I recently finished Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. In the book, Sinek demonstrates how work environments impact five different chemicals in the human body: Endorphins, Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin, and Cortisol. Endorphins mask physical pain with pleasure in times of stress or fear (the “runner’s high”). Dopamine rewards goal oriented behavior with a rush of pleasure when we complete something we set out to do. Serotonin releases feelings of pride and pleasure when we feel like people like or respect us. Oxytocin generates a sense of love, friendship, or deep contentment when we see people we like and trust. Cortisol triggers flight or fight instincts in times of high stress or danger.
Since these chemicals impact the way humans survive and interact with one another, they play an important role in work environments. High stress, competitive environments where employees feel powerless and pressured to produce big or risk losing their jobs produce unhealthy, chemically imbalanced workers. This imbalance applies to CEOs and janitors alike, regardless of perceived job pressure. (In fact, the imbalance likely impacts the janitor more if he feels powerless to change the situation.)
In jobs that emphasize short-term results over long-term relationships, workers depend on their survival chemicals: Endorphins, Dopamine, and Cortisol. This creates an environment where people live in a “flight or fight” mentality and are constantly stressed about meeting high goals and expectations. When Cortisol is released, the body shuts down “unnecessary” systems, including the immune system. This impacts a person’s physical and mental well-being. However, because of Endorphins and Dopamine, it doesn’t feel like a constant barrage. It can feel good and even addicting. These chemicals, however, only mask the damage caused by stress, they don’t fix it.
Further, with work environments that foster uncertainty and anxiety come lowered levels of Serotonin and Oxytocin – meaning people feel less appreciated, content, and socially engaged at work. Where jobs are highly competitive, employees view each other as competitors instead of allies. People feel less comfortable sharing ideas, making mistakes, or collaborating on projects. This impacts not only a company’s ability to thrive, but the individual’s.
A prime example of an unhealthy business environment would be General Electric at the end of the 1980s. At the end of each year, the bottom 10% of GE managers whose divisions contributed least to the company’s share price were fired. If the bottom 10% automatically get fired and you see someone struggling, would you help them out? Probably not. You would be putting your own job at risk.
However, more than isolating employees, such environments also foster unethical behavior. When short-term goals matter above all else, things like honesty, integrity, and compliance fall to the wayside. People focus on survival, and when that behavior gets rewarded, they get a Dopamine hit and continue to behave that way. Spread out over time, this behavior leads to corruption and the eventual downfall of a company.
As an avid reader of business books that emphasize the importance of culture, Sinek’s analysis did not surprise me. It shouldn’t surprise you either. People want fulfilling jobs. Humans weren’t designed for constant, high-level stress. It is easy to recognize bad practices in a business.
Yet this stressful, high-pressure, chemically imbalanced environment reflects the very culture that is expected, even rewarded, in the legal profession.
Want to go “big law”? Think long hours and high stress loads. Want to work in criminal law? Prosecutor or defense attorney, someone’s freedom now depends on you. Want to work at a boutique firm, or even start your own law firm? Gotta make sure you make enough to pay off those heavy student loans. How do you pay those off? You take on more jobs, create a higher stress load, and keep going, going, going. For each client, you must strive for justice. Money is at stake. Freedom is at stake. Your ability, or lack of ability, impacts countless lives.
Is it any wonder the legal profession is rife with alcoholism and ranks third in suicides behind doctors and dentists?
The pressure doesn’t begin once you land your first job: it starts pre-law school. Where you work often depends on where you go to law school. The best jobs go to the best schools. Early on driven, goal-oriented people with a natural affinity for Dopamine stand out and get into the schools. Once in the school, the best employers take only the best students. This is the way of the world. You are now competing against your classmates, and because law school grades on a curve, this isn’t a place where everyone can do well. You either receive one of the scarce As, or you don’t. If there are limited As, are you going to help your classmate get one? Not if it hurts your chances. Goodbye Serotonin and Oxytocin, this is not the place for you.
Law school is 3 years. For 3 years, you can survive anything, right? You can survive finals worth 100% of your grade (STRESSSSS!) You can survive competitive classmates and high interest rates on your loans. You can survive…sure, your Cortisol is firing but your Endorphins and Dopamine tell you it is okay. And maybe it would be okay if it actually ended in 3 years, but that isn’t the way the legal profession works. In the real world, law school is child’s play. But this too will be okay, you’ve learned to cope. Probably through alcohol. Definitely through something addictive. Want to make partner in a firm? Want to save the world? Of course you do. Time to get to work. Hit me with the Dopamine.
What happens in the business world when the wrong things get incentivized? Companies become corrupt and self-destruct. Now imagine what happens when you wrongly incentive a whole profession.
Is it any wonder lawyers get a bad rap? Lawyers are stigmatized as ethic-less and money-hungry. Yet the law is designed as an adversarial system where every case comes with high stakes and in law school we are taught to deal with that pressure through isolation and alcoholism. Culturally, we’ve created a chemically imbalanced environment for the very people we entrust with justice. I am sure there are lawyers and law firms that overcome this. There might even be law schools out there seeking balance. It is still a huge problem, however, and not one that only affects those who “have a personality for the law.” Just take a look at our justice system.
I don’t know what the solution is, or if there even is one. I do know that change needs to happen and it needs to start in our law schools.