Agile & Digital / Matrix Management / Virtual Teams

The neuroscience of trust

Can you tell how trustworthy someone is by analysing a sample of their blood? The answer is yes. By drawing blood from people’s arms before and after a psychological test, researchers found that the amount of oxytocin people naturally produced when asked to share money with a stranger predicted how trustworthy they would be.  A decade of research later, Prof Zak and colleagues have used these insights to bring us the eight key ways to build a high-trust workplace – the neuroscientific way.

To corroborate their earlier findings, the researchers then gave people synthetic oxytocin through a nasal spray – and found that this more than doubled the amount of money sent to the stranger as compared to those given a placebo spray. Importantly the link between oxytocin and trust was also shown to hold true when the researchers moved from the lab to the complex real world of work.

Luckily we don’t need to start offering up our arms for blood samples to build a culture of trust within our own team. After a decade of further experiments, Paul Zak, professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University, has been able to identify the key promoters and inhibitors of oxytocin in the workplace – and as a result, the eight most effective management habits for building trust.

8 ways to build a high-trust workplace (the neuroscientific way):

  1. Encourage peers to recognize excellence, publicly
  2. Induce ‘challenge stress’ – with challenges that stretch but don’t strain
  3. Give people discretion in how they do their work
  4. Enable ‘job crafting’ – allowing people to migrate to projects they are interested in
  5. Regularly share key information about the company’s goals, strategies and tactics
  6. Facilitate people building social ties at work (especially important in remote and virtual teams – see previous blog)
  7. Help people develop professionally and personally – including discussions about career next-steps, work-life integration, and whether they have sufficient time for recreation and reflection
  8. Show vulnerability – asking for help and being honest when you don’t know the answer stimulates oxytocin in others and counter-intuitively builds your credibility

Most likely you’ve heard similar advice before. But in the rush of the modern workday, it is easy to let some of these seemingly important but not urgent activities fall by the wayside. That is a mistake. Just in case you need to prove it to yourself (or your manager), the graph below shows the impact of working in a high-trust company on individuals in Prof Zak’s studies (based on data collected in the US in Feb 2016 from a nationally representative sample of 1,095 working adults):

To reap these benefits, share the eight ways to build trust above with your team – and ask individuals to separately identify which three they feel are not consistently happening at the moment.  Have a look at the themes that emerge and figure out exactly when and how you can all improve in this area. Put time in the diary to review progress in a couple of months. Let’s get that oxytocin pumping.


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