The neuroscience of trust

Through research on the brain chemical oxytocin, shown to facilitate collaboration and teamwork, this report presents a framework for building a culture of trust and fostering a happier, more loyal and more productive workforce.

This Harvard Business Review report shows that creating an employee-centric culture can be good for business, and reveals eight ways that leaders can effectively create and manage a culture of trust.

Key strategies for building trust:

  1. Recognize excellence. 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 it also inspires others to aim for excellence.
  2. Induce “challenge” stress. When a manager assigns a team a difficult but achievable job, the moderate stress of the task releases neurochemicals, including oxytocin and adrenocorticotropin, which 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.
  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. Autonomy also promotes innovation because different people try different approaches.
  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.
  5. Share information broadly. Only 40 per cent 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.
  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. Neuroscience experiments show that when people intentionally build social ties at work, their performance improves.
  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.
  8. Show vulnerability. Leaders in high-trust workplaces ask for help from colleagues instead of just telling them to do things. Asking for help is a sign of a secure leader — one who engages everyone to reach goals. It’s effective because it taps into the natural human impulse to cooperate with others.