The Neuroscience of Trust

by Ron Potter

The brain is an amazing thing.  I’ve read a few things through the years about how brain chemistry affects Trust.  But a recent article on the Harvard Business Review shed even more light on the topic.

The Neuroscience of Trust

is written by Paul Zak.  Over a decade ago Mr. Zak and his research began to measure the brain activity of people while they worked.  His research began to reveal eight ways that leaders can effectively create and manage a culture of trust.  His research began to reveal some amazing things but he admits that he couldn’t answer the question: Why do two people trust each other in the first place?  Humans are naturally inclined to trust but don’t always.  Why?

This began a ten-year search to find a neurologic signal that we should trust someone.

The first signal that began to show up was our levels of Oxytocin in our brains.  High Oxytocin levels during our exchange with others seemed to be a clear indicator of trust while low levels made us cautious and less apt to trust.  Oxytocin appeared to do just one thing – reduce the fear of trusting a stranger.

From this research, Mr. Zak began to see eight behaviors that increased Oxytocin and increased levels of trust.

Eight Management behavior that fostered trust.

The eight elements that have become effective include:

  1. Recognize Excellence
  2. Induce “challenge stress”
  3. Give people discretion in how they do their work.
  4. Enable job crafting
  5. Share information broadly
  6. Intentionally build relationships
  7. Facilitate whole-person growth
  8. Show vulnerability

I will not go into each topic in depth.  You can read the article at: https://hbr.org/2017/01/the-neuroscience-of-trust for more detail.  But I do want to highlight a few points I’ve experienced in my 30 years of consulting.

Recognize Excellence

Annual performance reviews don’t work.  Someone once said that if you wait a few days to punish or reward a dog for his behavior he has no idea of the cause and doesn’t learn anything.  I’m not trying to compare humans to dogs but the brain science of punishment and rewards are the same.  If they are not received almost immediately while the incident is fresh in everyone’s mind, almost no learning takes place.  Immediate recognition for excellence is highly rewarding to the individual.

Induce “challenge stress”

When a challenge is difficult but achievable, it releases Oxytocin in the brain that intensifies focus and strengthens social connections.   But this works only if challenges are attainable and have a specific endpoint.  Vague or impossible goals cause people to give up before they even start and reduces the level of Oxytocin, making it more difficult to trust.

Give people discretion in how they do their work.

One of the interesting outcomes of this issue I’ve seen through the years is that when a boss not only tells employees what to do but also how to do it, it creates an attitude in people that says, “If the boss is going to tell me how to do a task, I’ll never do it exactly as they think it should be done, therefore, I’m not going to do anything until I’m told how to do it.”  People are no longer invested in their work and will do the bare minimum required.

Enable job crafting

Mr. Zak’s statement on this topic is “The companies trust employees to choose which project they’ll work on, people focus their energies on what they care about most.”  Often there are tasks to be done that nobody really wants to do.  That’s reality.  However, people know that these tasks exist and understand that they must be accomplished for the company to fully function.  They really don’t mind doing these tasks if they know that they’ll also be given ample opportunity to complete tasks they care about.  Make sure they realize that you’ll allow them to do those desired tasks as much as you can.

Share information broadly

Only 40% of employees report that they are well informed about their company’s goals, strategies, and tactics.  I’ve worked with the Denison Consulting group for many years.  (https://www.denisonconsulting.com).  Years ago they developed a corporate culture survey where they can demonstrate that companies who score higher on the overall chart also perform better financially.  Three key elements of that survey include Vision, Goals and Objectives, Strategic Direction and Intent.  Sharing these things with all employees on a regular basis produces better financial results.

Intentionally build relationships

Through the years I’ve heard many corporate leaders make the statement “I’m not here to be their friend, I’m here to get the task done.”  Wrong!  You don’t have to be fishing or drinking buddies but people need to know that you care for them as human beings, not just for what they can accomplish.  Get to know your people.  Build relationships.

Facilitate whole-person growth

High trust workplaces help people develop personally as well as professionally.  This requires that you intentionally build relationships.  You must know the whole person, not just what they do.  All too often managers believe they’re investing in their people because they’re giving them training courses to further their skills in what they already do.  While appreciated it’s not investing in the whole person.  I heard one story of a manager who knew that one of her employees loved playing the guitar in a small band.  So that manager bought the employee a new and upgraded guitar.  That investment indicated to the employee that they were understood as a whole person and that gift increased trust and loyalty well beyond what a training course in advanced accounting would have ever done.

Show vulnerability

Even though this is the last one on the list I would rather it be number one.  Good leaders are humble human beings.  It takes humility to be vulnerable.  Humble leaders genuinely ask for the input of their team.  They don’t have all the answers.  Research indicates that this aspect alone produces a great deal of oxytocin in others which increases their trust and cooperation.

List of eight

So there is the list of eight behaviors that foster trust:

  1. Recognize Excellence
  2. Induce “challenge stress”
  3. Give people discretion in how they do their work.
  4. Enable job crafting
  5. Share information broadly
  6. Intentionally build relationships
  7. Facilitate whole-person growth
  8. Show vulnerability

If you’re a leader trying to develop trust and teamwork, don’t try to tackle them all at once.  That becomes confusing to the team.  Pick the issue that you think will return the greatest rewards.  Ask the team if you’ve picked the right one and listen with the intent to understand.  That act in itself will require humility/vulnerability which will instantly increase trust.  Work on that one item and get frequent feedback from the team about your progress.  Once you’ve got that first one producing good results, tackle the next one.  You’ll be surprised how quickly the others begin to fall in place once you get better at the most important two or three.

Build trust.  It’s the only way to build great teams.

 

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