By: Jim Bruce

    …  What is it?
    …  Why is it important?

    …  How do I develop it?

We rarely think of trust in the abstract. About 25 years ago. I had just stepped down from my position as Associate Dean of Engineering to assume responsibility for an MIT organization responsible for transferring MIT research results to industry. At my first meeting with the organization’s staff (on a Tuesday as I vividly recall), I talked about some information I needed for a report I had been asked to submit the following Tuesday. One of the staff, let’s call him George, who had been in the organization for a long time, said that he’d be happy to put the information together. I was clear that I needed the information by the end of the day on Friday, so I could take it home with me and integrate it into the report I was writing. He assured me this would not be a problem.
Friday noon came. We’d not heard from George. My assistant called him to make sure he was on track to get the report to me that afternoon. That conversation went like this: George: “Alex (my assistant), I didn’t know Jim really wanted the report today. He hasn’t asked me how I was coming along. Sam (my predecessor and my new boss) would have asked me about it every day.” While there are several things going on here, what I want to emphasize is that when you trust, you need to be sure that you are explicitly and implicitly on the same page.
So, what is trust anyway? Robert Hurley, in his Harvard Business Review paper “The Decision to Trust,”1 defines trust as a “confident reliance on someone when you are in a position of vulnerability.” Simple, yet profound. This definition is applicable in both personal and in work situations.
So, when we hire someone to do a job or when we assign a task to an individual or team, we are trusting that individual or team to deliver and we are vulnerable should they fail. This raises one key question: How can we improve the likelihood that they will deliver and not fail? The answer is simple: Build a team and staff that have high levels of trust between each other and with their leaders. Paul Zak,2 in his paper “The Neuroscience of Trust,” tells us that organizations that have a culture of trust “are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives and these factors fuel stronger performance.”
There’s still a fundamental question embedded here: Why do we trust each other in the first place? Many experiments have shown that humans are naturally inclined to trust others. But, they don’t always. Zak hypothesized that there must be a neurologic signal that indicates when we should trust someone. During two decades of research he and his team discovered conclusively that the brain chemical oxytocin reduced the fear of trusting a stranger. They also learned that high stress is an oxytocin inhibitor – when we are stressed out, “we don’t play with others well.” And, Zak’s team also learned that oxytocin increases an individual’s empathy.
What all this means is that if we can encourage legitimate behaviors that increase an individual’s production of oxytocin, that individual will be more trusting of others and produce better results for themselves and their organization.  Zak and his colleagues have identified eight such behaviors:

  1. Recognize excellence.  “Neuroscience shows that recognition has the largest effect on trust when it occurs immediately after a goal has been met, when it comes from peers and when it’s tangible, unexpected, personal, and public.”          
  2. Induce “challenge stress.”  “When a manager assigns a team a difficult but achievable job, the moderate stress of the task releases neurochemicals … that intensify people’s focus and strengthen social connections. When team members need to work together to reach a goal, brain activity coordinates their behaviors efficiently.” That is, so long as the challenges are achievable and have a defined end point. 
  3. Give people discretion on how they do their work.  Whenever possible allow staff to manage people and execute projects in their own way. Autonomy promotes innovation. Younger or less experienced staff may well be the primary innovators as they are less constrained by doing-it-the-usual-way.
  4. Enable job crafting.  In so far as possible, let employees choose the projects they want to work on while holding them accountable for their work and meeting deadlines.
  5. Share information broadly.  Zak reports that only 40% of an organization’s employees report that they are well informed about their organization’s goals, strategies, and tactics. Uncertainty leads to stress which inhibits release of oxytocin and undermines teamwork. Openness can change this.
  6. Intentionally builds relationships.  “The brain network that oxytocin activates is evolutionarily old. This means that the trust and sociality that oxytocin enables are deeply embedded in our nature.” When people build relationships, their work improves.3 This is part of the idea of having psychologically safe teams that was discussed in the February 27, 2018, Tuesday Reading, “Psychological Safety.”4
  7. Facilitate whole person growth.  “High-trust workplaces help people develop personally as well as professionally.” If you are not growing as a human being, more-than-likely your performance will suffer as well. Individuals and their managers should meet often to discuss work performance and professional and personal growth. Questions like “how can I better help you be ready for your next job?” should be regularly asked. Also, managers can take these times to explore how the staff member is doing on work-life integration.
  8. Show vulnerability.  Asking for help is a sign of a secure leader. Leaders don’t have to have all the answers. It’s a signal that you really want everyone to be engaged in every part of reaching the team’s goals. And, just asking for help will stimulate oxytocin production in others, increasing trust and cooperation within the team.

So, here are eight things that you can begin to do in the coming weeks to increase trust across your team and thereby increase the team’s performance. Give it a try, work to instill each of these eight behaviors as practices you and your team members routinely deploy.
Summer vacation is nearing its end. I trust that each of you found some time to be “down” and to be with family and friends.
Make it a great week.  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Robert F. Hurley, “The Decision to Trust, Harvard Business Review, September 2006.
  2. Paul J. Zak, “The Neuroscience of Trust,” Harvard Business Review, January-February 2017.
  3. Richard Knepper, “Use the 4Is or Expect Our History to Repeat Itself,” MOR Tuesday Reading, May 10, 2016.
  4. Jim Bruce, “Psychological Safety,” MOR Tuesday Reading, February 27, 2018.
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