Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Happiness at work: Why money isn't the only thing that matters

By Dr Matthew Lieberman, Special to CNN
October 31, 2013 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
Researcher Ben Waber says expanding your circle of lunchtime companions can improve your performance.
Researcher Ben Waber says expanding your circle of lunchtime companions can improve your performance.
  • Human brain is rewarded for connections with others, writes Dr Matthew Lieberman
  • Social pain is just as valid as physical pain, according to Lieberman's new book
  • Socially-motivated employees creates happier and more productive workplace
  • Studies show recognition at work matters more than money to employees

Dr. Matthew Lieberman is professor of psychology, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA and author of "Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect". Follow him on Twitter. "Thinking Business" focuses on the psychology of getting ahead in the workplace by exploring techniques to boost employee performance, increase creativity and productivity.

(CNN) -- When all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In business, that hammer is money and the nail is employee productivity.

Employees at most companies are offered higher salaries or year-end bonuses in exchange for better output.

The quest to understand consciousness
The next age of neuroscience
Are blueberries good for your memory?
2007: Forgotten faces

Businesses better get some new tools quickly, because this hammer is not enough to get the job done.

Countless employees are unhappy, reporting that they only work for the money and yet would trade a raise for a better boss and work environment.

This is not a recipe for long term success. Anyone who wants to motivate employees needs to understand what motivates people in general.

Read: How power affects your brain

People certainly want more money so they can afford more of life's indulgences and have some protection against life's inevitable hazards.

But that is only part of the story. In my new book, "Social: Why our brains are wired to connect," I suggest that our brains are wired with another set of motivations, social motivations, that are just as fundamental as those that guide us towards physical pleasures and away from physical pains.

When we are socially rejected or threatened, we feel a kind of social pain, which activates the same brain regions that register the distress of physical pain.

Taking Tylenol even reduces the brain's response to social pain.

On the flip side, fair treatment, praise from others, and even the opportunity to help someone in need are all socially rewarding and activate the brain's most primitive pleasure centers.

Read: Can wearable technology boost your productivity?

Because infants depend on these social motivations in order to receive the care they need to survive, these urges are built into our operating system and stay with us for a lifetime.

This has serious consequences for the workplace. If companies do not create socially rewarding environments, it is sure to affect the bottom line.

One study found that individuals who were made to feel rejected scored 15% lower on an IQ test.
Dr Matthew Lieberman

One study found that individuals who were made to feel rejected scored 15% lower on an IQ test.

We can understand why someone who just broke their leg would score lower -- how could they possibly focus when experiencing intense pain?

Yet, the same is true of social injuries because all pain grabs our attention leaving less attention for other important things.

In contrast, praising employees may have many of the same motivational consequences as giving a raise, but at little cost to the company.

Read: Why success can hinder innovation

One study has found that employees were willing to give up almost $30,000 in yearly salary to be recognized for high praise at work.

Another study found that when employees were able to see firsthand how their work was helping others, their productivity more than doubled.

Being reminded of how their work was advancing their own careers had no effect.

Of course, we don't just blindly seek out social connection. We have powerful mind reading abilities that help us pursue these connections more successfully.

We understand the meaning of a sly smile or a furrowed brow and sarcastic humor is not lost on most of us.

We are masters of moving from others' visible signs to the invisible thoughts, feelings, and goals motivating other people.

This mind reading ability allows us to work well in teams together by predicting the needs of others around us and acting accordingly.

Read: Why doodling may boost concentration at work

One study has found that employees were willing to give up $30,000 in yearly salary to be recognized for high praise at work.
Dr Matthew Lieberman

Even though thinking about the physical world and thinking about the mental worlds of other people don't really feel like profoundly different kinds of thinking, recent brain imaging has shown that there are separate brain systems for these two kinds of thinking.

In fact, the brain regions supporting social and analytical thinking mostly function like a neural seesaw such that when one increases in activity, the other decreases.

