The Stupid Virus

Why your team is making the same mistakes over and over and what to do about it.

There may be a disease-like problem flowing through your organisation. The symptoms may manifest as people or teams that keep making the same mistakes, or just don’t seem to be able to learn. Or that the team never seems to make a decision on something and it just keeps raising its head, meeting after meeting.

No matter the symptom, the band-aid is in you, their leader, having to take the reins on solving problems or needing to repeating instructions. Resulting in sheer frustration that you are simply not progressing as you’d like. Feeling like the team is holding you back.

But what if the disease comes from the top?

A brief history of survival

There is a chemical that occurs in our bodies that has kept us safe for thousands of years. When clans people of past were presented with a life threatening danger (a bear or a rather hungry lion) their body was flooded with cortisol, the ‘fight or flight’ hormone that enables us to either run or fight. The cortisol enabled their body to quickly draw from their glucose stores for instant energy to take physical action while narrowing their field of awareness to focus on what they needed to do to survive.

When their body produced cortisol, it suppressed the other parts of the body. After all they didn’t need to worry about things like forming new memories, make long-term decisions, if you might not live past the next few minutes.

Stupid is as stupid does

What’s all this talk of cortisol got to do with being ‘stupid’ in the modern age? Well we still produce cortisol, but many produce it constantly as a result of stress.

Our bodies are not designed to be under chronic (constant) stress. As our brain continually thinks we are in danger, those parts of the brain, managed by the hippocampus – long-term memory storage and recall and spatial awareness – are kept mostly shut down.

Let’s think about it. What happens when your team can’t turn short term memories into long-term ones? It actually makes the ability to learn new processes and systems physically impossible. They’re not ‘being’ stupid, or refusing to learn, they simply cannot take something that they are meant to be learning now and turn it into a long-term memory.

If you add to that, the fact that the brain is also unable to recall any other past learnings, or can’t apply those learnings, the problem is doubled. If you feel like you’re repeatedly teaching a team or a person a new process, and it’s not being implemented properly and steps are being missed, or it’s not being done at all, then this could be what’s making them appear stupid.

A health and safety nightmare

The other part that is affected by our hippocampus is our spatial awareness (think tunnel vision). As the brain shuts this part of the hippocampus, that is deemed ‘non-essential’ in a fight or flight situation, the result is in a more accident-prone individual. If this team is operating in an office environment, then the worst case scenario is that they knock a cup of coffee over on their laptop, but think about teams working in a manufacturing environment. The health and safety implications can be huge, with an immensely increased risk of falls from ladders, injury from machinery or even walking in front of a vehicle. And if that team member can’t remember how to operate by the safety process that the organisation has supplied, then the danger is even worse!

Sick of sick days?

Chronic stress also affects the immune system and digestion. After all, there is no point for the body to spend energy fighting a virus or digesting lunch when there might not be a tomorrow. When rates of colds and flus skyrocket in a team and so the absences due to sickness, it will affect productivity as well as moral.

When the body is never digesting food properly as it does under the influence of stress, and as a result not getting the nutrients and energy it needs from the digestion process, then teams will appear lethargic and lazy, reducing the productivity and effectiveness of teams or individuals.

Chemical warfare

How do we overcome the effects of cortisol? When you think about the reason the body is producing it – to escape or fight – then it makes sense that the way we reduce it is by doing the thing that our body is gearing us up for, to move!

There are two chemicals that our body produce that the body uses to bring our cortisol levels back into check. They are what we class as ‘reward hormones’, called endorphins and oxytocin.

Endorphins are that natural high we get when we exercise. The body releases it to mask pain and as a result makes us feel good. It also allows us to be able to spend longer exercising, thus burning through more cortisol.

We can also release endorphins when we laugh. Or smile. As a leader you can encourage endorphins by playing to that human side of your teams and their innate desire to help others. By supporting teamwork and cooperation in teams and across the organisation then the reward system in the brain will produce endorphins.

The other cortisol battler is oxytocin. This is produced when a person is acknowledged, hugged or supported by another person. It’s a bonding hormone that helps us to work together as a team. And as you can imagine, this bonding is also going to help reduce stupidity.

Supported, not stupid

When you operate your organisation under a banner of support and encouragement, as opposed to fear and intimidation, the positive impact is amplified. By encouraging an environment of support when someone is learning something, then the fear of looking stupid or being treated like an imbecile is removed, so is the cortisol, and therefore the stupidity. That’s right, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Treat them like they are not stupid and they won’t be. But if you treat them like they can’t be taught and you’ll also be right!

There is no magic bullet when it comes to turning around an unproductive team. It takes a while to change an organisation at a cultural level. And turning around individuals can take just as long as they need to feel that the supportive environment is not going to be a phase that management is going through. But if there was one thing that you could do, is ensure consistency. Make changes, see how they are received, adjust and then continue to develop the foundations for an organisation that is as healthy and robust as the people that make it.