What can managers do to promote trust in the workplace?

In a good article on the neural basis of trust, Paul J. Zak examines how managers (and everyone else) can help to foster trust in the people around them. People all around the world, regardless of culture or language, are naturally inclined towards trusting other humans. It makes sense that it would be an evolutionary trait because if you imagine a human society of 30,000 years ago, the other humans nearby were much more likely to help than any other creatures who were roaming around.

Over many years of research, first with rats and then with humans, Zak has shown that trust is connected to the chemical oxytocin.  The brain network that oxytocin activates is evolutionarily old and  the trust and sociality that oxytocin enables are deeply embedded in our nature.

But of course, anyone who has ever worked in a company or any other large organization knows that trust is not necessarily all that common. Poor communication within companies is a big drain on the potential growth of the company and this poor communication is usually a result of insufficient trust.

Having trust in the workplace is useful. In fact, Zak’s research reports that companies who are in the top quartile of trust ratings have a relative productivity boost of 50%. That is a lot of extra productivity, but how can managers create this trust. See the Harvard Business Review article for more benefits of trust in the workplace.

In Zak’s experiments, the researchers injected people with artificial oxytocin to increase trust levels. That is all very well in a laboratory but probably less practical in the average company where workers have rights and don’t necessarily want to be injected with a day’s worth of trust chemical when they clock in at 9am.

So, managers need to somehow create trust through everyday workplace behaviours, the way that it has been done for at least the last 30,000 years.

Recognize excellence

When something is good, let the person know. People like to be acknowledged. False praise is unsustainable and unbelievable in the long term, so choose the aspects of performance that are genuinely high quality.

Induce “challenge stress”

Give workers challenging but achievable tasks. Push people to their limits but not too far beyond! To me, this is reminiscent of the concept of Flow put forward by the psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Wikipedia offers the following definition of flow:

flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Give people discretion in how they do their work

Set a clear goal, but let people find their own ways to do that. People need to feel agency.

Enable job crafting

Job crafting essentially means trusting your employees deeply and allowing employees to develop and craft their own jobs over time. After all, an employee probably is the expert on whatever their job is, so presumably they know how it can be improved. Job crafting can be tricky and may definitely cause issues in traditional or hierarchical workplaces.

Share information broadly

It’s easy to share information now by putting it on the internal network. While being careful not to cause information overload, people become more trusting of the company when they are allowed access more information.

Intentionally build relationships

Of course, the task is important. At work, we want to get something done. But if we really want to get something done by a group of people, it is a whole lot easier and quicker to get it done when they are getting along well with each other. Managers should take the time to build relationships with employees and between employees.

Facilitate whole-person growth

The assembly line is still alive in some parts of the world, but most managers now recognize that Taylorism is not a perfect model (Taylor was the guy who created the theory and practical model of the conveyor belt assembly belt where every piece of work was measured and timed.) People are not just cogs in a machine. They need to be treated as whole people, and doing so creates trust.

Show vulnerability

Finally, show your own humanity by occasionally being vulnerable. You don’t need to cry and hug all your employees, but opening up just a little to them about your own doubts and worries can make them remember that no-one is perfect. More importantly, it leads to more trust.