The Moral Molecule

Neuroscience and economic behavior

Can Love Improve Your Business?

Do we need to love those we work with?

Love in the workplace? Forbidden! In these days of mandated sexual harassment training, we are constantly warned to keep our even mildly lascivious thoughts and emails, not to mention our hands, to ourselves. But, human nature may trump the law. I make it a practice to hug everyone who works for me and most of those who work around me, both males and females. In my view, if I hug everyone this cannot be construed as harassment. I even do this with people I meet for the first time. As reported in the July, 2010 Fast Company magazine, this has earned me the moniker "Dr. Love." 

Sure, some odd academic can get away with this, but let's get real, doing this at General Motors won't fly. Hold that thought. General Motors is exactly a company that needs love. It was recently on the verge of bankruptcy and only survived with a government bailout, downsizing, and layoffs. GM workers are not feeling loved.

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Love does not require hugs, but love can be a management policy. The essence of love is putting another person before oneself.

Think about that for a minute. Do we need to love those we work with? Imagine the CEO of a distressed company who refuses his or her multimillion-dollar bonus so that one thousand employees would not be laid off. That would be love. How about an employee who agrees to work late so someone can go home early to care for a sick child? That would be love. Or, an employee who drops off a forgotten package to a customer's home after leaving work? That would be love.

The funny thing is when we are loved, we return love. Yes, this is an oxytocin response. When we care about others, they care about us. Biologically, love is the foundation for trust - both trust and love arise when oxytocin is released in the brain. My research has shown that trust is the secret behind many profitable companies. The benefits to managing with love include higher employee morale and productivity, lower employee turnover, fewer sick days, and legions of return customers.

The New York consulting form Edelman has published the Edelman Trust Barometer for the last nine years. In 2009 they reported that trust in businesses was at the lowest point they had ever recorded. Sixty percent of employees surveyed reported that they needed to hear information three to five times before believing it. Shockingly, only 17% of employees trusted statements made by their CEO. Managers simply cannot do their jobs effectively when trust is low.

Managing with love is the way to build trust. It's a no-brainer. So why do so few companies do this? The autocratic "manage with fear" model is what business began with hundreds of years ago when managers whipped employees literally and figuratively to compel them to work. In modern businesses with skilled and empowered employees, the top-down approach is slowly starting to fade away. The open-door policy is replacing the executive suite. For example, my university built me a new lab last year and the builder wanted to know where my office would be. I said I didn't want one. I prefer to embed myself with my team because we work together on projects. Why would I want to separate myself from those I collaborate with?

There is a growing number of successful companies that manage with love. Southwest Airlines is an example: their corporate slogan is "How do we love you? Let us count the ways . ." In fact, their stock ticker symbol is LUV so this is a big part of their corporate identity. (Southwest's first flights came out of Dallas's Love Field so this may have given them the idea). If you have flown Southwest, you know that their employees love working for them. Southwest Airlines has never laid off an employee. Southwest's CEO Gary Kelly was paid $903,000 in 2009, and half of that was a one-time bonus. Compare that to former GM CEO Rick Wagoner who was paid more than 14 million dollars the year before GM went belly-up.

My research shows that the molecule of love, oxytocin, makes us trustworthy and motivates us to help others. Most managers would sacrifice a limb if their employees embodied these virtues at work.

All it takes is love.

 

 

Paul J. Zak is a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA.  His book The Moral Molecule will be published in 2012.

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