How to Perk Up Everyone at Your Company

Here’s this month’s piece from neuroeconomist Paul Zak. For those who might dismiss some of our thinking as the “soft side” of management, Paul puts “hard science” behind it.


Last year I agreed to speak at the annual meeting of a successful mid-sized company based in Dallas. I’m typically flown in for these kinds of events first-class, but this company refused to do so, saying even their senior executives travel coach.  So, I flew coach—and began to ponder an intriguing management question for these challenging economic times:

As companies look to keep a tight rein on expenses, who gets the perks?

In many organizations, the answer comes down to executive privilege, as those at the top of the org chart rack up the goodies while middle managers and line workers find themselves just getting by.

A little neuroscience here is insightful. As one’s social status (salary, position) rises, so does the level of testosterone. This occurs in both men and women. Testosterone increases energy and drive, but also whispers over and over to the brain, “You rock, baby.”

In experiments where I have administered synthetic testosterone to men, they become more selfish with resources and more demanding of others’ resources. (Testosterone also increases libido, so those forbidden office romances start to seem copacetic, too.)

Like alcoholics admitting their addiction, the first step to counteracting testosterone’s effect is admitting the problem. In his autobiography, the Rolling Stone’s Keith Richards diagnosed the notoriously difficult Mick Jagger as suffering from “Lead Singer Syndrome,” and he blamed the affliction on the unceasing attention Jagger receives.

If you are a C-suite executive, you may well suffer from a similar ailment: “I Deserve It Syndrome.” The effects are serious. When you exhibit IDITS, you alienate those around you. Fairness is a deeply experienced human emotion, and unfairness unleashes defensive and aggressive chemicals in the brain. Flaunting rank is not the way to achieve high performance in your organization; having everyone working together to achieve success is.

My advice?  If your organization can afford it, share the benefits as widely as possible. Permit business-class flights if colleagues are flying overnight. Give generous bonuses. When times are tight, meanwhile, a smart leader takes the hit first. Forgo your salary for a year if you can. Have all executives, including the CEO, fly coach.

Executives at lock-maker Kryptonite go so far as to wash employees’ cars. It’s a great way to put into practice what Peter Drucker meant when he said, “Leadership is not rank, privilege, title, or money. It is responsibility.”

Paul Zak is the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of  The Moral Molecule.