Marmalade Fish is a management consultancy working with leading global businesses to create a high performance culture underpinned by values. You’ll be forgiven for thinking that choosing our own company values came easily. Not so.

Every organisation has an ambition or purpose that they wish to realise, be it to implement a growth strategy, shift from domestic to global operations, or improve in the rankings of a particular survey or industry award. It seemed natural, therefore, that we would have a value of ‘driven’ – driven to perform for the companies who engage us.

Yet it soon became apparent that being driven to perform and succeed is not necessarily where high performance lies. At my cycling spinning class, public recognition is given at the end of the class to the individuals who complete at the top of the ‘power’ board. Often the winners achieve the highest scores by disregarding the instructors’ guidance throughout the class and competing in their own race. There are no judgments here, simply an observation that we seem to be recognised by the ‘what’ more than the ‘how’ in many facets of our life.

So, if this is how we behave outside of work, I wonder what’s behind it and if there is a physiological advantage to behaving this way.

We all have inside us ‘happiness chemicals’:

  • Endorphins diminish our perceptions of pain. They keeps us going during work-outs, give us a ‘runner’s high’, and help us to endure difficulties. They are good for those late nights and 70+ hour weeks.
  • Serotonin provides the feeling of significance, pride and status. It drives us to seek the recognition of others. “I want to do it for my parents, my boss, my wife.” It reinforces the sense of relationships with the group and allegiance.
  • Oxytocin creates intimacy and trust – the feeling that someone will protect you. Mums, babies, partners feel this when they are protected and loved.
  • Dopamine motivates us to achieve incremental goals and rewards motivated behaviour. It’s almost like the ‘greed’ function of our brain. Dopamine makes us feel good when we check things off the ‘to do list’ or get through project milestones and is highly addictive.

But there is a backwards notion about how business works, because we do not understand the biology of what motivates and inspires human behaviour. Simon Sinek argues that these chemicals – over the long evolutionary arc – have wired us to be driven and submit to organisational culture and hierarchy. We ignore serotonin and oxytocin because we can’t see the effects on a daily basis. We can, however, see the effects of dopamine in the workplace. Indeed, business incentive and recognition systems based on getting a raise for hitting a goal are dopamine incentives.

The problem is dopamine can be highly addictive, and is also released by alcohol, nicotine and gambling. In unhealthy corporate environments or deficient cultures, we can get addicted to performance and ignore the rules to ensure we achieve the next hit. In environments like this, there is also an increase in cortisol (stress, anxiety), which inhibits oxytocin and thereby reduces our capacity for empathy and trust.

Of course, we have to have performance. The point is that it is unbalanced when the predominant means by which we reward and recognise is by numbers.

If you find yourself thinking ‘I need to deliver on this in order to get into the talent pool’, ‘this meeting/ presentation must go well or else…’ – or indeed ‘just one more point’ in a cycling class – it may well be that you are operating in ‘drive’.

At Marmalade Fish, we want to enjoy the process as much as the outcome. At the core, our values are to be authentic and progressive.