Oxytocin, trust, motivation and employee engagement

By Elisabeth Goodman, 9th March 2017

Introduction and a caveat

There seems to be a real wave of articles and seminars on the relationship between various hormones, mental health, and our performance at work.

I am definitely not an expert in this field, although I did complete a Biochemistry degree some years ago, and have kept generally in touch through my work in and with Life Science organisations.  I would certainly invite those who are more knowledge than me to clarify any aspects of the following article that might benefit from their greater expertise.

The Neuroscience of Trust. Jan-Feb 2017 HBR article by Paul Zak

That said, there is an impressive amount of research (see notes) behind Paul Zak’s article on “The Neuroscience of Trust” in the Jan-Feb 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review, pp. 84-90.  And the conclusions echo many points that we have come across and make in our training for managers and teams.

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His conclusions echo many points that we have come across and make in our training for managers and teams.

oxytocin and trust or motivation?

Zak’s research has established that certain behaviours can increase the level of oxytocin, and that there is a clear link between this increase and trust.

He describes the following behaviours – some of which could arguably be ways to increase motivation rather than trust.  Although the end-result of increased productivity, collaboration, higher energy, happiness, loyalty and engagement could be the same (more on this below).

  1. Recognition (of excellence).  We know that recognition for having done good work can be a strong motivator for people.  Zak claims that this will be most effective if it’s immediate, from peers, is unexpected, personal and public.  My experience is that some people would be very uncomfortable with this form of recognition and would prefer something more low-key.
  2. Introducing a “challenge” stress. This is a stretch but achievable goal for a team.  Again, different people may respond to the perceived level of challenge in different ways.
  3. Give people discretion in how they do things. This echoes the point made by Dan Pink in “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” about how motivating autonomy can be, resulting in important increases in innovation.  Micro-management is the flip side of this.
  4. Enable “job crafting” – giving people a choice of what projects they work on.  This also sounds a bit like “holocracy”: organisations that self-organise, rather that using traditional hierarchical structures.  I read about how the Morning Star tomato company was successfully adopting this approach in a December 2011 HBR article.
  5. Sharing information broadly. We  know that people can perform more effectively if they understand the purpose of what they are doing.  Open and frequent communication also help people when dealing with change. So the same goes for information about company goals, strategy, tactics.  Lack of information will certainly be counter-productive to creating trust.
  6. Intentionally build relationships.  High performing teams are typically those where there is a good balance of attention to relationships as well as tasks.  And for some people, it is the social interaction at work that is a great motivator for them to be there.
  7. Facilitate whole person growth.  Good managers will pay attention to the personal as well as the professional goals of their direct reports.  They will do that through coaching, mentoring and constructive feedback.
  8. Show vulnerability as a leader.  This seems to me one of the most powerful ways to demonstrate and promote trust, albeit within certain boundaries.  Good leaders will have direct reports whose strengths complement theirs – be it in areas of expertise, or in softer management skills.  They can give people the space and the opportunity to demonstrate these strengths, by asking rather than telling them about aspects of their work.

The positive effect of trust on self-reported work performance

Zak concludes his article by citing that greater trust has been found to increase:

  • energy
  • engagement
  • productivity
  • loyalty
  • recommendations of the company to family and friends
  • alignment with company purpose
  • closeness to colleagues
  • empathy
  • a sense of accomplishment

and to decrease burnout.

He also found that people working in companies with greater trust earn more – possibly because these companies are more productive and innovative…

So, however the neuroscience works, this certainly seems like a topic worth paying attention to!


  1. Paul Zak is the founding director of the Centre for Neuroeconomic , Studies, Professor of economics, psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University.  He and his team measured the oxytocin levels of blood in volunteers before and after they completed a strategic decision task designed to demonstrate trust.  They also administered synthetic oxytocin or a placebo in a nasal spray to prove that oxytocin causes trust.  They carried out further studies over 10 years to identify promoters and inhibitors of oxytocin, and created and used a survey instrument in several thousands of companies to measure the constituent factors of trust.  In addition, they gathered evidence from a dozen companies that had taken action to increase trust, measured brain activity in two companies where trust varied by department, and referenced an independent firm’s survey of about one thousand working adults in the US.
  2. Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We use training, facilitation, coaching, mentoring and consulting in our work with our clients.)Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  

    RiverRhee is a support supplier for One Nucleus and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals).

    Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner.  

    She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) where she leads on Membership, Communications and Events for the Enabling Change SIG committee.

2 thoughts on “Oxytocin, trust, motivation and employee engagement”

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