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Brain Hacks 4 Leadership

Oct 2, 2018

Do you want your team to be more productive, innovative or engaged?  Basketball legend Michael Jordan says it all “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”  If you want to know how you, as a leader, can leverage neuroscience to increase trust and vulnerability to build and sustain a high performing team, this is the podcast for you.

Paul Zak is my guest, his two decades of research have taken him from the Pentagon to Fortune 50 boardrooms to the rain forest of Papua New Guinea.  All this in a quest to understand the neuroscience of human connection, human happiness, and effective teamwork.   His academic lab and companies he has started develop and deploy neuroscience technologies to solve real problems faced by real people.

His latest book, Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High Performance Companies, uses neuroscience to measure and manage organizational cultures to inspire teamwork and accelerate business outcomes.  His 2012 book, The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity, recounted his unlikely discovery of the neurochemical oxytocin as the key driver of trust, love, and morality that distinguish our humanity.   In another obsession, Paul’s group uses neuroscience to quantify the impact of movies, advertising, stories, and consumer experiences.  Along the way, he has helped start several transdisciplinary fields, including neuroeconomics, neuromanagement, and neuromarketing.

Paul is the founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and Professor of Economics, Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. He has degrees in mathematics and economics from San Diego State University, a Ph.D. in economics from University of Pennsylvania, and post-doctoral training in neuroimaging from Harvard.  He also serves as a senior advisor to Finsbury, a global leader in strategic communications that advises many of the world’s most successful companies.

Paul’s research on oxytocin and relationships has earned him the nickname "Dr. Love."   That’s cool.  He’s all about adding more love to the world.

Thank you Paul so much for being with us and Paul is going to talk about trust and vulnerability for leaders and how important that is and also the science behind it and some tips that you as leaders can use for yourself and your organization. So thank you Paul. So Paul, tell us what is the science behind trust and vulnerability for leadership? I spent most of my professional life running neuroscience experiments to understand why some teams perform at high levels and other teams not so much. And we found that two components are necessary. One is having a trusted team and the second is your purpose. If you know where you're going, it marshals brain resources that motivates you to draw on social resources like people around you to reach goals, particularly when those are difficult but achievable stretch goals. And so when we started looking at the underlying factors that produce trust between teams, we identified eight components and one of those which I call natural, is really being yourself at work.

And a key component of that is being vulnerable. So it turns out that many studies have shown that people who are, too beautiful too perfect, we kind of hate those people because we can't believe anyone can be that great and most people aren't that great. They're putting on this mask. And so when you let that mask fall and you say, hey, you know what team, we want to do this thing, you guys are experts in this, not me. I know it's important to us. Here's why. Yeah, take a couple of weeks and start exploring whether we can do this or not. So, a concrete example, you know, my lab, we collect terabytes of brain data and we build predictive models of them and we've started investing in machine learning. So I read some books on machine learning. I'm roughly, you know, acquainted with the different techniques, but I don't have time to learn how to do them.

So I have a team and I said, you guys are super smart. You're all learning about machine learning. Here's a couple of giant data sets. Go see if you can improve our predictions using machine learning. And then all of a sudden they want to tell me about, well, we did this and support vector machines. I like, I don't even want to know if it works. Then you explain it to me. If it doesn't work, I don't care, I don't want to waste my brain power. So really empowering those people in my group to say "you are the experts in this, not me." And then come back even though I'm the leader, come back and teach me something and that's a whole different ballgame than "we have to do this and you guys have got to make this work and blah blah blah." So I think the punchline for the work we've done on building high trust teams is that everyone should be treated as a volunteer at work.

Everyone's choosing volitionally to be at this organization. So if you're a volunteer, then you need to ask them to do something you can't demand. You need to explain why they're doing something, not just scream at them to get something done. And at the end of the day, they should be thanked for the extra effort they're putting in to move the organization's goal forward. And so that's really being a servant leader or a vulnerable leader. It's a really effective way to achieve high performance in teams. I love that example of not giving the answer, but letting the team come up with that. So why is that so much more valuable then leaders telling them what to do? I think a lot of that is what we've seen in the past, that type of authoritative leadership. I need to know the answer, if I tell them I don't know, I'll appear weak.

What is it that happens for employees that makes them more willing to volunteer and be creative when you're asking them to come to the solution versus telling them what to do. Right? This is where the neuroscience comes in. So the work we've done in particular on a brain network is activated by a neurochemical called oxytocin, shows that when we asked for help as social creatures, we almost always are motivated to respond in kind. So if you asked me to do something as opposed to demand or in an aggressive way forced me to do something, most of us get this kind of defensive approach like, Hey, what the hell? I mean, even if you're my boss, don't be intimidating me dude! My recent book "Trust Factor" has a lot of Peter Director in there, who was on the faculty with me at Claremont for years.

