether you are enabling and promoting psychological safety in your teams.
And if you ever feel that stress and fear before sharing your ideas, just remember that it is a remnant from our evolutionary past. Most likely, instead of excluding you from the group, your team will welcome your new ideas.
After all, we aren’t cavemen anymore.
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