How to make work fun
[Guest article by Dr. Paul Zak]

Work sucks.

That’s what we’ve been told. If you remember Econ 101, the polite term is that work generates “disutility.” This is why people have to be paid, in order to compensate them for the pain of working. Except sometimes work doesn’t suck. Sometimes it can actually be fun.

Two Key Ingredients Make Work Enjoyable

Eight years ago I began measuring brain activity while people worked in order to figure out what makes work enjoyable. The neuroscience my lab had done pointed to two key ingredients that make work feel like play: Trust and purpose.

Let’s do trust first. I was the first scientist to show that when people are trusted, their brains make the neurochemical oxytocin. Oxytocin motivates us to engage with others and increases our sense of empathy. With it, we are better able to understand what others need from us. We also better understand why they are doing what they are doing.

Within two seconds of an interaction, oxytocin generates a feeling of connection. The neuromanagement studies I did in businesses showed that teams that release oxytocin:

  • Are substantially more productive.
  • More effectively solve problems.
  • Enjoy what they are doing.

Encouraged, I dug deeper. My research identified eight building blocks of organizational trust. I created an easy to remember acronym for them, OXYTOCIN. This stands for Ovation, eXpectation, Yield, Transfer, Openness, Caring, Invest, and Natural. The science showed that when leaders push on any of these factors, trust is raised and performance improves.

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Putting OXYTOCIN to work

The science I did in the trenches (and research by others, too), showed just how each of the eight OXYTOCIN factors can be changed for maximum impact on brain and behavior. For example, Ovation is my word for recognizing high performers. The science shows that recognition is most powerful when it:

  • Is close in time to when a goal has been met.
  • Is tangible, personal, public, and unexpected.
  • Comes from peers.

Does your employee recognition program have these components? If not, the brain’s learning network is not creating a tight feedback loop that tells colleagues that high performance is valued by their community.

Neural feedback is precisely how culture is changed. Public Ovation also builds aspirations among others to be recognized for their contributions, further improving performance.

My book Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies similarly identifies how the other seven trust-building factors can be optimized to improve and sustain individual and organizational performance.

What’s your top trust weakness?

In Trust Factor, there are numerous examples of companies that have implemented these findings to raise trust and improve business outcomes. My initial research took blood samples from employees while they worked. That data was illuminating, but mass blood draws aren’t always practical.

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So, I used the research to create a survey that quantifies organizational trust and its building blocks. The book comes with a URL for this survey so you know which aspects of culture to focus on first at your company.

Got purpose?

Now, let’s turn to purpose. Management thinkers from W. Edwards Deming to Peter Drucker have argued that the only reason an organization exists at all is because it improves lives. Why else would you pay for their product or service? I call this a company’s transcendent purpose (let’s just call this “Purpose”) to differentiate it from the day-to-day business that is a company’s transactional purpose.

Research from my lab and others shows that working for a Purpose is a potent oxytocin stimulus. When colleagues understand a company’s Purpose and, importantly, act on it while at work, a second oxytocin stimulus arises.

The research I describe in Trust Factor shows that high levels of trust and Purpose differentiate great companies from those that are merely good.

Fix your culture to make work fun

Culture is not static. It is a living, breathing thing that evolves with an organization’s people and mission. If you don’t manage culture, it will surely manage you. Trust Factor will give you a step-by-step way to build a culture in which colleagues are empowered, accountable, recognized, innovative, and have opportunities grow.

High trust cultures have substantially higher productivity, innovation, and employee retention. Employees at these companies even take fewer sick days. Trust and Purpose combine to make work seem, well, less like work and more like fun.

[Want more on using OXYTOCIN to boost trust in your company? Check out Trust Factor: The Key to High Performance featuring Paul Zak and Roger Dooley. Listen to the audio, or grab the handy PDF text version.]

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