Weaving business and people together

Welsh cakes, Oxytocin and Conference Calls.

March 17th, 2015


Welsh cakes

My team plumber blog led to a couple of requests for blogs on specific themes, one of which was some thoughts on the management and leadership of virtual teams. Many of us are now part of global, dispersed teams. Much has been written about why the world needs dispersed teams; and how to make them work. I don’t think I can add much wisdom here. A quick summary is that it’s vital to have a good task-related process for sharing information and negotiating conflict. Knowing each other’s skills, agreeing communication systems and ground rules for working together is also important, as is attending to social process. Essentially: you need to be an extra-good manager to make a dispersed team work. If you can do that, your team will end up better than a non-diverse team who share an office every day.

What I couldn’t find, in my quick scan, was anything describing specifically what neuro-science has to offer on making dispersed teams work. So I had a little think about what might be useful. I reflected also about my own experience of being part of the stock-in-trade communication process of the global team: the conference call. Frankly: they’re not much fun. Even really well-managed calls can lack the little touches of humanity which make working life worth-while: humour, spontaneity, kindness, appreciation, a feeling of shared achievement, the little rites and rituals of daily life, like the coffee break, the sharing of a chocolate bar, the regular shared joke. The worst conference calls are the so-called ‘cadence calls’. These require reports on targets where each individual is grilled on the reasons for non-achievement. In fact: speared, grilled and then deep-fried. They don’t have to be like that.

So here’s what I could find in the neuro-science field that may be helpful.

Oxytocin. An amazing hormone, sometimes called the feel-good hormone which is released after orgasm, childbirth, during breast-feeding and for many, after eating chocolate. It’s common to both genders, however. The interesting thing is that oxytocin is also released after small acts of kindness, generosity, appreciation, and it begets generosity in return. We think more kindly towards others when we receive kindness.

Mirror neurons. These are a bit spooky. Our pain neurons (brain cells) fire in response to seeing someone else’s pain. It looks as if a visual stimulus makes them fire more, but that may be the limitations of the experimental model. Much of the research has been when people are shown painful things; and it’s likely that people’s behaviour starts reflecting that of others around them. In the conference call example, everyone might start behaving badly because they are infected by each other’s response. Neurologically, it’s possible that the opposite is true. So seeing positive emotions and constructive behaviours generates the same.

Loneliness and pain: Caccioppo’s research tells us that the neural circuitry for social pain is exactly the same as for physical pain. So it affects thinking, health and focus. Social pain is created when we feel rejected, even as part of a scientific experiment, by a computer in a simulated game. We are social animals and very vulnerable to a lack of connection and rejection. Rejected, we become so depleted that we can’t think, be creative or focus on the task in hand.

Dopamine: this substance is produced when we plan, set goals, achieve them and are rewarded. Even tiny tiny goals and metaphorical rewards will release dopamine. They don’t have to be annual bonuses.

So if we translate the learning here to global conference calls, what can be done?

Here are my suggestions:

Create connection. Spend a small amount of time, at the opening of a meeting, asking people how they are. It needn’t take long. Ask people to use one word to express how they feel; what they can see or hear from where they are sitting; what time of day it is; a metaphor which describes how they are right now; a colour which represents how they are. No longer than one breath; and you don’t need to process it. Just knowing a little more about people can change the orientation towards others on the call, make them more alive and real to you. The ‘connector question’ needs to change regularly or the ritual starts to feel meaningless, but responsibility for the question can rotate around the team, we all love novelty. But the attention to human connection will make a difference. And all of this will raise the oxytocin levels and lower the pain of loneliness.

Create team rituals. Have a global Kitkat break. 5 minutes where everyone has a national snack or drink, and imagines what other people may be having. Take it in turns to suggest what to have. Send a snap of your snack so that it becomes more real. Again: an oxytocin raiser.

Appreciate: Much more than you feel inclined to. Conference calls are quite isolating, and the social niceties need to be over-done. It’s often hard to break in, and contributions are often met with dead silence, a tumbleweed moment, because no-one knows who is responsible for responding. If there is a presentation, nominate someone to start and co-ordinate responses. Mirror neurons will fire and a spirit of appreciation will develop in your calls.

Summarize more than you do in face-to-face communication. Having one’s contribution acknowledged and built into the meeting feels great and again, an oxytocin raiser.  At a task level, it also helps people remember what happened.

Set mini-goals and raise the dopamine levels. During your conference call, set small targets or progress: get this sorted by x time, 2 decisions before lunch etc. Celebrate, in a minor way, when a decision gets made or an issue gets resolved. Make the conversation focused but light, and mark any moments of progress to help the meeting feel like it is moving.  If you have instant messaging, ping a picture of a bunch of flowers or a pint of beer to someone who has done something well. Conference calls can feel incredibly static and leave people feeling de-energised, deflated and unsure of what has been progressed. They don’t have to be like that. Really, they don’t.

I would be really interested in any response to this and in any additional or counter-suggestions people have. Last week, the 1st March, was St David’s day, my patron saint. One of his sayings was ‘look after the little things’ (Edrychwch ar ol y pethau bychain). I believe profoundly in that. Little things make a difference to people in conference calls. Worth trying.

The picture linked to this blog is of my home-made Welsh cakes.

Many, many sultanas were harmed in the creation of those cakes.


  1. In addition, when people plan an international conference call, be aware of time difference, e.g. being in the UK, sometimes I must attend a meeting that was organised in Germany…..they plan the meeting to start at 08:00 CET, not realising that it means I must start 07:00 UK…..so Meeting Organisers should RESPECT the different time zones….

    One item we struggle with is the time difference between US, Europe and Asia, there are global calls which do require people to dial-in at impossible hours. I have no idea how to solve that one?


    by: André on March 23, 2015 at 4:56 pm
    • it’s a great point Andre…I am always positively impressed when someone opens a call with me by greeting me using the right time of day…it makes me think they have anticipated where I am and put themselves in my shoes. Maybe with the global talks, taking it in turns to be inconvenienced, as part of the routine of the meeting? The conference organiser, like the person with the pen at the flipchart, sometimes gets too much say…is it usually the assistant of the most senior person?

      by: Anne Owen on March 23, 2015 at 9:35 pm
  2. What a powerful phrase
    ‘Appreciate. Much more than you feel inclined to’ is…

    I am reading it now; over and over. I for one will take this thought (among others) away from your fascinating and thoughtful article. Like so much of what you describe here, this is something I MUST think about.

    By changing the action, will I be able to change the underlying inclination? I hope so.

    Thank you Anne for these superb insights.

    by: Clara Challoner Walker on March 23, 2015 at 7:58 pm
    • we can only really change our own actions, and hope others will be influenced, directly or indirectly…it’s much harder to stay oppositional if people are truly appreciating what we say…thanks for your comments Clara.

      by: Anne Owen on March 23, 2015 at 9:39 pm
  3. Really great stuff! I too plan to re-read this weekly to keep this front of mind so I can subtly implement. Very helpful!!!

    by: Allyson Waldman on March 27, 2015 at 3:04 pm
  4. Really stimulating blog Anne – thank you – makes me think differently about everyday things I take for granted, and realise the many opportunities I am missing.

    by: Alison on May 12, 2015 at 5:41 pm
    • thanks Alison, glad you enjoyed it

      by: Anne Owen on May 14, 2015 at 10:33 am


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