Tools & Templates

Negativity and how it affects your inner chemistry

If you feel that you spend more time and energy thinking about negative comments and conversations than positive ones then you’re not alone. According to Judith and Richard E. Glaser in Harvard Business Review, it’s because the hormone that’s produced when we encounter criticism, rejection or anxiety remains in our bodies much longer than the hormone that’s produced when we receive positive comments and participate in positive conversations.


When we experience a negative conversation the hormone cortisol is released. For instance, when we’re exposed to criticism, rejection, fear or when we feel marginalized or minimized.


Cortisol makes us become reactive and sensitive and we often perceive judgment and negativity more intense than they really are. This effect can last for 26 hours or even more. Cortisol also affects our memories and enhances the effect the experience has on our future behavior. And that’s not all: The more you think about it, the longer the effect lasts.


On the other hand, positive comments and conversations produce another hormone – oxytocin – also known as the “happy hormone”. Oxytocin makes us better at communicating, cooperating and trusting other people. But oxytocin leaves our body much faster than cortisol, so the effect is far less dramatic and doesn’t last as long.


This is an insight that’s important to understand for all of us – but perhaps leaders in particular – because our actions and behavior affect the chemistry in everyone around us. Either in a positive or a negative way.


Conversational intelligence

Conversational intelligence (C-IQ) is a person’s ability to connect and to think innovatively, empathetically, creatively and strategically with other people. Negative behavior increases your level of cortisol and decreases your C-IQ. On the other hand, behavior that increases your level of oxytocin, increases your conversational intelligence.


The authors have examined how leaders thought they were doing, in relation to different ways of behaving, and asked them to assess how often they used the following 10 types of behavior:


  1. Concern for others
  2. Truthful about what’s on mind
  3. Stimulate discussion/curiosity
  4. Paint picture of mutual success
  5. Open to difficult conversations
  6. Don’t trust other’s intentions
  7. Focused on convincing others
  8. Others are not understanding
  9. Pretend to be listening
  10. Emotions detract from listening


While 1-5 are oxytocin-promoting types of behavior, 6-10 are cortisol-promoting types of behavior. As the authors say, the good news is that it seems leaders use positive oxytocin and C-IQ-promoting types of behavior more than negative behavior.  But, the study also showed that most of the subjects, 85 %, also act from time to time in ways that could hurt both specific interactions and future cooperation. When leaders use both types of behavior, it creates dissonance or uncertainty in the coworker’s brain, and it increases the level of cortisol and reduces their C-IQ level.


The authors emphasize that of course, these results don’t mean we can’t demand results or provide difficult feedback to our employees. It’s merely important to do those things the right way so the recipient feels included and supported in order to minimize the level of cortisol and hopefully stimulate oxytocin instead.