skip navigation nih record
Vol. LXVII, No. 16
July 31, 2015

previous story

next story

Build Loyalty by Creating a Safe Environment, Sinek Advises

On the front page...

Simon Sinek speaks at NIH.

Simon Sinek speaks at NIH.

To cultivate loyalty among those who report to them, leaders should strive to create an environment in which employees feel secure. That’s the advice ethnographer and leadership expert Simon Sinek offered at a recent Deputy Director for Management Seminar in Masur Auditorium.

“The natural response to safety is trust and cooperation,” he said. “We work together to face the dangers and seize the opportunities. If we do not feel safe among our own, our natural inclination is to mistrust each other, mistrust our leaders and look out for ourselves.”


Sinek said leaders can foster trust and loyalty by offering incentives that get employees to act in their own best interests, such as using bonuses to reward outstanding work.

“It turns out the human body works exactly the same way as an organization,” he noted. “There’s a system of chemical rewards that’s designed to reward us when we perform behavior that’s in our best interests.”

According to Sinek, feelings such as pride, joy, happiness or love can be mostly explained by four brain chemicals: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. They helped our ancestors thrive in a dangerous world for thousands of years. Even though the world has changed, these chemicals still influence people.

Endorphins mask physical pain. Sinek noted that these chemicals helped our ancestors continue to look for food even when they were tired or injured. Today, endorphins are produced in response to vigorous exercise.

“Dopamine is responsible for the feeling we get when we find something we’re looking for, or when we accomplish something,” he said.

“Leaders set the environment and they get the environment they set,” Sinek said.

“Leaders set the environment and they get the environment they set,” Sinek said.

Photos: Bill Branson

Dopamine comes with “fine print,” he warned. It’s highly addictive. Behaviors like smoking a cigarette, drinking alcohol or gambling trigger its release.

Sinek called endorphins and dopamine “selfish” compounds, because “you don’t need anybody’s help to get them,” he said. The feelings they evoke, however, don’t last. People have to do the same thing over and over to experience them again.

“The other two chemicals exist to balance endorphins and dopamine out,” he said. “These are the chemicals that make us human.”

Serotonin is the “leadership chemical.” It’s responsible for feelings of pride, status and self-confidence. It activates when people are publicly recognized. He said college graduation ceremonies are examples of serotonin at work. When a graduate walks across the stage, serotonin activates. At the same time, the chemical also activates in his or her parents. Everyone feels proud.

Sinek said serotonin builds loyalty and trust in organizations. When leaders support their employees, they respond by working hard. Employees don’t want to let their leaders down. So they do their best.

Oxytocin is released through human touch and proximity. It’s why people hang out with their friends even if they are just watching television. People are social animals. They enjoy each other’s company.

Another way oxytocin is released is by acts of goodwill or generosity, when people give up their time and expect nothing in return. People often admire and value those who give something away and don’t expect to get something back. He added that people on the receiving end of such acts of generosity also receive an oxytocin boost.

“This is our body’s way of trying desperately to get us to look after each other, because it feels really good when we do,” he said. The buildup of oxytocin also boosts the immune system. “Generous people are happier and happier people live longer.”

Like getting in shape, becoming a leader doesn’t happen overnight, Sinek said. It requires education, learning and practicing empathy and concern for others. After a while, though, it gets easier. In return, employees become more loyal, work hard and become more engaged and productive.

“Leaders set the environment and they get the environment they set,” he said.

back to top of page