The Science of Trust in the Workplace

A 2015 study at NYU Langone showed that when mice were given oxytocin—the hormone that enhances bonding—they started caring for other mices’ babies, as if they were their own. This behavior continued even after the mices’ oxytocin receptors were shut off.

trust in the workplace

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could give some to your manager?

It turns out oxytocin can actually teach us a lot about working together as a team and building great work relationships leading to more trust in the workplace. Here’s how it works.

The Science Of Trust

Oxytocin doesn’t just make mammals (including people) more outwardly loving, as it did for those mice. In general, it makes us more empathetic and trusting—both of which are key to collaboration.

People used to think that this “bonding” chemical was limited to mothers and children, and would only be released via physical contact. But in 2001, neuroscientist and oxytocin research icon Paul Zak‘s research found that oxytocin levels fluctuate depending on your social situation. As long as there’s an “intention of trust,” we biologically associate that with “trustworthiness,” which boosts our oxytocin.

trust in the workplace(Source: Brain Facts) Oxytocin is released from the pituitary gland (in orange).

For this to happen, you don’t even need to be physically near people. Zak observed that when one reporter used social media to communicate with loved ones, his oxytocin increased by 150%. We can do the same thing with workplace communication, whether that be via I Done This, Slack, or Trello.

One of the most amazing things about oxytocin is that this “bonding” instinct helps us read social cues. The American Psychological Association and countless studies have shown that doses of oxytocin can help treat conditions like autism and schizophrenia read nuanced facial expressions. It’s even proved helpful for people without those conditions.

trust in the workplace(Source: Autism Parenting Magazine)

Simply put, activating and amplifying this hormone helps us connect with others. Sometimes that happens serendipitously, but we can also create the conditions for trust at work.

Oxytocin Helps Teams Grow—And So Does Management Structure

Zak’s research team showed that all you need to do to get someone’s oxytocin to go up is “give someone a sign of trust.” Trusting other people means you’re there for them, but that can only happen if everyone is consistently on the same page.

The best precursor to communication is to give people autonomy over their work. It sounds counterintuitive, but it shows employees that their managers trust them, and this sign of trust in the workplace also helps to keep people happy at work. That’s key to retaining your employees.

But just because people work autonomously, doesn’t mean it’s clear who’s responsible for what. Wistia discovered that their initial “flat” organization structure wasn’t working. When they transitioned to one with clearly defined teams and managers, people actually felt like they had more ownership over their work. It meant that they were working closely with fewer people, since it was clear that they got their tasks done. They even had more of a chance to bond with their co-workers.

Wistia’s gut feeling created an environment where people felt more responsible for their work, more a part of their team—and in turn, producing more oxytocin.

Enhancing opportunities for teams to bond is vital to enhancing your team’s productivity. How can you chip away at that every day?

How To Build Trust On Your Team

At I Done This, we understand that meetings are important. Keeping an open line of communication is crucial to getting stuff done. And it’s important to not keep your employees—especially the “creatives,” who tend to be introverts—isolated. It can also play a huge part in retention, and keeping employees happy in their jobs.

The best way to build your team’s internal trust, and keep them producing oxytocin, is to make them feel like their work is valued. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Communicate outcome measures. Managers should share clear outcome measures with the rest of their team. Transparency about the overall vision and progress of the company shows people how, and why, their work is important.
  • Schedule check-ins with those who report to you, and between teammates. Everyone should get to know everyone, so that in the future, they’re more open to working together. To strengthen those connections, it’s important to make room for emotional talks, too.
  • Provide guidance. Managers should be framed more as a “coach.” Their overall role is to provide guidance, which means not holding back.
  • Drink with your team. Of course, this shouldn’t be done in excess (or at the office), but it’s a great opportunity to get to know your teammates. Plus, drinking alcohol releases oxytocin.

Implementing small changes in how your team communicates to encourage trust in the workplace can have a long-term positive impact on your team, and keep everyone’s oxytocin flowing.

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