This presents a problem in the workplace because we place such a premium on analytical thinking; we typically promote analytical problem solving at the expense of social problem solving, even though both are critically important.

Creating strong social networks in a company affect the bottom line just as much as the analytical abilities and training of the people within those networks.

Nowhere is the importance of social thinking more evident than in our leaders.

Read: The science behind positive thinking

A large recent survey found that leaders who are rated highly on being analytic and results focused are unlikely to be seen as great leaders, but if those same leaders also possess strong social skills, their chance of being seen as a great leader skyrockets.

It is then deeply troubling to find that only the tiniest fraction of leaders are seen as possessing both kinds of skills.

Money matters in the workplace -- there is no denying it. But money isn't the only thing that matters.

Our brains are built for connecting and as more companies begin to recognize this, the positive changes they bring to the workplace will help employees to work smarter, happier, and more productively.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dr Matthew Lieberman.

Part of complete coverage on
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1549 GMT (2349 HKT)
man standing on mountain looking at the view
Leadership expert Keith Yamashita explains how you can find what's meaningful to you and apply it to your life and career.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 1551 GMT (2351 HKT)
Do you know when to stop? Writer and TED talker Pico Iyer on how sometimes doing nothing can make you more productive.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
Want to launch a social enterprise or learn to 3D print? Schools that can teach you that, and everything in between, are opening worldwide.
November 7, 2014 -- Updated 1032 GMT (1832 HKT)
Many successful millionaires are introverts. In fact, alone time and quiet reflection can translate into big bucks further down the road.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
Great leadership isn't just about what you are doing right, it's about what you aren't doing wrong.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1134 GMT (1934 HKT)
A growing body of research suggests that work spaces more connected with nature are relaxing and can help you come up with better ideas.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1054 GMT (1854 HKT)
Car crashes, psycho bosses and the 2008 financial meltdown. You might be surprised to see what they all have in common.
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
It sounds unbelievable: Strap on a headset and send targeted electrical currents into your brain to get more energy, improve your focus or calm down.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Even if it feels phony at first, studies show that standing in certain positions changes the chemical balance in your brain, making you feel more powerful.
October 7, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Mapping your goals is the most powerful way of planning for success. But don't write them, draw them and your subconscious will take over.
October 31, 2013 -- Updated 1909 GMT (0309 HKT)
memory, brain, illustration, malleability
Sometimes, the first step toward a great answer is to reframe the question.
October 31, 2013 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
Research shows socially-motivated employees create happier and more productive work environments. So why aren't more businesses stepping up?
October 30, 2013 -- Updated 1541 GMT (2341 HKT)
It's a familiar scenario. You're in a meeting and realize you haven't heard a word of what your boss is saying because you were thinking about the dry cleaning.
October 29, 2013 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Meryl Streep playing Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.
We all know the story. Someone gets promoted at work and suddenly they change -- they start forgetting their peers or turn into bullies.
October 29, 2013 -- Updated 1556 GMT (2356 HKT)
Whether it's infuriating colleagues, inept management or a lack of appreciation, the modern day workplace can be a positivity free zone.
October 29, 2013 -- Updated 1557 GMT (2357 HKT)
When making a big decision, how aware are you of the underlying brain processes informing your choices?
October 29, 2013 -- Updated 1559 GMT (2359 HKT)
The common doodle has long been condemned as the offspring of the slovenly and the cynical...Until now.
October 29, 2013 -- Updated 1602 GMT (0002 HKT)
With great power comes great responsibility. There is some confusion over whether this quote should be attributed to Voltaire or Spiderman.
October 29, 2013 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
A real human brain being displayed as part of new exhibition at the @Bristol attraction is seen on March 8, 2011 in Bristol, England. The Real Brain exhibit - which comes with full consent from a anonymous donor and needed full consent from the Human Tissue Authority - is suspended in large tank engraved with a full scale skeleton on one side and a diagram of the central nervous system on the other and is a key feature of the All About Us exhibition opening this week.
Getting stuck in your own success can be the death knell for innovation, says author Noreena Hertz.