My Boss Was Killing Me… One Brain Cell at a Time

For close to a decade, I was a brand evangelist for an amazing company.  I had climbed to a director position and oversaw a wildly talented, dedicated, team. I was fortunate to have amazing mentors who gave me opportunities to contribute and who valued those contributions.   I was proud of my role and I looked forward to every new challenge.  I was the quintessential crusader promoting my company to anyone who would listen.

That was until the changing of the guards, or musical chairs at the grown-up table. New faces occupied the C-suites, and nervous feelings of trepidation swept over the troops waiting to see how these changes would impact each of us.

My new boss – let’s call him “John” – seemed okay at first, and I was determined to keep an open mind.  Positioned precariously beneath him on the org chart, my first order of business was to bring him up to speed on our product portfolio and consumer profiles. I quickly discovered that John knew very little about our company and even less about the industry.  Beyond his profound black holes of knowledge, he had zero interest in learning – anything.  After all, he was the chief; he had people for that.

The day I realized that my “do what you love and love what you do” days at work were over was the day John leaned across his desk, pointed his finger in my face, and said,

“Your job is to make me look good and take a f*cking bullet for me when I don’t.  Is that clear?”


Remember, I loved my job. And when it comes to work, I’m a gritty girl.  I’ll dig in and work longer and harder than just about anyone.  I take great pride in anything that has my name on it, and I thrive on exceeding expectations. So, I started pedaling harder and faster.

But, this… this was different.  John’s pompous insecurities, emotional immaturity, and nonexistent leadership skills created a fearful, “duck and take cover” CYA environment and trumped any chance for creativity, innovation, team success or individual satisfaction.  He had eliminated the joy of being a brand evangelist and replaced it with stress.

What I didn’t know then was that the stress was killing me – literally – one brain cell at a time.

The Science of Stress

We all know that stress feels bad.  It makes us irritable and grumpy, distracted and tense. Eliminating stress completely is unrealistic partially because it’s how our species has evolved and partially because of biology.  When your brain senses danger, the fear/threat center is engaged which signals the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and the adrenal glands by your kidneys. Within minutes, stress hormones are released from the limbic system in the center of your brain into your bloodstream. All of this happens to prepare us and survive the threat.

Acute stress can actually prime the brain for peak performance.  It’s the fight or flight response that allows us to react to an immediate threat.  Some degree of acute stress is a good thing as it keeps the brain active and sharp. It’s also what enables you to survive a life-threatening situation.  While it can help you survive a zombie attack, that’s not terribly practical on a typical day at the office.

Chronic stress is a response to emotional pressure over an extended period of time in which we feel we have little or no control.  Excessive chronic stress, which is constant and persists over an extended period of time, can be psychologically and physically debilitating. In fact, more than 90% of doctors’ visits are for stress-related illnesses. Chronic stress changes your brain right down to the cellular level.

An ongoing overproduction of stress hormones increases blood pressure, prevents neural growth in the hippocampus (the region of the brain responsible for learning and emotional regulation), creates architectural changes in the prefrontal cortex impairing executive decision-making and impulsivity control, and increases the neural connections in your “fear center,” or amygdala perpetuating a vicious cycle of more fear and more anxiety which creates more cortisol. At the top of this shortlist is the fact that cortisol induces the production of the neurotransmitter glutamate.  Glutamate creates free radicals that pierce the brain cell walls ultimately causing them to shrivel up and die.

You read that correctly: stress kills brain cells.

Recent brain-based research now proves that intense or prolonged stress physically and chemically changes the brain impeding our ability to learn. Beyond just making us unhappy, stress kills the brain cells that enable us to solve problems, think critically, remember things, and make decisions. Studies also show that negative conversations with managers or colleagues makes us less creative, less innovative, and less productive. Think about the conversations you’ve had this week. Did they make you feel connected or rejected? Conversational neurochemistry has huge implications in team dynamics and organizational success.

The old adage, “people don’t leave companies; they leave managers,” is so true. I left “John” six months after he blew in like a like bad cold. Statistics show that almost 50% of employees quit jobs they really enjoy because of a boss who demeans, criticizes, micro-manages, or marginalizes them. In addition, 70% of the variance in employee engagement is attributed to management skills or lack thereof.

Think about the great people in your organization who are responsible for product development, customer service, quality control, sales, human resources, marketing… pick a department.  If you want these people to be smart, creative, innovative, positive, and engaged, it might be worth taking an honest look at the stress level in your culture.  Who is your “John” and what is he costing your company?


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. Great article, Melissa. These types of experiences are all too common, and painful. Your statement: “Beyond just making us unhappy, stress kills the brain cells that enable us to solve problems, think critically, remember things, and make decisions.” – this helps me understand myself better AND explains the quality of decisions and actions I see all around me. Let’s hope we can take this undeniable impact seriously and get ahold of ourselves.

    • I’m so glad this one resonated with you, Mary. Thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts.

  2. Melissa, thank you for writing about this topic. It is an excellent article and informative. Poor management is a topic too many of us are familiar with, myself included. I worked in a toxic environment much longer than I should have and had two poor managers. I can remember being screamed at one time by our owner while on a conference call with a vendor. He asked me if “I was f…ng stupid?!”

    I should have listened to the signals going off, but I was so deep in the muck I wasn’t at a point where I could pull myself out. The stress there had many effects on my physical and emotional well being. Thankfully, I finally found my way out and toward a healthier and happier space.

    • When we are in the weeds, it’s hard to see anything but weeds. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your experience. Sadly, it’s much too common. I’m so glad you found your way out of that toxic environment.

  3. Another excellent article/video, Melissa! I really appreciate your honest sharing about your personal experience of chronic stress, of choosing to leave a job you had loved. You continue to explain brain chemistry and the nervous system in ways that are completely accessible to those of us who are fascinated and eager to learn. I completely understand persistent stress as I lived it for decades. Thank goodness for the plasticity of the brain and post traumatic growth!

    • Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, Laura. I look back on that now and remember how painful it was to “let him win.” But, in the end, I proved more than a few things to myself — and I’m stronger and smarter for the experience. The human brain truly is amazing, isn’t it?!

    • Those challenges and difficult people can teach us so much about our resilience, strength, and courage, Melissa. And look at what you are now creating with much intelligence, passion, and integrity. Thank goodness for the brain’s ability to recover, regroup, and for the whole of you to move forward. Yes, the healing capacities of the human brain continue to astound me. I’m so happy you came through and landed on the other side with joy. 🙂 #RockstarDrHughes !!!!