The Business of Building Great People

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.

“American business is ruining America.”

This is what Bob Chapman, the chief executive of Barry-Wehmiller, told me recently when I visited his corporate headquarters in St. Louis. In viewing employees as “human resources,” most businesses treat their people like replaceable machines, rather than as human beings.

This approach is something I’ve discussed before. By doing business as usual, we are eroding the quality of our relationships with family, friends and work colleagues and thereby the fabric of America. Chapman is on a mission to help change this.

Barry-Wehmiller may be the best-run company you’ve never heard of.

Chapman took the helm of Barry-Wehmiller, then a small and nearly bankrupt concern, in 1975 after the death of his father. Today, Barry-Wehmiller owns more than 50 manufacturing operations on five continents and generates more than $1 billion in annual revenue.

This economic success grew from Chapman’s focus on people. The company’s mission says, “Building great people is our business.” It does this by establishing a caring culture at every company it acquires. Chapman showed me videos of grizzled manufacturing veterans at companies that had recently been acquired—workers who had never been acknowledged for their hard work and expertise. When their peers are given the opportunity to praise them, they break down in tears.

This isn’t just for the cameras. Chapman believes he and his management team have a sacred covenant to treat people well and return them home each day physically and emotionally healthy.

In experiments my lab has done for a decade, we’ve shown that when one is treated in a caring way, the brain synthesizes oxytocin. Oxytocin makes us want to reciprocate the care we receive with care in return. This is the foundation for an organization where work becomes a calling to achieve the organization’s purpose.

More than half of Chapman’s 5,000 employees have taken at least one course at Barry-Wehmiller University since its founding in 2007. The gateway course there is called Communication Skills Training, a three-day, peer-taught class about listening to others and communicating effectively.

It is designed to remedy something that Peter Drucker recognized as a major problem in organizations, and beyond. “The communications gap within institutions and between groups in society has been widening steadily—to the point where it threatens to become an unbridgeable gulf of total misunderstanding,” he wrote.

Companies fail when misunderstanding is endemic and employees cease to care about each other. An ethic of caring is how to build great companies.  And, as Chapman reminds us, it’s just the right way to treat people.

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