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3 research-backed ways to build trust

September 2, 2019 - 6 min read
3 Research-Backed Ways to Build Trust

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The neuroscience of trust (a primer)

3 ways to build trust, according to science

Trust is the foundation of any successful organization. When team members feel trusted, they’re better able to bring their whole selves to work, and do their best work. But the skill of trust-building remains elusive to many. Randy Conley, vice president of client services and trust practice leader for The Ken Blanchard Cos, writes, “Leadership is a complex recipe that requires many ingredients, but trust is one must-have factor.”

Here’s some good news: while you can’t make someone like you, neuroscience suggests that you can influence how much they’ll trust you, and in turn, empower yourself to build an organization that’s built upon trust.

The neuroscience of trust (a primer)

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Professor Paul J. Zak described what happened during an experiment in which individuals were asked to send a stranger money, knowing that the amount sent would triple and the lucky recipient could make a choice: to share or not share their loot.

What Zak’s team found is that the more money individuals received, the more oxytocin was generated in their brains. Oxytocin, also dubbed the "love molecule," plays a crucial part in the neuroscience behind trust-building. Further tests found additional connections between oxytocin and trust-building in interpersonal workplace relationships.

As people are trusted, it turns out, the human tendency is to trust in return. This all sounds good, but how do you make someone feel trusted so that they in turn will trust, too (without monetary incentive)?

3 ways to build trust, according to science

Being a micromanager can actually inhibit trust-building within your organization.

A meta-analysis by Dirks and Ferrin (2002) found that when people trust their leaders, they have higher levels of job performance, job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and are less likely to want to change jobs. Creating a culture that emphasizes transparency and honesty is critical to trust-building. When leaders give individuals insight into decisions and follow through with promises, employees in turn, become more trusting.

On the flip side, certain leadership behaviors, like micro-managing, can “kill motivation, employee creativity and job satisfaction.” Otherwise, being a micromanager can actually inhibit trust-building within your organization.

Here are a few science-backed ways you can begin to establish a more trusting organization:

  1. Align on values and communicate them often. Mayer, Davis, and Schoorman (1995) developed a well known model of trust in organizations composed of perceived ability, benevolence, and integrity. Put differently, when we perceive teammates as competent, having our best interest at heart, and as ascribing to a set of values we endorse, we are more likely to trust them.
    • In practice: Try to identify and discuss shared values with teammates. For example, you may share a belief in the mission of your organization, the principle of honesty, or treating others with respect. The more common values you can connect around, the more trust you will build.
  2. Build confidence through coaching. A study by Ladegard and Gjerde (2014) found that leaders who received leadership coaching were not only more confident in their leadership skills, but actually trusted their direct reports more as a result of receiving coaching. Consequently, their team members had lower levels of intention to leave the organization.
    • In practice: Coaches act as a trusted partner in individuals’ personal development. By getting a coach of your own or hiring a coach to work with individuals on your team, you will likely benefit by building a more trusting work environment.
  3. Offer support. Wu and Parker (2017) found that leaders who offer “secure-base support” in the form of being available, providing encouragement, and granting autonomy to their team members, facilitated higher levels of autonomous motivation and proactive work behavior.
    • In practice: Consider Roger L. Martin’s seminal work around the “choiceless doer.” Often, leaders set a strategy and expect the rest of the organization to simply execute. But this approach (which is surely not rooted in trust) often results in a lack of innovation. Martin argues that to empower individual decision-making, “choice makers upstream should set the general context for those downstream” but then allow flexibility and individual judgement at various levels of the organization.

Building trust is both an art and a science. And in addition to helping create an inclusive and “friendlier” work environment, an organization built on trust is one that’s more sustainable, more effective, and better able to retain its best talent.

Original art by Theo Payne.

Many thanks to Hunter Black, Senior Research Scientist at BetterUp, and BetterUp Lead Coach Sarah Greenberg for their scientific input and guidance.


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Published September 2, 2019

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