Neuroscience tells us that building trust requires leaders to invest in employees, redefine failure and champion shared accountability.
Over the past few years, while leaders have been looking the other way, employees have become increasingly disillusioned with once-trusted institutions.
Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer, which surveyed over 32,000 people globally, including more than 1150 in Australia, found that Australia’s Trust Index (the average per cent trust in business, government and media) dropped from 53 per cent in 2022 to 48 per cent in 2023.
The impact of this deterioration is palpable. According to a report published by Gallup earlier this year, a staggering four in five employees in Australia are feeling disengaged and disconnected from work. Gallup’s research estimates the cost of low engagement in Australia alone is AU$211 billion per year.
As well as employees losing a sense of connection with their organisation, Gallup’s findings show this environment is also impacting trust dynamics among teams and individuals, particularly among younger generations whose careers sprouted in the age of remote work.
Despite awareness of this issue in principle, when it comes to acting on the erosion of trust, it’s often the case that leaders don’t know where to begin. Trust tends to be seen as a nebulous social construct that’s difficult to build or influence in a strategic way.
In order to reap the economic and social benefits of high-trust cultures, such as higher productivity, better-quality products and increased profitability, leaders must first be able to answer a fundamental question: What makes our people trust one another?
The neuroscience of trust
Understanding the neuroscience of trust can provide valuable insight into what’s happening in our brains when we trust others.
Dr Kenneth Nowack, a licensed US-based psychologist and President/Senior Research Officer at Envisia Learning, has spent over two decades studying and building on the extensive research into the role of brain chemistry in interpersonal trust conducted by his neuroscience colleague Dr Paul J. Zak.
Zak’s lab was behind the discovery of the role of the prosocial peptide oxytocin – the neurochemical associated with social bonding – in generating trust.
“When your brain produces oxytocin while interacting with others, you’re motivated to cooperate and collaborate with them because you feel safe,” says Nowack. “Brain imaging experiments have shown that oxytocin results in a marked reduction in fear-associated brain-activity, enhancing psychological safety – the extent to which you believe others will treat you with respect and civility.
“The more oxytocin your brain makes, the more you feel empathy towards others, connecting you emotionally and nudging you to invest in helping them.”
To measure the role of oxytocin in trust and trustworthiness, Zak conducted a number of experiments wherein participants chose an amount of money to send to a stranger via an online transfer. They were informed that the money would triple in amount upon sending, and the recipient could either keep all the cash or share it with the sender.
The results showed that the more money people received (indicating more trust from the sender), the more oxytocin was produced in their brains. The recipients’ levels of oxytocin also predicted their trustworthiness – i.e. how likely they were to share the money.
Shifting these insights into the workplace, peer recognition initiatives can be an effective way to stimulate these neurochemical responses. For instance, programs where employees can nominate colleagues for rewards will incentivise employees to build reciprocal trust and create a link between trust and financial reward.
Four pillars of interpersonal trust
According to Nowack, at the heart of high-performing teams lie two essential elements: interpersonal trust and psychological safety. These connected concepts, rooted in neurobiology and driven by oxytocin, create an environment where individuals feel empowered to act on behalf of one another.
“[Interpersonal trust] can be defined as the extent to which you will give another person the benefit of the doubt to act on your behalf, given your appraisal of their skills, experience and competence,” he says. “On the other hand, psychological safety allows for a sense of confidence that you can challenge the status quo and express your thoughts and opinions without reservation, particularly in the face of opposition from others.”
Nowack refers to four independent pillars of psychological safety and interpersonal trust, all enabled by the brain’s release of oxytocin:
- Capability (‘I believe you have the necessary skill and ability’).
- Consistency (‘I believe you will act in a predictable and reliable manner’).
- Caring (‘I believe you are on my side’).
- Candour (‘I believe you will act with honesty and integrity’).
The research indicates that people assess others using these four pillars, and, if one is absent, it reduces their willingness to cooperate with others (interpersonal trust) and lowers the expectation that others will show support if one shares new ideas or challenges the status quo (psychological safety).
As well as exploring the mechanics of trust, Nowack and Zak quantified the economic benefits of high levels of trust within a company. Their findings clearly demonstrate the business case for high trust, psychologically safe working environments.
“The more oxytocin your brain makes, the more you feel empathy toward others, connecting you emotionally and nudging you to invest in helping them.” – Dr Kenneth Nowack, licensed US psychologist and President/senior research officer, Envisia Learning
In a 2017 study, which analysed a sample of working adults in the US, they found that employees at companies in the top quartile of trust and psychological safety had 106 per cent more energy at work than those in the lowest quartile. They also felt 76 per cent more engaged at work and 50 per cent more productive.
What’s more, high levels of trust had a positive impact on wellbeing. Those working in high-trust organisations reported less burnout, took fewer sick days and felt more satisfied with their lives outside of work.
A key indicator of employees’ trust in their organisations is how valued they feel at work, says Nowack. This is impacted by several factors, including reward and recognition, the level of autonomy they are given and the level of emphasis on wellbeing.
“Leaders can also consider additional ways to enhance a trust and safety culture, including [reframing] mistakes and [supporting] a culture of experimentation, success and failure.”
Destigmatising failures and encouraging shared accountability is essential to building trust, he says. If employees are less fearful of embarrassment and finger-pointing when things go wrong, they’re more likely to band together and collaborate rather than compete.
Curating trustworthy leadership
While HR can contribute to many aspects of trust-building initiatives, particularly in the wellbeing space, Nowack points out that the creation of high-trust cultures ultimately comes down to the behaviour of leaders and managers.
Leaders should be screened, selected and promoted based on their emotional and social competence, as well as their skills and abilities, he says. They should also be provided with candid feedback about their leadership style and the changes they could make to engender higher levels of trust among their teams.
As organisations continue to grapple with an employee disengagement crisis, coaching leaders to implement these research-backed, people-centric strategies can help them position themselves as trustworthy, supportive and psychologically safe workplaces worth showing up for.
A version of this article was originally published in the December 2023 edition of HRM Magazine.
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