Trust is in short supply these days. Just ask disengaged employees or disillusioned job seekers. So, how do you encourage it as a leader or manager? As a job seeker, how do you know if a potential employer has a culture of trust? This post looks at helpful advances in neuroscience and how you can apply the learning.

Intuitively, and from our past experiences, we trust some people more than others. That’s fine if you’re good at reading other people or have a great experience. Some people see the best in another person and treat them as they find them. Until the unwelcome surprise of being let down. However, others are more suspicious at first and want more proof before they’ll trust them. It can be a bit hit and miss. Now, neuroscience is taking the guesswork out of the equation.

What does the neuroscience say?

More than a decade ago, American neuroscientist, Paul Zak of Claremont University, began measuring the brain activity of people while they worked. Eventually, his experiments proved his hypothesis that there is a neurological signal that indicates when we should trust someone.

Think of your brain as like a soup of neurotransmitters and hormones. One of these chemicals is Oxytocin. It is variously called the Trust Hormone, the Cuddle Hormone or the Moral Molecule. Why? Because neuroscientists can now show that the release of Oxytocin reduces anxiety and triggers virtuous behaviours for trust, love, bonding, warmth, and collaboration. Trust is 30% hereditary (you don’t inherit distrust) which means 70% is environmental.

And that is powerful knowledge in your hands because it means your management behaviours can foster employee engagement.

  • Oxytocin is the brain chemical that produces the ‘I believe in you/I want to help you’ effect of followers towards leaders.
  • It is the biological basis for the Golden Rule. Oxytocin makes it feel good to co-operate with others by increasing our empathy for others.
  • On average, women release Oxytocin more than men. Men release more Testosterone than women and it competes with Oxytocin, so Oxytocin can be stifled. One stimulates competition, the other stimulates collaboration and co-operation. Oxytocin shuts down under high stress and extreme competition.
  • Oxytocin is stimulated by positive social encounters. Enhanced empathy stays active in the brain for about 30 minutes thereafter.

The challenge for leaders is to help release oxytocin among their teams throughout the day to bolster and sustain interpersonal trust for performance improvement.

Joy on the job comes from doing purpose-driven work with a trusted team. Paul Zak

What does the organisational research say?

There is a rich history of organisational research into what motivates and engages us and the role that trust plays. In general, relationship trust is about consistent behaviour relating to your character and competence. Identifying a biological contribution to what creates trust adds another layer of insight. Excitingly, it offers an opportunity for intelligent human design to shape our work environments for the better. Here are some recent approaches that fit well with the neuroscience:

  1. Amy Cuddy says that people quickly judge others on two criteria when they first meet – competence (do I respect you?) and warmth (do I trust you?).
  2. Simon Sinek outlines three essential ingredients for work fulfillment – autonomy (give me space to work on my ideas), mastery (let me get better at the stuff that I’d do in my own time anyway), and purpose (I want to contribute because I believe in this).
  3. Stephen M.R. Covey breaks down trust and credibility into integrity (do you do what you say?), intent (do you have a hidden agenda?), capabilities (are you relevant?), and results (what is your track record?).
  4. Gallup’s Q12 research shows the significance of employee engagement on personal and business outcomes. Having a strong connection with your work and colleagues, feeling like a real contributor, and enjoying many opportunities to learn.
  5. Frances Frei says if you want to build and rebuild trust, focus on authenticity, empathy, and logic.

Building a culture of trust is what makes a meaningful difference. Paul Zak

8 strategies to stimulate trust

neuroscienceIn an HBR article, Paul Zak shares (with measurable results) eight ways that leaders effectively create and manage a culture of trust.

  1. Recognising and celebrating excellence – because then people feel good. Do it immediately after a goal has been met, and make it peer-led, tangible, unexpected, personal, and public.
  2. Facing healthy challenges – because then people want to step up and achieve. Assign a difficult but achievable job to your team, check on progress, adjust and stretch the goal if necessary.
  3. Having control and learning from mistakes – because it empowers people. Give people discretion in how they do their work. Trust them to figure things out.
  4. Job crafting – because trusting people energises them. Let people focus their energies on what they care about most.
  5. Open, candid communications and information sharingbecause it encourages reciprocity. Increase reassurance and reduce uncertainty by sharing business direction, strategies, and current position.
  6. A caring environment – because it taps into people’s empathy. Intentionally build in social ties at work. Interest in and concern for colleagues are the foundations of real teamwork. Commitment and mutual accountability occur when people care about each other.
  7. Investing in whole person growth – because it motivates people. Skills development is no longer enough. Help people to grow as human beings, with their ambitions, and with work-life integration.
  8. Being authentic, honest and vulnerable – because then people want to help. Be open about what you don’t know and ask for help when you need it. This is not about declaring your incompetence, but about humility and knowing when to tap into the genuine warmth, appreciation, and expertise of your followers.

Feedforward to develop

Based on the above, Paul Zak and Ken Nowack of Envisia have developed a leadership assessment that leverages neuroscience to show leaders what to do more, less or differently to create a high-trust culture within their team. Not only can you create powerful forces of positive energy to drive performance, but you’ll also become a magnet for new hires who want to work in a culture of trust.

Ultimately, you cultivate trust by setting a clear direction, giving people what they need to see it through, and getting out of their way. High-trust companies treat people like responsible adults. Paul Zak

So, wake up and smell the roses by stimulating your oxytocin (and giving others more hugs)!

No organisation is perfect and if you don’t pay attention to your company’s culture, it will derail or hold back your business. If you want help, get in touch today to see how I can support you or your business to grow and develop a culture of trust.