Why Your Brain Needs People
by Paul Zak

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Ah the digital world!  Email, video conferencing, and e-documents mean less travel and higher productivity.   Electronic communication has allowed for a nearly seamless work-life integration (it’s 6am Sunday as I write this).   These modern conveniences have certainly empowered employees to be, as Peter Drucker wrote, “their own chief executive officers.”


Yet Drucker also recognized that work was a social enterprise.  People had to be together to effectively meet the organization’s objectives.  This is where the tension of being physically-present versus digitally-present binds: Can the social enterprise of work actually work if no one is in the office?  As described in Nancy Dixon’s blog, 63 percent of companies now permit telecommuting, but one-third of supervisors surveyed said that while they trust their colleagues, they prefer that they work in the office “just to be sure.”


Discoveries in social neuroscience, a number of them from my lab, can be used to optimize employee engagement, commitment and performance for the digital age.  During the last decade, my colleagues and I have run experiments measuring brain activity in the laboratory and in for-profit businesses, developed assessment tools, and implemented interventions in order to understand how organizational culture affects business outcomes.  Laboratory studies permit us to assess causes while we control the environment.  We then take these findings into the wild to confirm that the same mechanisms hold in the messiness of real organizations.


The first question we asked was why people would devote their cognitive and emotional resources to helping an organization at all.  Yes, employees are paid, but classical economics assumes that work generates disutility and pay is a necessary salve for this pain.  This model also predicts that employees will do the minimum necessary to obtain their paychecks.  While this may have been true in the 19th century and perhaps even in some businesses today, it does not explain why we talk so much about our jobs on nights and weekends.  Nor does it explain why colleagues occasionally send me 3 A.M. emails, ecstatic about having solved some difficult problem.  These behaviors show the error in classical economics: many people find great fulfillment in their jobs and choose to work even when they are not explicitly being paid to do so.


The science my group has done has shown that work colleagues are, fundamentally, volunteers.   If they have any skills (and everyone does), then they can voluntarily choose to work elsewhere.  Culture can be a differentiator between loving what you do, and loving leaving the building.  High engagement cultures treat colleagues like volunteers, providing an opportunity for joy at work.


So, what kind of culture creates high engagement?  Human beings are gregariously social creatures.  Unlike nearly every other mammal, we enjoy being around others of our species, even complete strangers…usually.  We will socialize with strangers as long as others appear trustworthy.  In 2004, my lab discovered an important neurochemical signal of trust, oxytocin. In the next decade of intensive research, we showed that people will voluntarily cooperate when they trust others and when there is a purpose or goal that brings them together.  Having clear goals causes everyone to pull in the same direction and provides an opportunity to demonstrate trust in teammates.


After my laboratory studies identified trust and purpose as key motivators for team engagement, we tested these drivers by taking blood and measuring brain activity at two businesses in the U.S. Midwest.  One was in manufacturing and the other produced software.  We made culture relevant by having one-half the participants discuss their company’s core values, while the other half discussed a newspaper article about retail sales.  We then asked participants to perform work tasks, both on their own and in groups.  Both companies have been consistently included in Fortune magazine’s “best places to work.”


We found that making the organization’s culture prominent in colleagues’ minds reduced cardiovascular stress, improved positive mood, and increased closeness to workmates.  Both positive mood and closeness to others significantly increased productivity in a timed and incentivized task we designed.


We also measured participants’ trust in colleagues at work using a survey we developed called Ofactor®. The impact of culture was stronger when colleagues reported higher interpersonal trust and when they were aligned with the organization’s core purpose.


Reinforcing an organization’s cultural values and building trust among colleagues is more difficult to do at a distance. The brain is acutely attuned to social information of multiple types, from smiles to language.  The physiologic bandwidth of social interactions is higher when one physically encounters others.  Neuroscience experiments my lab has done on social media use show that electronic real-time interactions do increase oxytocin and build neural attachments to others, but not as effectively as in-person encounters.


Here’s the bottom line: seek a balance between the stress (an effective oxytocin and trust inhibitor) of commuting and travel, with the benefit of sustaining in-person attachments.  Neither all nor nothing is the right solution, but as we increasingly integrate our work and leisure time, surfing at noon and working at midnight may be the best choice for some individuals and teams.  But, if team members only see each other virtually, then the culture of the workplace degrades.


Is the right balance for your organization 50 percent of the time in the office, or 30 percent or 10 percent?  I recommend doing controlled experiments to find the optimal the in-person and e-person mix. No matter what is best for your organization, my research shows that leaders can cultivate a culture of trust by building strong relationships within their teams, recognizing colleagues’ accomplishments, facilitating autonomy, and investing in colleagues’ personal and professional growth.


Culture, Peter Drucker reminded us, is a key competitive advantage for organizations.  By measuring culture, leaders can intervene to create cultures of high trust and high performance.  Even in the digital age.


About the author:
Professor, Claremont Graduate University and Chief Science Officer, Ofactor, Inc.


  1. Definitely, digital age changed our way of working, socializing and sharing information, but
    we travel more, we have less time, our brain is progressively switched-off because technology is “thinking” at our place..
    Young generation, but not exclusively, is in continuous multiprocessing and switching from one screen to another..Robots are helping us and replacing traveling colleagues…
    We become connected object !!!
    Not sure that current technology enhance our performances because it is not conceived for. It is just made to make money with.
    Where is humanity, emotions, real frendship, familly??

  2. Paul,
    This is a very convincing post – of course I was already convinced – but I like the data and evidence you show. I’d love to know more.

  3. This is such useful work. I always find applications of neuroscience in management fascinating and informative. I only wish that more managers would take on board these sort of findings. There still seems to be a large gap between what science is discovering about human thinking and behaviour and how the average manager actually works. Thanks for posting.

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