The neuroscience of trust (2023)

in summary

The problem

Leaders know that low employee engagement is a sign of loss of value—it's clearly something they want to fix. But most of them don't know how, so they randomly award buffs, hoping it will move the needle.

The solution

It is much more effective to create a culture of trust. Neuroscience research shows you can do this through eight key management behaviors that stimulate the production of oxytocin, a brain chemical that facilitates teamwork.

A reward

By building organizational trust, you can increase employee productivity and energy levels, improve collaboration, and cultivate a happier and more loyal workforce.

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companies are becomingwe toEmpower and challenge your employees. They're anxious about the dismal state of the commit, and rightly so, given the value they're losing. Consider the Gallupmeta-analysisfrom decades of data: Shows that high engagement, largely defined as having a strong connection to work and colleagues, feeling like a true collaborator, and enjoying ample opportunities to learn, consistently leads to positive outcomes for people and organizations. The rewards include increased productivity, better quality products, and increased profitability.

So it's clear that creating an employee-centric culture can be good for business. But how to do this effectively? The culture is usually designed in an ad hoc fashion around random perks like gourmet meals or "karaoke Fridays," often under the control of some psychological fad. And despite the evidence thatyou can't buy greater job satisfaction,Organizations still use golden handcuffs to keep good employees in place. While such efforts may increase workplace happiness in the short term,they fail to have a lasting effect on talent retention or performance.

In my research, I found that building a culture of trust is what makes a significant difference. Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their peers, and stay with their employers longer than people who work in low-trust companies. They also experience less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors drive stronger performance.

Leaders understand what is at stake, at least in principle. in your 2016global CEO Survey,PwC reported that 55% of CEOs believe that a lack of trust is a threat to their organization's growth. But most have done little to build trust, mainly because they don't know where to start. In this article, I provide a science-based framework that will help you.

(Video) The Neurobiology of Trust

About a decade ago, in an effort to understand how company culture affects performance, I began measuring people's brain activity while they were working. The neuroscience experiments I conducted reveal eight ways leaders can effectively create and manage a culture of trust. I will describe these strategies and explain how some organizations are using them to good effect. But first, let's look at the science behind the structure.

What is happening in the brain

En 2001, inherits unmathematical relationship between trust and economic performance.Although my article on this research described the social, legal, and economic environments that cause differences in trust, I was unable to answer the most basic question: why do two people trust each other in the first place? Experiments conducted around the world have shown that human beings have a natural inclination to trust others, but not always. I figured there must be a neurological signal when to trust someone. So I started a long-term research program to see if this was true.

How confidence creates joy

Experiments show that having a heightened sense of purpose stimulates oxytocin production, as well as confidence. Confidence and purpose reinforce each other, providing a mechanism for the prolonged release of oxytocin, which produces happiness.

So joy at work comes from doing purposeful work with a trusted team. In the nationally representative data set described in the lead article, the correlation between (1) purposeful enhanced confidence and (2) joy is very high: 0.77. This means that joy can be considered a "sufficient statistic" that reveals how effectively your company's culture engages employees. To measure this, simply ask, "How much do you enjoy your job on a typical day?"

Did you know that in rodents, a brain chemical called oxytocin has been shown to signal that it is safe to approach another animal. I was wondering if this was the case in humans as well. No one had investigated this, so I decided to investigate. To objectively measure trust and its reciprocity (trustworthiness), my team used a strategic decision task developed by researchers in the lab of Nobel laureate in economics Vernon Smith. Inour experiment,a participant chooses an amount of money to send to a stranger via computer, knowing that the money will triple and understanding that the recipient may or may not share in the loot. Therein lies the conflict: the recipient can keep all the money or be trusted and share it with the sender.

To measure oxytocin levels during the exchange, my colleagues and I developed a protocol to draw blood from people's arms before and immediately after they made the decision to trust others (if they were senders) or to be trusted (if they were). they were receivers). . Because we didn't want to influence their behavior, we didn't tell the participants what the study was about, even though there was no way for them to consciously control the amount of oxytocin they produced. We found that the more money people received (indicating more trust from the senders), the more oxytocin their brains produced. And the number of oxytocin receptors produced predicted how trustworthy they would be—that is, how likely they were to share the money.

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      (Video) The Neuroscience of Trust - How to Build Trust in your Organization | Paul J. Zak

    Since the brain generates chemical messages all the time, it was possible that we were just looking at random changes in oxytocin.To demonstrate thatcausestrust,we safely administered doses of synthetic oxytocin into living human brains (via nasal spray). By comparing participants who received a real dose with those who received a placebo, we found that giving people 24 IU of synthetic oxytocin more than doubled the amount of money they would send to a stranger. Using a variety of psychological tests, we showed that those who received oxytocin remained cognitively intact. We also found that they did not take excessive risks in a gaming task, so the increase in confidence was not due to neural disinhibition. The oxytocin seemed to do only one thing: reduce the fear of confiding in a stranger.

    Compared to people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% more productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less wear.