And you know, Peter is the one who's coined the term knowledge worker. He said if you're a knowledge worker, you need to be your own CEO. Well everyone is a knowledge worker today, literally everyone. So if you're year own CEO and some dude is screaming in the office and I've worked for screamers, you'd probably have too Jill. I don't like it. And the first thing I want to do is get the heck out of there. So we all are our own CEO, so we should treat people like that. Like I'm thrilled that you decided to work for our group. Am I going to push you? Yeah. Am I going to challenge you? For sure. Am I going to talk to you when you're missing your goals? For sure, right? There's no sense in which people are not being held accountable, but I really want to have people give this intrinsic effort and I can't do that, that's internal to the employee. So by the way, I don't even like the word employee, I like colleague or team mate. I think we should get rid of this kind of weird Marxian hangover of capital and labor being at conflict somehow. So anyway, so I don't want to ask colleagues or to force them to do the things I want them to do. I want them to be passionate about what we're doing. If they're passionate about it, they're going to hit the ball out of the park, if I give them the tools to do that and help them learn how to hit the ball. So anyway, I think in the world we're in with an unemployment now, 3.9%, I think I just saw in the US, just getting bodies on board is hard enough, but getting high performers, if I want to do that, I've got to create a culture where people can really thrive and if you are authoritative, if you're aggressive, it's just not going to work and people will go elsewhere and we know that money is a very weak motivator for performance.

So let's create the conditions, the social conditions, that drawn our social brain, and in particular induce the release of oxytocin - make us want to work for the team goal. And when we do that it's anti aggressive, it's inclusive and accepting. It's challenging and it's going to be hard and we're going to make mistakes. But guess what? If I'm a leader, I'm going to make mistakes too. And I'd love feedback from you guys as well, but just all try to get better at this thing. So one of my great examples of this actually from the book is where I live near Silicon Valley. They have many, many tech companies have monthly "Congratulations, you screwed up celebrations" Let's get pizza and beer and let's talk about the mistakes we made this month and see who screwed up the biggest because if you want to innovate, you've got to make some mistakes and when you celebrate, you also share those with the company.

So if everyone is seeking to innovate that we know everyone's making mistakes, right? Jeff Bezos has said this, "one or two out of 10 of the bets we take pay off, but they pay off big enough that we could do lots of small scale experiments." So yeah, let's talk about how we screwed up. Let's make sure everyone knows so no one else makes that mistake and let's make it fun. So if you want to innovate, try some new stuff and empower those, trust those people around you to make decisions that are going to drive performance up. If you're just going to scream at people they make a mistake, then you're going to get status quo and your going to get a lot of turnover. Yes, they keep the best for themselves when you do that, right? Yeah, for sure.

So you shared that there is two things that you found for really high performing teams, a trusted team and purpose. Can you talk a little bit more about purpose? Thank you. Yes, so I think there's two kinds of purposes within organizations. One is the sort of transactional purpose, the processes that you've got to set up to run a company efficiently. I'm talking about a different kind of purpose, which I call transcendent purpose, which is why the organization exists at all and according to Drucker and Edward Deming. at its core organizations exist to improve people's lives. And so companies that embrace that, a sense of service to their client, service to their community, are much more productive and in experiments we've run, we've shown much higher oxytocin release when we have a social purpose, what we're doing, much higher productivity and more enjoyment. So again, I think every organization can find that core purpose that tells us why we're working so hard. Right? Yeah, I need the paycheck. Um, yeah, probably I liked some of the people I work with, but when I got a long day when I've worked my butt off and I realize I'm doing this because I'm saving patients lives or because I'm making my customers day a little better.

Doug Rauch, who took Trader Joe's national, he just retired from them, said that when he was taking Trader Joe's national, he realized that they were not a grocery store. They were an organization that was designed to make people happy. They just happen to do that by selling interesting, funky food. But it was all about making people happy. So that's when they started. If you go to Trader Joe's, if you ask the question to one of their colleagues, they walk you down the aisle to find the thing you've asked about. They will do everything. They'll walk the stuff out to your car. They will do everything until you are extraordinarily happy. So that's a really cool approach, right? It means that everything that you're doing has got to fit into that core purpose. It also means if you're doing stuff that doesn't fit their core purpose, you shouldn't be doing it.

I love that. I love that example as well with Trader Joe's that is a fun store to go into, definitely. You talked a little bit about how you use this with your team personally. What is one thing that leaders could do if they want to really improve on getting that high performing team? I hear that a lot - high performing team, trust, purpose and especially purpose. So what are the one or two things that a manager could do?

I mean it sounds like we're in kindergarten, but it's really simple. Say please and thank you. My group works a lot on project basis, so we have a funded project come in and instead of assigning that task to somebody we say, hey, who would like to do this task? It is a whole different approach. Again, this is done a lot in the silicon valley world. Here's the project, who wants to take lead on this? Who wants to build a team and work on this thing for three months or six months? Who's got capacity? Who's interested? Who wants to stretch themselves and a lot of celebrations. So from the neuroscience perspective, anything that happens more than about a week in the future is almost irrelevant in terms of setting up a feedback loop. So when goals are met, even kinda midterm goals, right? Maybe milestones, have a celebration. do the debrief, get some feedback. I think of that celebration is a chance to have the community of people that you work with come together to celebrate high performance and then you set up aspirations among the entire company for high performance, right? If we're celebrating this. And also if performance goals are not met, celebrate in public, but critique in private. So, very good neuroscience showing that if I dress you down in public, all of a sudden I've shamed you in terms of your social group, that is a guaranteed recipe for disengagement.

