Have you ever wondered why you trust some people and not others? One reason is the effect of oxytocin, sometimes called the “love hormone.” Until recently, oxytocin’s impact was thought to be limited to women during birth and nursing. Now, though, it’s known to influence everyone, male and female.
“Oxytocin functions as a signaling molecule that tells you that someone around you appears to be safe or trustworthy,” says Paul Zak, professor of economics, psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University and clinical professor of neurology at Loma Linda University Medical Center.
He’s spent years researching how oxytocin works in a range of situations. His conclusion in a nutshell? It’s “the biological basis for the golden rule. You treat me nicely, my brain makes oxytocin and motivates me, most of the time, to treat you nicely.”
Zak calls oxytocin “the moral molecule” – that’s the title of one of his books on this subject. But you could also call it “the civilizing molecule.“
“We are deeply social creatures. We need to be around other human beings, and oxytocin is an important part of the brain mechanism that motivates appropriate social behaviors that allow us to sustain ourselves within communities of other humans,” Zak explains.
The workplace is one such “community,” and Zak’s forthcoming book, “Trust Factor,” explores how oxytocin can help to build a more productive culture in organizations. The theory goes like this: when you feel trusted, your brain releases oxytocin, which makes you feel trusting in return. This creates a pervading culture of trust in the workplace, which, in turn, boosts performance and productivity.
“We found that trust is a powerful lever to improve organizational performance,” Zak asserts, in our Expert Interview podcast. “Employees who work in high–trust organizations are more energetic, more productive, more innovative. And, interestingly, when you work in a high–trust organization, your life outside of work is in fact better. Your personal relationships are better, your family life is better, you’re more involved in your community.“
In bookstores next year, “Trust Factor” presents eight classes of management policies that will build such a culture of trust. Zak names each category for a letter in the word OXYTOCIN. Ovation advocates recognition; eXpectation is about holding people accountable; Yield enables employees to work as they see fit; Transfer encourages self-management; Openness shares information; Caring is about building relationships; Invest focuses on personal and professional growth, and Natural promotes authenticity.
But these aren’t just a neat set of aspirations. Zak has practical experience of this oxytocin-fueled strategy in action. He worked with leaders at a company he calls the OTR Corporation (to protect its real identity) to build these ideas into everyday work life. Employees were surveyed before and after the changes, and the results were impressive.
“Outcome measures [were] just fabulous across the board,” Zak says. “More engagement, more energy at work, higher productivity. So both from an individual perspective and an organizational perspective, this human–centric focus on creating a culture of engagement really had a big payoff.“
Importantly, this approach isn’t focused on making people happy. Rather, it’s about giving them a sense of purpose, which is much more engaging than a quick happiness hit. In this clip, from our Expert Interview podcast, Zak explains the relationship between trust and purpose, and why they both matter more than “confetti falling from the ceiling and silly songs on the radio.”