Companies are twisting themselves into knots getting anxious about the sad state of engagement of their employees. And rightly so, given the value they’re losing. High engagement can be defined as having a strong connection with one’s work and colleagues, feeling like a real contributor, and enjoying ample chances to learn consistently, which leads to positive outcomes for everyone. The rewards include higher productivity, better-quality products, and increased profitability.
So it’s clear that creating an employee-centric culture can be great for business. But how do you do that effectively? Culture is typically designed in an ad hoc way around random perks like brown bag lunches or Karaoke Fridays. But despite the evidence that you can’t buy higher job satisfaction, organisations still use golden handcuffs to keep good employees in place. While such efforts might boost workplace happiness in the short term, they fail to have any lasting effect on talent retention or performance.
In my consultancy work with teams, I’ve found that building a culture of trust is what makes a meaningful difference. Employees in high-trust companies are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance.
Leaders understand the stakes, at least in principle. In its 2016 global survey of CEOs, PwC reported that 55% of CEOs think that a lack of trust is a threat to their organisation’s growth. But most have done little to increase trust, mainly because they aren’t sure where to start.
In an effort to understand how company culture affects performance, scientists began measuring the brain activity of people while they worked. So, let’s look at the science behind building trust.
What’s Happening in the Brain
Why do two people trust each other in the first place? Experiments around the world have shown that humans are naturally inclined to trust others, but don’t always. In rodents a brain chemical called oxytocin had been shown to signal that another animal was safe to approach. Could this also be the case in humans, too?
To measure trust and its reciprocation (trustworthiness) objectively, researchers used a ‘strategic decision’ task. In this experiment, a participant chose an amount of money to send to a stranger via computer, knowing that the money will triple in amount, whilst understanding that the recipient may or may not share the spoils.
Therein lies the conflict: The recipient can either keep all the cash or be trustworthy and share it with the sender.
To measure oxytocin levels during the exchange, blood was drawn from people’s arms before and immediately after they made decisions to trust others (if they were senders) or to be trustworthy (if they were receivers). Because they didn’t want to influence the behaviour of the participants, they weren’t told what the study was about, even though there was no way they could consciously control how much oxytocin they produced.
The researchers found that the more money people received (denoting greater trust on the part of senders), the more oxytocin their brains produced. And the amount of oxytocin recipients produced predicted how trustworthy – that is, how likely to share the money – they would be.
Since the brain generates messaging chemicals all the time, it was possible they had simply observed random changes in oxytocin. To prove that it causes trust, they safely administered doses of synthetic oxytocin into living human brains (through a nasal spray).
Comparing participants who received a real dose with those who received a placebo, they found that giving people synthetic oxytocin more than doubled the amount of money they sent to a stranger.
Using a variety of psychological tests, they showed that those receiving oxytocin remained cognitively intact. They also found that they did not take excessive risks in a gambling task, so the increase in trust was not due to neural disinhibition. Oxytocin appeared to do just one thing – reduce the fear of trusting a stranger.
These same researchers pent 10 years running additional experiments to identify the promoters and inhibitors of oxytocin. This research revealed why trust varies across individuals and situations. For example, high stress is a potent oxytocin inhibitor. Most people intuitively know this: When they are stressed out, they do not interact with others effectively.
They also discovered that oxytocin increases a person’s empathy, a useful trait for social creatures trying to work together. They started to develop insights that could be used to design high-trust cultures…but would this work outside of the lab, in the workplace?
Permission was granted to run experiments at numerous field sites where they measured oxytocin and stress hormones and then assessed employees’ productivity and ability to innovate. This research even took them to the rain forest of Papua New Guinea, where they measured oxytocin in indigenous people to see if the relationship between oxytocin and trust is universal. They found that it most definitely is.
How to Manage for Trust
Through the experiments and the surveys, researchers identified 8 management behaviours that foster trust. These behaviours are measurable and can be managed to improve performance.
1. Recognise excellence
The neuroscience shows that recognition has the largest effect on trust when it occurs immediately after a goal has been met, when it comes from peers, and when it’s tangible, unexpected, personal, and public.
Public recognition not only uses the power of the crowd to celebrate successes, but also inspires others to aim for excellence. And it gives top performers a forum for sharing best practices, so others can learn from them.
