Neuroscience: the key to unlocking employee potential?

As part of the Saïd Business School's Responsible Leadership series of seminars in Oxford, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University Dr Paul Zak explains how to build high trust, high performance culture in the workplace. 

A small manufacturing company in Wisconsin had been bought out. The new owners planned to retain the existing staff but reorganise the company and its processes to improve performance. Along with making their own observations, they decided to talk individually to all employees to hear their views.  

A blue-collar worker in his mid-fifties started talking about some of the things he thought could be improved in the company. As he was talking, he began to cry. “I’ve been working in this company for 27 years,” he told them. 

“After I’d been here for a year, I thought I had seen some ways in which we could improve our processes. So I told my foreman. And he told me to go back to the line, saying: ‘You’re not paid to think; you’re a pair of hands.’ I never made another suggestion in my life until today.”

In the words of neuroscientist and TED talk phenomenon Dr Paul Zak, after retelling this anecdote to an audience of aspiring business leaders: “What a waste of a human being.” 

“One of the most important tasks of responsible leaders is to create an environment in which it is easy for people to be successful,” he said.

Creating a bad environment is easy – you can be dismissive as in the story above or threatening, and you can ignore culture. But creating an organisation for which people want to work, to which people will choose to give their time and energy, is more difficult. 

“Many people have worked for organisations that are soul-sucking and awful and you can’t wait to go home,” Dr Zak said. “When you work in that environment you clock in at eight and clock out at five. You don’t ring your boss saying that you were awake at 3am in the morning because you had a great idea and you want to talk about it. I want to know where those 3am employees come from.”

Based on his research into the “trust hormone", also known as the "moral molecule", oxytocin, Dr Zak has worked with a number of companies to investigate how to achieve high performance. He has created eight types of management intervention – conveniently forming the acronym OXYTOCIN – that can be used to trigger levels of the hormone in staff, thus increasing levels of trust and engagement within organisations. 

Ovation has the strongest impact on behaviour when it is unexpected, tangible and public.

The first of which is “Ovation”. We know that people respond to praise and reward – which is why so many organisations have a range of monthly and annual award schemes, and link the annual appraisal with salary rises. 

But Dr Zak showed that neuroscience provides a more specific and less obvious insight into how to get the biggest “brain response” when praising employees.

“Ovation has the strongest impact on behaviour when it is unexpected, tangible and public, and when it comes close in time to when the goal was met,” he said. 

He recommended giving a gift in public – something that is particularly suited to the person being rewarded – and using the moment to discuss best practice. 

“Ask how did you do it? What are the secrets? So right when the project is over, he or she gets to stand up, show off his or her peacock feathers and talk about the team. But also, the individual gets to say here’s what went wrong – and here’s how we overcame it… It’s a way of learning about best practice from a guy who was doing it just this week.”

Dr Zak was also clear that overloading people with work led to stress rather than engagement. “If someone finishes a project on Tuesday and on Wednesday you give them another great hulking project they’re going to be stressed. 

You need a refractory period. So give Wednesday as a day off, then on Thursday and Friday allow them to catch up with emails and on Monday start a new project. This is recognising you as a full human being. You need downtime, you need to catch up.” 

Other ideas which included bidding internally for projects, generous delegation and support, and dispensing with job titles might seem a step too far for most traditional organisations. 

Having listened to him talk so persuasively about the need to think of employees as volunteers, it was quite a relief to hear that even Dr Zak could be unreasonable and, for example, momentarily resent an employee’s day off. But acknowledging this imperfection went right to the heart of his argument – we are only human, and responsible leaders treat their employees as humans, not as “human resources” or “human capital”. 

Everyone is a knowledge worker: no one is “just a pair of hands”.  


Dr Paul Zak is a scientist, author and public speaker. As well as being a founding director at Claremont Graduate University, California-based Dr Zak also serves as Professor of Neurology at Loma Linda University Medical Center. In 2004 Dr. Zak's lab discovered that the brain chemical oxytocin allows people to determine who to trust. His TED talk 'Trust, morality – and oxytocin' has been viewed over one million times.

The Saïd Business School is hosting a series of seminars on responsible leadership to complement the number of courses it delivers on social entrepreneurship and sustainable business.


Photo credit: Saïd Business School