The Moral Molecule

Neuroscience and economic behavior

Using the “L Word” at Work

Fear or love? Those are your two leadership choices.

Five minutes. How could I possibly stimulate a meaningful discussion of my work in the emerging field of neuromanagement in a mere five minutes? Even scarier, how could I do this in a room of 120 CEOs, most of whom had heard or read about every management idea of the past century?

Yet these were my marching orders—and this was my challenge—at a Conscious Capitalism meeting a few years ago in Lake Arrowhead, California, where I was asked to serve as an event “catalyst.”

Hitting the stage in a jog I said, “Fear or love? Those are your two leadership choices. To determine which one is better, let’s examine the science.”

Fear, I explained, is a very effective motivator—at least initially. It taps into our primal need for safety. The trouble is, people acclimate to fear quickly, and so you have to continually amp it up to get the same response.

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If you do this enough, not only does fear lose its impact, but people just give up trying to do their job. Psychologists call this “learned helplessness.” No matter what you do at work, the boss will scream at you, so it really doesn’t matter how hard you try.

Fear is an especially poor tactic when it comes to managing today’s knowledge workers. “In anything that has to do with knowledge,” Peter Drucker pointed out, “fear will produce only resistance.”

Love, on the other hand, works in exactly the opposite way. In a decade’s worth of experiments conducted in my laboratory, inside major corporations and nonprofit organizations, and even with tribesmen in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, I’ve shown that the molecule of love—oxytocin—is activated by positive social interactions between friends and strangers in 95 percent of the thousands of people from whom I’ve taken blood. Oxytocin makes us care about others in tangible ways, and it motivates us to work together for a common purpose.

Unlike fear, which loses its power to motivate, love begets love. The more our brains make oxytocin, the easier it is to make it in the future. This is true not only for romantic love, but also for philia, the caring exhibited by friends and work colleagues.

My research shows that if one builds a caring and trusting workplace, rather than a conflictual and fearful one, then oxytocin will flow and work becomes joyful. As I’ve discussed before, trust combined with purpose creates joy at work.

I had hoped to provoke these “conscious CEOs” to perhaps think differently, but the effect of my brief talk was breathtaking. Breakout sessions discussed how to institutionalize love. At a CEO forum with Doug Rauch (formerly of Trader Joe’s), John Mackey (of Whole Foods) and Kip Tindell (of The Container Store), nearly the entire 90 minutes was spent discussing the importance of love at work. I think this happened because the science I had done showed that the human brain is wired for, and motivated by, love.

Mackey said he uses the word love at work constantly because people respond to it so well. Using the “L word” just might work for you, too. It’s not rocket science, but it is neuroscience.

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This originally appeared in the Drucker Exchange March 6, 2014. Used with permission. 

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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