    My group then spent the next 10 years conducting additional experiments to identify oxytocin promoters and inhibitors. This research told us why trust varies across individuals and across situations. For example, high stress is a potent inhibitor of oxytocin. (Most people intuitively know this: When they're stressed, they don't interact with other people effectively.) We also found that oxytocinincreases a person's empathy,a useful trait for social creatures trying to work together. We were starting to develop ideas that could be used to design high-confidence cultures, but to confirm them we needed to get out of the lab.

    So we got permission to run experiments at various field sites where we measured oxytocin and stress hormones and then tested the productivity and innovativeness of the employees. That research led me to the rainforest of Papua New Guinea, where I measured oxytocin in indigenous people to see if the link between oxytocin and trust is universal. (It is). Based on all these findings, I created a survey instrument that quantifies trust within organizations by measuring its constituent factors (described in the next section). This research allowed me to study thousands of companies and develop a framework for managers.

    How to manage to trust

    Through experiments and research, I have identified eight managerial behaviors that promote trust. These behaviors are measurable and can be managed to improve performance.

    Recognize excellence.

    Neuroscience shows that recognition has the greatest effect on trust when it occurs immediately after achieving a goal, when it comes from peers, and when it is tangible, unexpected, personal, and public. Public recognition not only uses the power of the crowd to celebrate successes, but also inspires others to strive for excellence. And it gives the best a forum to share best practices so others can learn from them.

    (Video) The Neuroscience of Trust | Presented by Dr. Paul J. Zak

    Barry-Wehmiller Companies, a provider of manufacturing and technology services, is a highly trusted organization that effectively recognizes the best in its 80 production automation manufacturers. CEO Bob Chapman and his team started a program in which employees at each plant annually nominate an outstanding colleague. The winner is kept secret until everyone is announced, and the venue is closed on the day of the celebration. Family and close friends of the chosen contributor are invited to participate (without notifying the winner), and the entire team joins them. Plant leaders begin the ceremony by reading the nomination letters about the winner's contributions and end it with a favorite perk: keys to a sports car the winner gets to drive for a week. While the recognition is not immediate, it is tangible, unexpected, both personal and public. And by having employees help pick the winners, Barry-Wehmiller gives everyone, not just the people at the top, a voice in what constitutes excellence. All of that seems to be working out well for the company: It has grown from a single factory in 1987 to a conglomerate that generates $2.4 billion in annual revenue today.

    Induce “challenge stress”.

    When a manager assigns a team a difficult but achievable job, the moderate stress of the task releases neurochemicals, such as oxytocin and adrenocorticotropin, that increase people's focus and strengthen social connections. When team members need to work together to achieve a goal, brain activity efficiently coordinates their behaviors. But that only works if the challenges are achievable and have a concrete end point; Vague or impossible goals make people give up before they even start. Leaders must check in frequently to assess progress and adjust goals that are too easy or out of reach.

    The need for accessibility is reinforced by the findings of Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile about theprogress power:When Amabile analyzed 12,000 daily records from employees across all industries, he found that 76% of people reported that their best days involved progress toward goals.

    Give people discretion in how they do their jobs.

    Once employees are trained, allow them, whenever possible, to manage people and execute projects in their own way. Being trusted to figure things out is a great motivator: A 2014Citigroup and LinkedIn Searchfound that nearly half of employees would forego a 20% raise to gain more control over how they work.

    Autonomy also promotes innovation, because different people try different approaches. Risk monitoring and management procedures can help minimize negative deviations as people experience them. And post-project reports allow teams to share how positive deviations occurred, so others can build on their success.

    Often younger or less experienced employees will be your key innovators because they are less constrained by what "usually" works. This is how progress has been made in autonomous cars. After five years and a significant US government investment in the big three automakers, not a single autonomous military vehicle had been produced. Changing course, theThe Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency offered all participants a large financial prizefor a self-driving car that could complete a drive in the Mojave Desert in less than 10 hours. Two years later, a group of Stanford University engineering students won the challenge and won $2 million.

    Enable job creation.

    When companies trust employees to choose which projects to work on, people focus their energies on what matters most to them. Consequence,organizations such as Morning Star Company— the world's largest producer of tomato products — has highly productive colleagues who stay with the company year after year. At Morning Star (a company I worked for), people don't even have titles; They self-organize into work groups.Valve, game software companyhe gives employees desks on wheels and encourages them to participate in projects that seem "interesting" and "paying." But they are still responsible. Clear expectations are set when employees join a new group, and 360-degree reviews take place when projects end, so individual contributions can be measured.

    Share information widely.

    only 40%of employees report that they are aware of their company's objectives, strategies and tactics. This uncertainty about the company's direction leads to chronic stress, which inhibits the release of oxytocin and impairs teamwork. Openness is the antidote. Organizations that share their "flight plans" with employees reduce uncertainty about where they are going and why. Ongoing Communication Is Key: The 2015study of 2.5 million manager-led teamsin 195 countries found that workforce engagement improved when supervisors had some form of daily communication with direct reports.

    Social media optimization company Buffer goes above and beyond by posting their salary formula online for all to see. Do you want to know how much CEO Joel Gascoigne makes? He just looks. This is opening.

    Build relationships intentionally.

