Is It the Cortisol or the Cubicle?

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative and writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.


In the early 20th century, Frederick Winslow Taylor used time-motion studies to break tasks into component parts and reorder them for maximum productivity, thus pioneering the notion that workplace efficiency is indeed a science. Not long after, Henry Ford furthered the idea of objectively fitting workers to the task with his assembly line.

Oddly enough, although these early efficiency efforts have been criticized for dehumanizing workers, their long tail can be seen in self-consciously modern workplace designs such as Herman Miller’s “Action Office” system and Google's new Silicon Valley campus. These later approaches improve on Taylor and Ford by adapting the environment to facilitate the work, but the worker is still merely the medium of productivity, not an indispensable agent of it.

But this view of the workplace — and of the role of workers in it — may be poised to take an interesting turn. Breakthroughs in biological science point to a new, more potent set of techniques for enhancing on-the-job performance: a personalized approach in which each worker’s hormonal levels are constantly adjusted with the help of technological advances, often undetectably, to fit the task. In other words, the medium will, in fact, be the message.

That may sound like a CliffsNotes version of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, but the science behind it is far from fictional. Research by University of Texas at Austin’s Robert Josephs, Harvard Business School’s Francesca Gino and Amy J.C. Cuddy, and many others has increasingly revealed the connection between hormones and human actions. There is even an academic journal, called Hormones and Behavior, devoted to just that subject. Much of the researchers’ efforts have been focused on two hormones: testosterone, which increases when we have to compete because it minimizes fear and elevates sensitivity to reward, and cortisol, known as the stress hormone behind the fight-flight-freeze survival response that helps us react quickly to danger. In a hugely popular TED talk, Cuddy explained how assuming power poses could boost testosterone and lower cortisol in the brain, thrusting confidence higher and lowering anxiety. On the more disturbing side, a team including Josephs and Gino has shown that concurrent spikes in both testosterone and cortisol can lead to cheating and other unethical behavior.

These are just the very top layers of knowledge about potential hormonal influences on the way we act and react and how we perform best. As the scientific understanding of these connections builds, there will be increasing opportunities to integrate insight about positive and negative hormonal fluctuations and their impact on behavior into both the task and environment design of the workplace.

For instance, intriguing new possibilities involve the ability to dynamically shift environments with tools including light bulbs with a range of spectrum options, multiple digital sound systems and playlists, and varying LED projections. In combination, these components can be automatically adjusted in a “smart” workplace to optimize your level of cortisol. When you are contemplating a vexing design problem, stress may be lowered by a scene of dense foliage displayed on a nearby wall and the sound of a gently babbling brook. The next day, sitting in the same chair, you could be surrounded by a vibrant, cortisol-boosting cityscape and throbbing electronic dance music as you power toward a deadline.

Technology also can be used to relieve us of stressful mundane tasks, which in turn will further reduce cortisol levels. You won’t have to walk to Jane’s office to find out if she’s in when motion sensors can report to your mobile device that the room is vacant. Meetings can be automatically rescheduled when flight or traffic delays detain participants.

In this vision of the — dare I say it — hormonal workplace, advances in biometric technology will make it relatively easy to gauge individual chemical levels over periods of time. In fact, there are already smartphone apps in development that soon will be widely available to test cortisol concentration with a saliva sample. Many healthcare professionals believe that simple biometric diagnostic tools will replace full-fledged blood tests before long. That’s especially important because researchers have found that employee testosterone levels can guide how organizational projects are structured. Josephs shared research with me showing that naturally high-testosterone individuals tend to work harder alone, seeking sole credit for a job well done, while those with relatively lower levels are more engaged by group activities.

There are, of course, both utopian and dystopian ways for this new workplace concept to play out. But that was also true with 20th century notions. After all, Taylor actually had worker welfare in mind when developing the principles of scientific management, not the Lucy-in-the-chocolate-factory exploitation that has became associated with his ideas. And the original Action Office designer, Robert Propst, likely didn’t envision that his attempt to counteract office design that “saps vitality, blocks talent, and frustrates accomplishment” would evolve into today’s cube farms that do just that.

Leaders will soon have unprecedented abilities to treat individuals as individuals.

Consequently, the dark side of a more individualized workplace could mean that there might be pressure to manage, or manipulate, hormone levels pharmacologically; in other words, performance-enhancing drugs for the executive suite or the assembly line. Or that supervisors focused only on output may continually tweak each employee’s environment to push them to deliver more and more. This could be stress-inducing in itself, requiring additional adjustments until the attempt to view people as individuals turns into a pattern of treating them as adjustable machines.

All this is to say that it would be wise to have your human resources team and your facilities staff begin to learn about these latest developments connecting biology and design. In this latest nature-versus-nurture debate, gains from flexible adaptation will be as or more important than traditional savings through scale. Leaders will soon have unprecedented abilities to treat individuals as individuals. Let’s hope that they are wise enough to do so.


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