Boost Performance with Help of 'Moral Molecule'

By Kathy Gurchiek April 2, 2014

LA JOLLA, CALIF.— Entrepreneur and neuroscientist Paul J. Zak, Ph.D., thinks organizations should use the neuroscience behind the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin—the chemical foundation that helps build trust and closeness—to improve business performance.

Organizations with high levels of trust have happier, healthier employees, he said during his keynote address at the 2014 HRPS Global Conference. He pointed to online retailer as a prime example of an organization where trusting employees, and their subsequent empowerment, has been a significant factor in the company’s success. Employees there use their own judgment on the job, even if it means sending flowers to an unhappy customer or spending hours on a customer service call.

Tapping O-X-Y-T-O-C-I-N

Zak, an economics professor and founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont (Calif.) Graduate University, has developed a management tool—the Ofactor—to help organizations build trust among their employees and improve their bottom lines in the process. The Ofactor comprises eight trust-boosting management-policy categories that empower employees while at the same time holding them accountable for their decisions. The categories include:

  • Ovation. Praise employees in meaningful ways. Praise has the biggest impact, Zak said, when it’s given on the heels of a person’s or a team’s achievement and when it’s personal, public and unexpected. Team members who worked long hours through the weekend to handle damage control after an emergency situation, for example, not only would be praised in front of all their colleagues but also would be given an unexpected reward, such as tickets to Disney World.
  • EXpectation. Design challenges that have concrete goals and milestones. The team knows to provide constant progress reports—weekly, at least—and the manager acts like a coach, providing resources and guidance when needed.
  • Yield. Allow people the freedom to handle tasks in their own way without fear of punishment should a mistake occur.
  • Transfer. Give employees opportunities to take ownership of a project. This allows the manager to step back and focus on strategic goal planning and other responsibilities. Zak takes this approach by asking employees to bid on a project and then build a team to execute it.
  • Openness. Be open and transparent. Communication is key; secret meetings and a closed-door policy are anathema to this.
  • Caring. Genuinely show interest in the people you work with, whether it’s taking a few minutes to talk to them about their day or being considerate in some way. Zak, for example, said he stocks the company fridge with beer and wine for employees, many of whom are graduate students, to enjoy while sitting on the nearby patio after work.
  • Invest. Help employees grow their skills and develop their careers.
  • Natural. Don’t be afraid to ask for help; be vulnerable, be authentic.

Zak is the author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity (Dutton, 2012) and editor of Moral Markets: The Critical Role of values in the Economy (Princeton University Press, 2008).

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News.​



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