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The neuroscience of trust in a business organization

Organizations from all over the globe are struggling to find the right ways to make their employees feel valued and empowered. They do so because they are painfully aware that there is an issue with engagement and it makes them lose a lot of very valuable human resources.

Gallup’s meta-analysis of data collected over several decades showed that high engagement — defined mainly as having a strong connection with one’s projects and colleagues, feeling like a genuine contributor, and enjoying multiple chances to learn consistently — leads to positive results for both individuals and organizations.

The positive outcomes include higher productivity, better-quality products, and increased profitability.

Job satisfaction, however, is closely connected to a high level of trust in the company and the people who work there.

Read more: The trifecta of trust in a learning organization

The neuroscience of trust

The chemical called oxytocin is our brain’s way of signaling trust. It’s very often associated with the bond between mothers and newborn babies but as neuro-economist Paul Zak found, the production of oxytocin can be used to anticipate how much people trust each other in the workplace.

In his experiments, the amount of oxytocin released predicted both how much the participants trusted others and how trustworthy they were. The Claremont Graduate University professor even conducted a second round of experiments to prove that it really was this hormone that reduced the fear of trusting strangers and nothing else.

The brain chemistry all figured out (in this aspect, of course, it still holds many mysteries in numerous areas) there are some things to be said about the factors that influence the production of oxytocin.

Facilitators and inhibitors of oxytocin

Stress in the workplace can actually be beneficial when it comes to the production of oxytocin. However, this happens only if there is a moderate level of stress, more in the lines of a challenge than anything else.

People are social beings and enjoy finding solutions to problems together. It builds understanding and trust.

High levels of stress, on the other hand, will take a significant toll. It’s difficult to be empathic and trust others when you feel like you are in a rather complicated pickle.

Looking at hormones, estrogen has shown to be correlated with higher doses of oxytocin while testosterone proved to be a very strong inhibitor. It seems women are more likely to show trust and empathy and have an easier time generating a feeling of mutual reliance in their teams.

Celebrating success

Even if at a purely hormonal level women seem to be better equipped to lead trusting teams, neuroscience gives enough clues for all who are willing to take them.

The first would be that recognition is one of the best ways to gain the trust of your employees. I’m talking about the proverbial pat on the shoulder and ‘atta-boy!”. This has the longest-lasting effect on trust when it occurs immediately after an objective has been met.

Read more: Recognizing training success with digital badges

Whether it comes from leaders or peers it needs to be genuine, clear and public. The latter not only works as a general means of celebrating success but it also functions as a powerful incentive for other team members to aim for excellence.

It’s also good for learning as shared experiences can generate valuable, innovative ideas.


A powerful way to make people trust and feel that they are trusted is to offer them a high degree of autonomy. A study found that almost half of employees would forfeit a 20% raise in return for greater flexibility and control over how they do their work.

It’s partly a generational desire – Millennials are known for their independent spirit and tendency to question the status quo.

But apart from that, autonomy is a great promoter of innovation because given the opportunity, people will go about the same project in different ways and one of the approaches is likely to prove most effective.

Moderate supervision and risk management procedures can help minimize negative deviations while employees still get to try out their ideas. Debriefing and sharing experiences after the project is complete will help present the best practices so that others can later build on them.

Read more: Why L&D professionals should encourage Self-Directed Learning

Sharing information

Would you trust somebody who deliberately kept things from you? I’m sure the answer is ‘no’. Employees feel the same way about their organizations and leaders.

Uncertainty about the company’s direction leads to high levels of stress, which, as we have seen earlier, inhibit the release of oxytocin and undermine trust and effective teamwork.

The antidote is, of course, openness and even though this is fairly easily understood, the practice of telling people only part of the story, the long-term goals and the strategic projects is still rather popular among today’s leaders.

A Gallup study from 2015 of 2.5 million manager-led teams in 195 countries, featuring analysis that measures the engagement of 27 million employees showed that workforce engagement improved when supervisors had some form of daily communication with direct reports.

Challenging the teams

I have mentioned before that a small amount of stress can be beneficial to the development of trust within a team. When a manager assigns to a team a difficult but manageable project or task, the moderate stress of the requirement releases neurochemicals, including oxytocin and adrenocorticotropin. These both work as intensifiers of people’s focus and social connections.

When team members find themselves needing to work together to reach a goal, brain activity coordinates their behaviors efficiently. It’s important to note that this is the case only with reasonable challenges that have a clear endpoint; vague or seemingly impossible targets will cause people to throw in the towel before they even begin.

It’s the manager’s job to keep track of progress and adjust the tasks so that they are neither too much nor too little for the team.

Wrapping up

High-trust companies are successful ones. They manage to build and sustain a culture of trust, holding their employees accountable for their roles without micromanaging them. Ultimately, cultivating trust is about setting a clear direction, giving people what they need to see it through, and getting out of their way while they get there.

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