Reformulate Your Workplace to Cure a Toxic Environment
May 8, 2008

Brain Chemistry

We hear a lot about the toxic workplace these days, and some of us can relate to the news. No one wants to work in an unhealthy environment. Poor morale and unnecessary stress are detrimental to employees and company alike. Caught in a downward spiral, the toxic workplace can feel like a pit of quicksand, pulling everyone down without hope of escape. Sometimes it seems there is no cure for the problem; personality conflicts and unavoidable stress cannot be resolved and people just have to accept the situation. A toxic workplace can be turned around and a positive environment that energizes everyone involved can be created. The human brain is an amazing tool. It is capable of analyzing and manipulating its environment to suit its needs. By understanding how the brain works and capitalizing on its capacity to process and learn, you can effectively reprogram a negative situation for a positive outcome.

Step 1: Understand Brain Chemistry

Advances in neuroscience and psychology have led to fascinating findings about how the brain works. Thanks to MRI imaging technology, scientists have discovered that the part of the brain that responds to emotional pain is the same part that responds to physical pain. This means that, to the brain, emotional pain is just as detrimental as physical pain.

Scientists have also discovered that "fairness" is very important to the brain. A situation perceived as fair lights up the same part of the brain as seeing a loved one or tasting good food does. Situations perceived as unfair light up the part of the brain that feels disgust. Positive experiences lead to the production of serotonin, a chemical in the brain that can improve performance. Negative or painful experiences cause the secretion of cortisol, a chemical that has an adverse effect on memory, mood and mental function. Unfairness also stimulates the amygdala. Long-term stimulation of the amygdala clouds judgment and reduces the brain's ability to function.

By creating an environment of fairness and discouraging belligerence, you not only make employees happier, you improve their brain chemistry. This leads to better performance and increased morale. It can even improve learning and retention, since the same mechanisms that help the brain function help it retain information. This can be done by giving genuine praise to employees and providing positive recognition. Take steps to ensure fairness and implement policies and practices that employees can rely upon to provide evenhandedness.

Step 2: Improve Brain Chemistry

Prolonged stress will literally shrink your brain. Stress leads to cortisol and cortisol shrinks the hippocampus, the part of your brain that stores memory. It can also depress your mood, suppress your immune system and shorten your life span. While some stress is unavoidable, steps can be taken to minimize the effects of stress on the brain.

Exercise improves the flow of oxygen to your brain and reduces stress. Even as little as ten minutes of vigorous exercise can improve brain function. Aerobic activities that focus on increasing blood flow to the brain will promote calm.

Another way to reduce the effect of stress on the brain is to provide clear information. Uncertainty in the brain leads to fear and adrenaline overload. This reduces functioning and decision-making capabilities. Providing people with the most information possible, even in a negative situation, can reduce uncertainty. For example, according to David Rock, founder and chief executive officer of Results Coaching Systems, "If layoffs are coming and you say to a team, 'We don't know when we will have information,' you will drive people crazy. However, if you say, 'We don't have information on the layoffs, but we will in four weeks,' logically, you haven't said who will be laid off, but you have given the brain a higher amount of certainty."

Step 3: Reprogram the Brain and Get It Involved

Behavior is learned. Every time you do something, you make new connections in the brain related to that task, and eventually you get better at it. This applies to both positive and negative behavior. Many people feel the need to vent, believing that it is better to get the negativity out of their system. But, as far as the brain is concerned, venting can actually have the opposite of the desired effect. The more you vent, the more you train your brain to vent. You train your brain to focus on negativity instead of focusing on problem solving and you spread conflict to those around you. You even increase your need to vent, meaning that you get angrier quicker when you are stressed.

Instead of training the brain to vent, the brain can be trained to resolve problems positively. Asking someone who complains about a problem to present a solution and working with him or her to solve the problem will begin reprogramming the brain to stop the negative cycle. Recognizing the contributions of problem solvers will stimulate their reward centers and encourage conflict resolution among others.

The brain likes to be in control. The more control the brain feels over its environment, the safer it feels and the better it performs. The more people can be involved in the decision making processes that effect their lives, the better they will function. The perception that they have control over a changing situation helps people accept the change and invest in the process. Decision-making stimulates brain growth and helps program the brain to move towards the desired outcome. Whenever a meeting can be made into an interactive activity, instead of a lecture, employees will retain more of the information presented and be more involved in implementing the change. Two-way communication is important. Instead of simply telling someone they need to improve sales, discuss how to improve sales and encourage their brains to focus on the solution.

By focusing on positive brain function, you can stop playing chemical roulette with a toxic workplace and create an atmosphere of respect and fairness where both the company and employees can thrive.


1. Weber, Ellen. MITA Brain Based Business Leadership. Accessed: 13 Apr. 2008.

2. Fox, Adrienne. The Brain At Work. HR Magazine. Mar. 2008. Accessed: 13 Apr. 2008.

3. Neuroscience Education Resources. Society for Neuroscience. Accessed: 13 Apr. 2008.

4. Weber, Ellen. I Just Need to Vent. 9 Oct. 2006. Brain Based Business. Accessed: 13 Apr. 2008.

About the author:

This article was co-authored by Kimberly Runyan and Don Bowlby. Kimberly Runyan is one of Corexcel's Senior Content Specialists. Don Bowlby is the Vice President, Operations at Corexcel, a company specializing in online continuing education and workforce training. For more information about Corexcel and the training materials they offer, visit

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