Book club: Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last

We all know the difference between feeling safe at work and feeling under threat. We’ve heard the horror stories of managers who like to restructure regularly to keep people uncomfortable, or those who won’t print business cards because it makes employees think they’ll have job security.

Any environment where people feel unsafe is likely to be less productive than one in which they do feel safe. It’s a matter of common sense; and biology according to Simon Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last.

In it, Simon talks about the four chemicals that drive much of human behaviour. These include the ‘selfish’ chemicals of dopamine and endorphins, and the ‘selfless’ chemicals of oxytocin and serotonin. Put simply, these are the chemicals that make us feel a certain way.

  • Endorphins are the pain-relief chemicals released when we need to keep going. They can help us relax, and we usually get them from manual labour or exercise, as well as from laughing.
  • Dopamine gives us a rush when we accomplish a goal. It’s coincidentally the same chemical that’s released when we see a new ‘like’ on our Facebook posts, for example.
  • Serotonin is the feeling of pride we get when others recognise our achievements.
  • Oxytocin is the feeling of friendship, love, or deep trust.

When these four chemicals are in the right balance, we are driven to work hard, help each other, and recognise each other’s achievements. If one chemical is dominant, such as dopamine, people may be more motivated to work only for their own advancement rather than for the good of others.

The circle of safety

When it comes to why people pull together, one of the basic reasons is because they feel like the other members of their team would do the same for them. This feeling of cooperative teamwork is fostered when people feel safe inside what Sinek calls the ‘circle of safety’.

People who feel safe, in their jobs or their relationships, are more likely to admit (and fix) mistakes, innovate, and succeed. When people don’t feel safe inside the circle, they waste energy fending off attacks from those closest to them.

There are two contrasting examples of how the circle of safety plays out in organisations:

  • when Jack Welch ran GE, people were encouraged to be selfish and status-driven. People felt unsafe, and sought to feel safe by out-performing their colleagues, whatever the cost.
  • James Sinegal was the cofounder of Costco who treated employees like family and fostered a culture where workers looked out for each other rather than competing with each other.

The result is that, between 1986 and 2013, those who invested in Costco would have realised a 1,200 per cent return. Those who invested in GE over the same time would have realised half of that: 600 per cent. Either way, it’s a good return, but the Costco example demonstrates that a people-first approach will yield better results over the long term than a cut-throat approach.

Many of the team agreed that Leaders Eat Last is less groundbreaking than it is a good compendium of common sense and well-understood social concepts that make the difference between safe and productive workplaces and unsafe, inefficient workplaces. Its value is in the anecdotes, which colourfully illustrate the concepts, bringing them to life in ways that today’s managers can relate to.

Bringing the circle of safety to life

No one needs to be told that it’s much more satisfying to work in a safe, collegiate environment where your teammates are willing to help you and no one is trying to undermine you.

We’ve created a circle of safety for our team by actively discouraging office politics. Our flat structure and strong culture mean everyone has a chance to lead. Importantly, we encourage everyone to consider mistakes as a natural part of the learning process, not necessarily as a sign of incompetence.

We hire according to these principles; we want to work with people who get excited about the idea of pulling together as a team.

As a leader, I often hear stories about team members going the extra mile to help each other. They do it without fuss or fanfare. They do it because they know that, one day, they’ll be the ones looking for help and they know their teammates will be there for them.

I love hearing these stories because they confirm that our circle of safety is strong, which means everyone is working for the same goal. No one is distracted by inside politics or fear for their livelihood. We’re free to think big, innovate, and reach our potential. While we may stumble along the way, there will be plenty of hands ready to help us up, dust us off, and lead us in the right direction. It’s a pretty inspiring way to run a business.



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