Leadership & the Moral Molecule

moral moleculeHave you ever wondered why you immediately trust someone you just met? Or why you give to your favorite nonprofit? According to Paul Zak, author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity, it’s all because of the hormone oxytocin.

I had the opportunity to speak with Zak recently at the Omidyar Network’s Executive Forum, where he was a presenter, and learn more about oxytocin and how understanding it can help organizations and leaders.

What is oxytocin?

Oxytocin is a reproductive hormone that has long been associated with breastfeeding and sex. Scientists believe it is responsible (in part) for bonding between mothers and babies, and between lovers. Zak, and his team of researchers at Claremont Graduate University, found that it is also responsible for regulating trust, generosity, and empathy. They dubbed oxytocin the “morale molecule,” meaning that it regulates social behavior.

Oxytocin triggers the release of neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, creating a “motivational pathway” for empathy and trust and providing a feeling of emotional satisfaction. It’s inhibited by testosterone, and is found to be at the lowest levels in teenage boys.

Zak took his findings a step further and created a field called neuroeconomics, which incorporates brain science and social behavior. Over the last 12 years, he’s conducted a number of experiments that show that people respond more generously and caringly when their oxytocin level is elevated. In an experiment called the Trust Game, the researchers found that participants who were given synthetic oxytocin were far more trusting than those who weren’t.

Why this matters for organizations and leaders

Trust and empathy are essential elements of organizational success. Leaders must trust their employees, and vice versa, for teams to efficiently work together and create an atmosphere that encourages innovation and excellence. Zak and his team have taken their research to organizations like Zappos and the SAS Institute to help them to understand how to use his findings to create successful teams. He uses the letters OXYTOCIN as a tool to analyze high trust organizations.

  • Ovation: Praise often, unexpectedly, and visibly
  • eXpectation: Setting and meeting reasonable objectives and practices
  • Yield: A high return on work activities
  • Transfer: Flow of information and relationships
  • Openness: Transparency and acceptance
  • Caring: Demonstrate care of the whole person
  • Invest: Nurture people and relationships
  • Natural: Authentic

Though some people have a genetic and developmental head start when it comes to producing oxytocin, organizations and leaders can foster these attributes in a variety of ways. The first and best, is to practice. Zak says that oxytocin is transferred through touch and smell, and that smiling and laughing can increase oxytocin levels. Body language also helps to signal oxytocin and can lead to increased trust and empathy. You might even think about hugging a new person rather than shaking hands (Zak hugs everyone)!

Servant leader model

Zak’s research leads naturally to a leadership model that focuses on service—to the organization, the people within it, and the community of stakeholders that surround it. It thrives on frequent communication (to, from, and within leadership), valuing work-life balance and the impact on society and the environment in balance with financial returns.


Shivani is Principal at Friday Consulting, where she works with food and technology startups on strategy, finance, and business planning. She is also a founding consultant at AchieveMission. Shivani holds a BA from Stanford University, and an MBA from Presidio Graduate School. Follow her on twitter @shivaniganguly.

One response

  1. Trust in the environment is essential for organizational (team, group, dept., etc) success, I couldn’t agree more. The key component to building trust is communication… which is not just speaking (sending out policies statements) but listening to employee feedback… acknowledging and responding.

    This requires a process and tools for businessesorganizations to connect and engage.

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