Want More Joy At Work? Combine Trust With A Sense Of Purpose

Published: Mar 29, 2017
Modified: May 18, 2020

By Paul J. Zak

Neuroscience makes a nonobvious prediction about high-trust organizations: Trust combined with Purpose results in Joy at work. Experiments from my lab and others show that working in a high-trust culture modestly increases Joy. Trust effects Joy through the interaction of oxytocin and dopamine, making it feel good to be around trusted team members. Being trusted by others also keeps chronic stress levels low, eliminating a drag on Joy. But understanding the value the organization creates for society, its Purpose, provides a second oxytocin stimulus. Helping others—even at a distance—is a powerful oxytocin booster.1

The science here is subtle, and many organizations have missed the point: Organizations should not try to make people happy at work. Joy is the result of working with trusted colleagues who have a transcendent purpose. The OXYTOCIN factors—Ovation, eXpectation, Yield, Transfer, Openness, Caring, Invest, and Natural—are designed to challenge colleagues to meet important goals. It is that striving that research has shown produces a sense of accomplishment.2 Joy arises naturally when people want to be at work and are challenged and recognized for what they do. Careers produce Joy; jobs seldom do.

Neurologist, psychiatrist, and survivor of the Nazi death camps Viktor Frankl wrote, “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.” This holds at work and outside of work. Joy results from the process of being trusted and the autonomy it enables, but it depends critically on embracing the organization’s transcendent purpose: how a business or nonprofit serves the needs of customers, students in school, or citizens in one’s city. Frankl called this “striving to find meaning.”3

The two great management thinkers of the 20th century, Peter Drucker and W. Edwards Deming, both considered knowledge of an organization’s Purpose essential to achieving high performance. Drucker wrote, “In our society of organizations, it is the job through which the great majority has access to achievement, to fulfillment and to community.”4

Finding Purpose

A Deloitte/Harris Poll shows there is a serious worldwide Purpose deficit. Sixty-eight percent of employees and 66% of executives said that their organizations do too little to create a culture of Purpose. Here’s where it gets really interesting: For those who work in high-Purpose organizations, 91% said their companies have a history of strong financial performance, 94% said their companies have outstanding customer service, and 79% said they are satisfied with their jobs. The corresponding values for organizations low on Purpose? Only 66% have strong financial performance, 63% have great customer service, and only 19% of employees are satisfied with their jobs. Only one-half of those surveyed even knew their organization’s Purpose.5

You must do two things to capitalize on the power of Purpose. First, you must clearly and succinctly identify your organization’s Purpose. Second, you must ensure that colleagues experience Purpose. Many companies have Purpose statements, but having a longer Purpose narrative can be more powerful than simply a short phrase.

To find your organization’s Purpose, start with its founding myth: Why did the founders put their livelihoods at risk to start the company? Has that vision been sustained? Does every colleague in the organization share this vision? Purpose is best communicated as a story in which the founders and their struggles are featured. Purpose narratives should describe how the founders sought to improve the lives of others: customers, community members, and the world. They necessarily focus on other people’s needs, not on self-aggrandizement.

If you do not want to use your organization’s founding myth as the basis for a Purpose narrative (if, e.g., your organization has merged several times), try the chronological opposite: What did the founders want to be remembered for at the end of their careers? Or: How does the current CEO want to be remembered? Next, ask what the organization is doing to create this legacy. This question gets at the deep “why” of the organization, and a Purpose narrative can be built from it.

Adapted, with permission of the publisher, from Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies by Paul J. Zak. Copyright 2017, Paul J. Zak. Published by AMACOM.

NOTES 1. P. J. Zak, The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity. (New York: Dutton, 2012). 2. P. E. Schmuck and K. M. Sheldon, Life Goals and Well-Being: Towards a Positive Psychology of Human Striving (Boston: Hogrefe & Huber, 2001). 3. V. E. Frankl, “Man's search for meaning,” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985). 4. Peter Drucker, The Practice of Management, (New York: Harper, 1954): 327. 5. Deloitte Development LLC, Culture of Purpose: A Business Imperative, 2013 Core Beliefs & Culture Survey, 2013.

About The Author

Paul J. Zak is the author of Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies (AMACOM, 2017). He is the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University. Zak was part of the team of scientists that first made the connection between oxytocin and trust—and his TED talk on the topic has received over a million views. He has appeared on CNN, Fox Business, Dr. Phil, Good Morning America, ABC World News Tonight, and is the author of The Moral Molecule.