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Trust in the brain

Last week I wrote about the science behind emotional influence, and how our brains are built to react to certain triggers. Frequent readers will know that I’ve also discussed science in some other posts, for example in ‘The science of opinions’, so this post will hopefully come as no surprise!

White lettered blocks stacked vertically to spell Trust

I recently read an article by Paul Zak on ‘The Neuroscience of Trust’ that explored what actually happens in our brains when we trust people. Zak and his team found that an increased feeling of trust in other people correlated with the presence of a chemical called oxytocin – a single-purpose chemical that seems to reduce the fear of trusting strangers! Some other interesting results emerged from the research, including that stress is a major inhibitor of oxytocin, meaning that we’re less likely to trust someone when we’re under pressure.

Now that’s all very interesting, but what does it mean for us as leaders? Trust is an important foundation in any workplace, and ensuring that we foster it in our teams is crucial for creating a high performing team that is productive and engaged. Through studying the release of oxytocin, Zak discovered a number of things that we can do to establish and maintain trust in our workplace. I won’t go through all of them here, but I will try and summarise some of the main points.

First, build trust by showing your team that you trust them. Avoid micromanaging and create and foster an environment where others feel confident about raising new ideas. Not only will this show that you trust your team, it also helps drive innovation and keeps people motivated. Next, show vulnerability. This is something else that I’ve written about before; it is important that we accept that we don’t know everything and ask for help when we need it. Zak’s study showed that leaders who have demonstrated a degree of vulnerability and asked for help have been able to build higher levels of trust within their teams.

Finally, build genuine relationships with your team. This doesn’t just have to be ‘what did you get up to on the weekend’ – get to know those around you and understand their professional, as well as personal, motivations. You don’t need to force everyone on annual retreats, or make Friday night karaoke a regular thing (although there is nothing wrong with karaoke); simply having a conversation over lunch every now and then can be enough to build a rewarding and engaging personal relationship.

I should mention that the research conducted by Zak and his team spanned decades – thus the large number of conclusions! I’m sure after that much time they all trusted each other implicitly!

Happy leading!

About the Author: Noel Reid

Noel Reid
Noel has over 30 years’ experience as an operational leader and trainer in the government, not for profit and commercial sectors. His service in the military helped shape his early leadership career and he has been able to transfer these lessons and skills to the business environment. He is a sought after executive coach who has assisted the development of senior executives in all sectors and industries. An experienced facilitator who has delivered high value training programs around the world, Noel is able to engage with the audience to maximise the learning outcomes. He holds an MBA (Leadership & Communication), an Associate Diploma of Human & Physical Resource Management, a Diploma of Training Design and Development and a Diploma of Vocational Education and Training.

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