The Joy of Management

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.

Many managers have a bunker mentality. This keeps ideas from escaping, but also limits the information coming in.

But not Tony Hsieh, the CEO of, the online shoe retailer. Recently, Hsieh let me come hang out with him and his team, and even stay in one of his apartments—just one small sign of his approach to business, which can only be described as radically open.

Take photos inside our company? Sure! Shoot video of our sales goals? Help yourself! Put on a silly hat and let us take your picture? Why not!

Hsieh is a culture maven. He creates culture as if channeling Peter Drucker’s view that “management is also a culture and a system of values and beliefs.”

Hsieh believes that happiness is the ultimate goal of an organization, and that profits provide the mechanism to sustain happiness and personal growth. This doesn’t just mean food 24/7 and full health and dental care, but also taxis to the airport and parties in his apartment. Or just stop by Hsieh’s cubicle on “monkey row” next to the phone reps and say hi.

If a certain activity at Zappos is not producing joy for employees and customers, Hsieh doesn’t want any part of it.

Culture counts. It is the way that social creatures transmit information to others in their group. Cultures compete to be effective in helping their members reach performance goals. Those that are effective survive and are copied; those that don’t disappear.

A culture of happiness, like the one Hsieh has fostered at Zappos, is particularly powerful and effective. And this isn’t just conjecture. My neuroscience experiments back this up.

Nearly everyone’s brain releases oxytocin, which is the key to social recognition, bonding and empathy. I’ve dubbed it “the moral molecule.” Some of us naturally release more oxytocin than others, and Hsieh has clearly hired a lot of these folks—outgoing, social, energetic characters. But a culture of happiness is what ensures that these high oxytocin-producers regularly release the maximum amount of the neurochemical. In turn, these people cultivate joy with customers and colleagues. Happiness begets happiness.

Zapposians produce “wow” not only by delivering over-the-top customer service, but also by thoroughly enjoying what they’re doing. Creating a culture of joy is their open secret.

Paul Zak is the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University.