So you're not meeting your milestones, I will sit down and say, "Hey Jill, you know what, the last couple of weeks you seemed to be behind on where you're supposed to be. Let's talk about why you seem to be missing these milestones and what we can do to help you get around that". And then if, you know people you can't serve remediate, then we have to have a discussion about maybe this is not the right fit for you. But again, I think the explosion of neuroscience in the last 15 years has really allowed us to make specific well tested predictions about how to manage the humans who are around you at work and they're complicated, they're beautiful, very diverse, and they make mistakes and they do extraordinary things and so all of those I think are part of building this high trust high performance team.

Yeah, I think those are great tips and just because it seems simple doesn't mean it's easy or maybe we think that it has to be more complex to really make it work. So what else are you working on right now, thinking about or having your team look into to help leaders and teams and organizations be more effective?

We've been doing work for the last about 12 years on persuasion, on the neuroscience of persuasion, so how do we create messages both internally to teams and externally to clients that engage them, get them to act, whether that's a purchase post, share word of mouth, and we have identified neurologic signals that are very accurate at allowing us to predict whether messages are effective or not. And recently we rolled out wearable wireless sensors, worn on the forearm in which we can pick up this data coming out of the brain and see in real time how effective a message or an experience is at really engaging people both intentionally, but also emotionally. Do you care about this thing or not? So very exciting, we just released this in January and now working with companies ranging from movie studios and TV producers to large management consulting companies to increase the effectiveness of messaging, of training, of education and just making overall experiences great. So that's what we really want. We live in the experience economy now and so if we want to create great experiences both for our employees but also for our clients, we've got to have measurement tools, otherwise we're just counting on our fallible intuition. So anyway, we're real excited about rolling out these wireless sensors so people can contact me and find out more.

That's great. So the wireless sensors you're working on helping organizations, use those to test with their customers or potential clients? How does that work?

Both, yeah, with clients we are doing a lot of work on effective messaging, but doing a lot of live events, corporate training events, everything from onboarding recently did some work to help company with employee recruiting. So how do I get people to actually apply for my jobs at my company? And then really on communication in general. So how do we create an effective narrative that tells our company's story or purpose narrative and our narrative to customers, but lots of work in advertising. And I worked on movie trailers, you know, it's amazing at this age and time we live in that a movie studio will spend 100 million or more producing a movie and then you know, they look at some trailers and they go, ah, I like, I liked number one and number seven, let's release that. There's no science there, you know, so it's really blending the art and the science, the art of creation. We can't do that. But from a testing perspective we can get better than just intuition. So that's what we're getting to - having a real tool and doing it in real time was hard. Gosh, was that hard, a lot of signal processing has to go on and cloud computing. So anyway, as you can tell, I'm really excited about having a real time neurosensor that is predictive of what people will do.

Very fascinating. Yeah. We are lucky to have all these breakthroughs and ability in technology that allows us to so quickly be able to gather this and use it for good. Right? Absolutely. Yep. Well thank you. So any last words from you? Any specific tips that we didn't cover or anything that you think is really important for leaders to understand as they focus on building trust and transparency with their team.

Thank you. Yeah, it's been great to be on with you. I think really understanding that in the world we live in today with really looming labor shortages and a real need to keep the highest performers in your organization, it's the human factors that matter. Vulnerability also means letting your emotions show, being honest, really being a human. I think when you let your humanity show you also absorb the humanity of those people around you and that's what we really want when we work in teams and when we're stretched and we work hard. Human beings are fascinating species I've discovered in my experiments, so really being a great leader means being fully human, accepting your humanity, accepting emotions and letting them show and making mistakes. No one's perfect. We all make mistakes and owning those mistakes too, so no need to be perfect and no-one is a little god at work. As long as we're trying our best and we'll make some progress, it's all good.

That's great. Yeah. Take that stress off of trying to be perfect or thinking you are because like you said, you get more out of people when you're not and you're honest about that. That's great. I really appreciate that. Well, thank you so much for sharing this and I hope to have you back as you start doing more work on the neuroscience of persuasion and we get to learn a little bit more about what you're learning and how leaders can use this as well. So thank you and I hope you have an amazing week. Thanks so much Jill.


I hope that you have enjoyed this and can start using some of these great ideas build high performing teams.  Make sure to subscribe to be alerted to ongoing podcasts. I work with leaders and their teams to apply these concepts, grow themselves, their teams and their business.  Schedule a free 30 minute consultation here to see if I can help you, your team or your organization.  You can reach me, Jill Windelspecht, directly by email at and visit my website at

Get in touch with Paul:  Paul's Website