2. Induce ‘challenge stress’
When a manager assigns a team a difficult but achievable job, the moderate stress of the task releases neuro chemicals, including oxytocin and adrenocorticotropin, that intensify people’s focus and strengthen social connections.
When team members need to work together to reach a goal, brain activity coordinates their behaviours efficiently. But this works only if challenges are attainable and have a concrete end point; vague or impossible goals cause people to give up before they even start. Leaders should check in frequently to assess progress and adjust goals that are too easy or out of reach.
3. Give people discretion in how they do their work.
Once employees have been trained, allow them, whenever possible, to manage people and execute projects in their own way. Being trusted to figure things out is a big motivator: A 2014 Citigroup and LinkedIn survey found that nearly half of employees would give up a 20% raise for greater control over how they work.
Autonomy also promotes innovation, because different people try different approaches. Oversight and risk management procedures can help minimise negative deviations while people experiment. And post-project debriefs allow teams to share how positive deviations came about so that others can build on their success.
Often, younger or less experienced employees will be your chief innovators, because they’re less constrained by what ‘usually’ works. That’s how progress was made in self-driving cars. After five years and a significant investment by the U.S. government in the big three auto manufacturers, no autonomous military vehicles had been produced. Changing tack, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency offered all comers a large financial prize for a self-driving car that could complete a course in the Mojave Desert in less than 10 hours. Two years later a group of engineering students from Stanford University won the challenge…and $2 million.
4. Enable job crafting
When companies trust employees to choose which projects they’ll work on, people focus their energies on what they care about most. As a result, organisations like the Morning Star Company (the largest producer of tomato products in the world) have highly productive colleagues who stay with the company year after year. At Morning Star people don’t even have job titles; they self-organise into work groups.
Gaming software company Valve gives employees desks on wheels and encourages them to join projects that seem ‘interesting’ and ‘rewarding’. But they’re still held accountable. Clear expectations are set when employees join a new group, and 360-degree evaluations are done when projects wrap up, so that individual contributions can be measured.
5. Share information broadly
Only 40% of employees report that they are well informed about their company’s goals, strategies, and tactics. This uncertainty about the company’s direction leads to chronic stress, which inhibits the release of oxytocin and undermines teamwork. Openness is the antidote. Organisations that share their ‘flight plans’ with employees reduce uncertainty about where they are headed and why.
6. Intentionally build relationships
The brain network that oxytocin activates is evolutionarily old. This means that the trust and sociality that oxytocin enables are deeply embedded in our nature. Yet at work we often get the message that we should focus on completing tasks, not on making friends.
Neuroscience experiments show that when people intentionally build social ties at work, their performance improves. A Google study similarly found that managers who ‘express interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being’ outperform others in the quality and quantity of their work.
Yes, even engineers need to socialise. A study of software engineers in Silicon Valley found that those who connected with others and helped them with their projects not only earned the respect and trust of their peers but were also more productive themselves. You can help people build social connections by sponsoring lunches, after-work parties, and team-building activities. It may sound like forced fun, but when people care about one another, they perform better because they don’t want to let their teammates down. Adding a moderate challenge to the mix (white-water rafting counts) will speed up the social-bonding process.
7. Facilitate whole-person growth
High-trust workplaces help people develop personally as well as professionally. Numerous studies show that acquiring new work skills isn’t enough; if you’re not growing as a human being, your performance will suffer.
High-trust companies adopt a growth mindset when developing talent. Some even find that when managers set clear goals, give employees the autonomy to reach them, and provide consistent feedback, the backward-looking annual performance review is no longer necessary. Instead, managers and direct reports can meet more frequently to focus on professional and personal growth.
Leaders in high-trust workplaces ask for help from colleagues instead of just telling them to do things. Research has found that this stimulates oxytocin production in others, increasing their trust and cooperation. Asking for help is a sign of a secure leader – one who engages everyone to reach goals. Asking for help is effective because it taps into the natural human impulse to cooperate with others.
Former Herman Miller CEO, Max De Pree, once said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant.”
Ultimately, you cultivate trust by setting a clear direction, giving people what they need to see it through, and getting out of their way.
It’s not about being easy on your employees or expecting less from them. High-trust companies hold people accountable but without micro-managing them.
They treat people like responsible adults.