Salivating in Class

Testosterone and cortisol levels in our saliva can predict how we’ll work in groups, according to Modupe Akinola, associate professor of management.

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Based on research by Modupe Akinola, Elizabeth Page-Gould, Pranjal Mehta, and Jackson Lu

Would you like to give a saliva sample?

It may sound like a peculiar request for senior executives enrolled in the Business School’s Advanced Management Program. But Modupe Akinola, associate professor of management, says she has good reason for collecting the saliva of businesspeople: It can help offer insight into their performance in groups and in the C-Suite. 

“I take saliva samples from senior executives and use that information to empower them,” says Akinola. “It allows them to better understand how they might behave in competitive situations, such as in negotiations, and whether those behaviors will help them in terms of the outcomes they desire. I also teach them how to modulate their hormone levels and behavioral response in light of their levels.”

According to two recently published studies by Akinola, the levels of testosterone and cortisol found in a person’s saliva reflects their motivation to compete or cooperate in group settings, and predicts how they perform in homogenous or diverse groups. As corporate boards and leadership teams seek to add new voices and become increasingly diverse, it is beneficial to know how different characteristics of group members — including their hormone levels — can aid or hinder cooperation.

How Hormones Work in Group Settings

For Akinola’s studies — conducted with Business School doctoral candidate Zaijia Liu, Elizabeth Page-Gould of the University of Toronto, Pranjal H. Mehta of University College London, and G. Jackson Lu of MIT — the saliva samples of 370 MBA students were collected to determine their testosterone and cortisol levels. The students, organized into 74 groups called learning teams upon arrival at Columbia Business School, then competed in a game simulating the operation of a for-profit medical laboratory.

According to Akinola’s first resulting paper, titled “Collective Hormonal Profiles Predict Group Performance” and published in 2016 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, groups collectively high in testosterone but low in cortisol showed the best performance. The study suggested that while high testosterone is linked to competitive drive and status pursuit, it only results in optimal decision-making when coupled with low cortisol, which is a signifier of low stress and less inhibition.

Based on the same dataset, this year Akinola published a follow-up paper in Psychological Science that shows how collectively high levels of testosterone in a group are less advantageous in diverse settings and can potentially fuel intragroup conflict. According to the second paper, titled “Hormone-Diversity Fit: Collective Testosterone Moderates the Effect of Diversity on Group Performance. “Too much collective testosterone maximizes the pains and minimizes the gains from diversity.”

So when did diverse teams perform well? When they were collectively low in testosterone and presumably were more motivated to cooperate and collaborate within the group. Indeed, diversity can be a huge asset if potential background conflicts are overcome, as Akinola’s colleagues at the Business School have also found in previous studies. Reuben Mark Professor of Organizational Character Katherine W. Phillips and Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business Adam Galinksy reported in another study that the benefits of diversity — such as more effective decision-making, innovation, and even economic growth — can be harnessed through tactics such as perspective taking.

Akinola’s team is currently conducting follow-up research to determine how hormonal levels can influence team dynamics across different types of tasks and over longer time periods of time.

Appreciate the Differences

While hormones can help predict behavior and group dynamics, Akinola says she isn’t advocating for firms and hiring managers to give saliva tests to employees and job candidates. Rather, employees themselves might benefit from knowing their hormone levels so they can better understand their biological traits and their core tendencies.

“Organizations encourage managers to know their Myers-Briggs type or their DiSC profiles, hoping that this information will help them be more effective,” Akinola says. “Likewise, knowing one’s hormone levels can provide valuable information on one’s tendencies. All of this information can give leaders insight into how they may behave in certain situations, allowing them to use that knowledge to benefit themselves and those around them.”

“There are so many levers that managers can use in terms of composing teams and in terms of motivating teams,” adds Akinola. “But one thing we know for sure is that when people get to know each other, if they find ways to appreciate differences, this can meaningfully affect performance.”

About the researcher

Modupe Akinola

Modupe Akinola is the Sanford C. Bernstein Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School. Prior to pursuing a career...

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