Is Your Company Addicted to Dopamine?

The little ping is calling your name.  Despite your promise to put your phone away during dinner, you can’t resist checking.

We’re all familiar with the addictive nature of technology.  But technology itself is not the root problem; it’s merely a symptom.  The larger issue is our growing addiction to dopamine.  And the long-term implications are far worse than sneaking a peak at your cell phone.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that controls your brain’s reward and pleasure center.  It sparks feelings of enjoyment or gratification.  Unfortunately, it’s usually short-lived.  The satisfaction you get from a quick like on social media or even winning the annual sales contest quickly fades.  You’re left wanting more, and more.

Author and tech innovator Ellen Petry Leanse distinguishes between a quick hit of dopamine vs. the more lasting fulfillment of serotonin.  In her book The Happiness Hack, she says the domain of dopamine is ”associated with the chase of a desired object.  Indulging urges, being distracted, or having just one more, are generally dopamine-spiked behaviors that don’t usually lead to lasting satisfaction.”

Serotonin on the other hand is associated with alignment to a larger purpose and more long-term accomplishments.  Serotonin says Leanse, “increases feelings of worthiness, belonging and self-esteem.”

Said another way, too much dopamine can make you frantic.  Serotonin will make you focused.  Unfortunately many organizations are overly dopamine-driven.  Look at the scandals at Uber, or the banks that cheated customers, you see a pattern: employees looking for quick hits.  The short-term payoff for winning the contest, beating the other guy, or even, in the case of Uber, excessive partying and sexual harassment, are dopamine-driven behaviors.

In a quarterly capitalism environment, the problem continues to grow. During an event at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, former Facebook executive and current Social Capital CEO Chamath Palihapitiya said, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.”

He’s not exaggerating.  When leaders prioritize short-term payoff – Kill the competition and get a dopamine hit – over longer lasting purpose and impact  – Make a difference to clients and let the serotonin flow – poor results follow.  Excessively dopamine-driven organizations produce three predictable problems:

  1. Transactional relationships – Just as dopamine causes you to turn away from loved ones in favor of your phone, it prompts employees to turn away from customers and each other in pursuit of self-gain.  People are more likely to make shortsighted deals, damage relationships, and cut margin to win. Teammates and customers become objects, pawns in the game of self-interest.
  2. Lack of strategic thinking – When you’re addicted to quick hits, next year is irrelevant.  A team on dopamine does not think deeply about the future, they’re less likely to innovate, or spot potential threats.  They don’t look around the corner, they only look right in front.
  3. Ethical lapses – When the incentive is to win at all costs, employees will go to any length to avoid perceived failure. Addiction to dopamine creates environments ripe for cheating and stealing.

Leanse says, “For all the good dopamine does – motivating us, helping us learn – it can drive distraction, impulsivity, and lack of self control.”

Poor leaders don’t ignite either brain chemical; their organizations stay depressed.  A dopamine-driven short-term culture is slightly better, but not by much.  It flames, then fades.  If you want lasting results, think about serotonin.  Align your team against a larger purpose, and reward the long-term.