It’s difficult to avoid the topic of trust these days.  Lately it seems like there are ten different sides to every story, and phrases like “alternative facts” have made it into our vernacular.  It’s hard to know what we can count on and who we can depend on.  But given the influence of leaders in our lives, and how much time we spend at work, an organizational culture of reciprocal trust is certainly welcome.  This is possible, but it’s up to leaders to create and support this type of environment.

A recent article in the January/February 2017 issue of the Harvard Business Review, The Neuroscience of Trust, explains how leaders can create a “high-trust” environment and the impact this has on employees and the culture.  The author, Paul Zak, explains that many employers try to keep employees invested in their organizations by offering perks like financial incentives, lunchtime catering, or an office game room.  Another term for this is “extrinsic” motivators, since they are driven by external (to the individual) rewards.  (This is in contrast to “intrinsic” motivators, which are specific to the individual, like values).

In his research, Zak has found that such perks do not have a lasting effect on performance levels or employee retention.  However, what does make a difference is building a culture of trust.  Those of us working in high-trust organizations:

  • Are more productive
  • Collaborate more effectively
  • Enjoy our jobs more
  • Stay with our employers longer
  • Suffer less chronic stress
  • Are happier with our lives

Zak recognizes that many leaders want to foster this type of environment, but they don’t know how.  He has identified several behaviors that foster trust, such as:

Recognizing excellence.  Neuroscience shows that the greatest impact comes when the recognition happens immediately after a goal has been reached, when it comes from colleagues, and when it is public.  This does not need to be elaborate – even small forms of recognition can be powerful.  A separate study demonstrated that when our efforts are regarded, even in simple ways such as cursory review of our product or verbal acknowledgement, we require less extrinsic reward.

Allowing autonomy.  This includes how people manage their work as well as how people manage themselves.  For the first, make a distinction between the “what,” the goal to be accomplished and success criteria, and the “how,” or the specific steps to take to get there.  It is your job as a leader to provide the “what;” let your employees decide the “how.” And most professionals would rather have benefits such as non-traditional work hours and telework than a 20% raise.  Supporting these types of autonomy can go a long way to demonstrating and fostering trust.

Sharing information. Zak reports, “only 40% of employees report that they are well-informed about their company’s goals, strategies, and tactics.”  This uncertainty creates an environment of stress.  “Openness,” he says, “is the antidote.” Create a communication plan for your organization.  Set communication goals, determine who/what/when/how to reach them, and make sure organization-wide plans can be understood by a broader audience (or tailor accordingly).

Building relationships.  Many work environments emphasize completing tasks instead of cultivating connections.  However, Zak’s research shows that when people create social ties at work, their performance improves.  Another study found that people who worked in a culture where they felt free to express care and compassion for one another­ were more satisfied with their jobs, committed to the organization, and accountable for their performance.  Tasks define the job, but personal connections are at the heart of trust.

In an era when it’s challenging to know who and what to believe in, trust is more important and valued than ever.  Take the time and effort to create a high-trust environment, to the benefit of you, your employees, and your organization.

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