26 September 2023

Trusted on: How to create a high-trust, high-performing culture

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Paul J. Zak* says neuroscientific research shows that a sense of trust reduces social friction and promotes cooperative behaviour among employees.

Photo: Bernard Hermant

Building a culture of trust can be a powerful way to improve performance.

Neuroscientific research shows that trust reduces social friction and promotes cooperative behaviour among colleagues — and that managers can create high-trust, high-performance teams.

Each aspect of your organisation can be made more efficient with continuous measuring, testing, and improving, yet many fail to optimise a key dimension that can substantially grow profits — culture.

Your culture influences people’s behaviour and interactions with colleagues at work, which in turn influences how efficiently they go about creating value for your organisation.

It is not static; culture can be measured and improved like any other organisational process.

If, that is, one can figure out what to measure and where to make changes.

I spent eight years measuring brain activity while people worked in order to uncover the aspects of culture that have the biggest impact on performance.

My research revealed organisational trust as a key part of culture that directly influences how willing your employees are to go above and beyond in their roles.

Frictions naturally occur when humans congregate, but at the same time, our brains are built to work in teams so there is a tension between wanting to be a team member and seeking to avoid conflicts with others by avoiding other humans.

My research on the neuroscience of trust has shown that trust acts as a social lubricant, reducing social frictions so working with others is easier, more efficient, and more enjoyable.

And when people work more effectively together, productivity and innovation levels rise.

Here’s the good news: trust can be measured.

When we are trusted by others, our brains release a chemical called oxytocin.

Oxytocin activates a brain network that says, “Let’s work together to get this done.”

But, measuring oxytocin directly involves blood tests — not something most organisations want to subject their employees to.

Organisations need an easier way to quantify trust, and after measuring activity of the brain’s cooperation network multiple ways in my laboratory and conducting field experiments that took me from factory floors to the rainforest of Papua New Guinea, I developed a survey that measures the eight components of organisational trust that cause colleagues’ brains to produce oxytocin.

Conveniently, these eight building blocks of organisational trust can be remembered using the acronym “OXYTOCIN”:

Ovation: recognise excellence

eXpectation: create challenges

Yield: delegate generously

Transfer: enable job crafting

Openness: share information broadly

Caring: intentionally build relationships

Invest: facilitate whole-person growth

Natural: be authentic and vulnerable

These eight components can be managed to improve trust and stoke performance.

My team and I measured the OXYTOCIN factors, health, happiness, and work-relevant performance indicators in a nationally representative survey of over 1,000 US working adults.

We found that those working in organisations in the top quartile of trust, compared with those in the lowest quartile, have 106 per cent more energy at work, are 76 per cent more engaged at their jobs, are 50 per cent more productive, and suffer 40 per cent less burnout.

Those in high-trust workplaces are 50 per cent more likely to stay with their employer over the next year and 88 per cent would recommend their organisation as a place to work to family and friends.

Not surprisingly, employees in high-trust organisations are 56 per cent more satisfied with their jobs.

When one enjoys being at work (high trust colleagues experience 60 per cent more joy at work than those in low trust organisations), satisfaction with one’s life outside of work is also higher — 29 per cent higher for those who have the good fortune of working in high trust organisations.

Trust improves performance no matter how you measure it.

Organisations can improve trust by focusing on one or more of the trust factors at a time.

Start by measuring organisational trust and planning interventions around your lowest-scoring OXYTOCIN factor — that’s where the biggest performance gains are to be had.

Most organisations I’ve worked with struggle the most with Invest (facilitating whole-person growth, e.g., through professional development or by nurturing personal interests).

Interventions for Invest could be to subsidise employees to take classes at a nearby university, attend professional meetings, or even just teach their colleagues something fun like clog dancing.

One organisation my team worked with scored lowest on Natural (being authentic and vulnerable).

We launched a three-month intervention to raise Natural that started with 10 days of microlearning videos sent via email, followed by 10 weeks of pulse questions that collected data on Natural and subtly reminded them to focus on bringing their true selves to work.

The organisation measured organisational trust six months after the intervention and found that the proportion of colleagues reporting a favourable Natural environment increased by 53 per cent, in turn increasing favourable views of trust by 17 per cent.

Here’s the key takeaway: trust is a dimension of your organisation just begging to be improved.

The science shows that actively measuring and managing an organisation’s culture for high trust is a powerful lever to improve performance.

Trust improves the triple bottom line: it is good for colleagues, improves KPIs, and strengthens communities.

* Paul J. Zak is Professor of Economic Sciences, Psychology, and Management at Claremont Graduate University in California, USA.

This article first appeared at rework.withgoogle.com.

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