    The brain network that activates oxytocin is evolutionarily ancient. This means that the trust and sociability that oxytocin enables is deeply ingrained in our nature. However, at work, we often get the message that we need to focus on completing tasks, not making friends.Neuroscience experiments from my labshow that when people intentionally build social ties at work, their performance improves.A Google studySimilarly, they found that managers who “express interest and concern for the success and personal well-being of team members” outperform others in the quality and quantity of their work.

    (Video) The Neuroscience of Trust

    Yes, even engineers need to socialize.A study of software 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. He can help people build social connections by sponsoring luncheons, after-work parties, and team building activities. It may sound like forced fun, but when people care about others, they perform better because they don't want to let their teammates down. Adding a moderate challenge to the mix (rafting counts) will speed up the social bonding process.

    Facilitate the growth of the whole person.

    High-trust workplaces help people develop personally and professionally. Numerous studies show thatacquiring new job skills is not enough;if you are not growing as a human being, your performance will suffer. High-trust companies adopt a growth mindset when developing talent. Some even feel that when managers set clear goals, empower employees to achieve them, and provide constant feedback, theretrospective annual performance review is no longer required.Instead, managers and direct reports can meet more frequently to focus on professional and personal growth. This is the approach taken by Accenture and Adobe Systems. Managers may ask questions like "Am I helping you get your next job?" plumb career goals. The assessment of personal growth includes discussions about the integration of work and personal life, family, and time for recreation and reflection. Investing in the whole person has a powerful effect on engagement and retention.

    Show vulnerability.

    Leaders in high-trust workplaces ask their colleagues for help rather than just telling them to get things done. My research team discovered thatthis stimulates the production of oxytocin in others,increase their trust and cooperation. Asking for help is a sign of a confident leader, one who involves everyone to achieve goals.Jim Whitehurst,The CEO of Red Hat, maker of open source software, said: “I found that being very open about things I didn't know actually had the opposite effect of what I thought. It helped me build credibility.” Asking for help is effective because it taps into the natural human impulse to cooperate with others.

    The return of trust

    After identifying and measuring the managerial behaviors that underpin trust in organizations, my team and I tested the impact of trust on business performance. We did this in several ways. First, we gathered evidence from a dozen companies that launched confidence-boosting policy changes (most were motivated by a drop in profit or market share). Second, we ran the aforementioned field experiments: At two companies where trust varies by department, my team assigned groups of employees specific tasks, measured their productivity and innovation on those tasks, and collected very detailed data, including direct measurements. of brain activity. – showing that trust improves performance. And third, with the help of an independent research company, we collected data in February 2016 from anational representativesample of 1,095 working adults in the US The findings from the three sources were similar, but I will focus on what we learned from the national data, as it is generalizable.

    By surveying employees on the degree to which companies practiced the eight behaviors, we were able to calculate each organization's level of trust. (To avoid encouraging respondents, we never use the word "trust" in surveys.) The US average for organizational trust was 70% (of a possible 100%). 47% of those surveyed worked in organizations where trust was below average, with one company scoring an abysmally low of 15%. Overall, companies scored lowest in recognition of excellence and information sharing (67% and 68%, respectively). Thus, the data suggests that the average American company could increase trust by improving in these two areas, even if it does not improve in the other six.

    The effect of confidence on self-reported job performance was powerful. Respondents whose companies were in the top quartile indicated that they had 106% more energy and were 76% more engaged at work than respondents whose companies were in the bottom quartile. They also reported being 50% more productive, which is consistent with our objective measures of productivity from studies we've conducted with employees at work. Trust also had a big impact on employee loyalty: Compared to employees at low-trust companies, 50% more of those working in high-trust organizations plan to stay with their employer in the next year, and 88 % more said they would recommend your company. business to family and friends as a place to work.

    My team also found that those who work at high-trust companies enjoy their work 60% more, are 70% more aligned with their company's purpose, and feel 66% closer to their peers. And a high-trust culture improves the way people treat each other and themselves. Compared with employees in low-trust organizations, high-trust people had 11% more empathy for their coworkers, 41% less depersonalization of them, and experienced 40% less burnout from their work. They also had a greater sense of accomplishment: 41% more.

    Again, this analysis supports the findings of our qualitative and scientific studies. But one surprising new thing we've learned is that highly trusted companies pay more. Employees earn an additional $6,450 per year, or 17% more, at companies in the highest trusted quartile compared to those in the lowest quartile. The only way this can happen in a competitive job market is if employees of highly trusted companies aremore productive and innovative.


    Former CEO of Herman MillerMax DePree once said:“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last one is to say thank you. Between the two, the leader must become a servant."

    The experiments I conducted strongly support this view. Ultimately, you cultivate trust by setting a clear direction, giving people what they need to move forward, and getting out of the way.

    (Video) The Neuroscience of Trust | Shaun Kenny | Build An Extraordinary Team, Ep 03

    It's not about going easy on your employees or expecting less of them. High-trust companies hold people accountable, but don't micromanage them. They treat people like responsible adults.

    A version of this article appeared onJanuary to February 2017edition (pp. 84–90) ofHarvard Business Review.


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