Very few leaders will dispute the fact that trust is a key to a good working environment in business.

The question is – do we know how to actually create, develop and maintain trust in the workplace?

In recent years, science – specifically neuroscience – has enlightened us on why we trust.

And it looks like this!



Looks complex (and chemically it is) – but this is Oxytocin – the neurochemical of trust.


Our society is founded on our ability as human beings to trust. When we go back to the days where human beings lived in small groups, we needed to trust another of our fellow human beings to take the night watch so that we could sleep – and then we would reciprocate. We fundamentally need to trust to be healthy members of society.


One of the obvious places that we need trust is between mother and child. Incidentally, oxytocin is released in the body of both mother and child during breastfeeding. We also form bonds as couples and during the act of sexual intercourse oxytocin is also released – building trust in the partnership.


Trust is necessary in personal relationships and society. An interesting fact is that the higher the basic level of trust is in a country to more wealthier that country is. In addition, as we started with, most leaders will acknowledge that a trusting environment at work is conducive to good results. 


One of the fascinating things is that when I give trust – it is reciprocated – Trust fosters Trust! I call that a good investment! 🙂 (1)


So how do we make the jump from neuroscience and what we call love – to our jobs and a wealthier society?


Dr. Paul Zak has done significant research into how oxytocin impacts our choices and actions and what job situations influence the release of oxytocin in the brain. For anyone interested in reading a great whitepaper on the subject –

To adapt and summarize, there are specific activities that leaders and employees can engage in that increase the release of oxytocin and thereby increase the level of organizational trust.


Recognition – or even better – Social Recognition: Giving recognition to a colleague gives an oxytocin boost in both the giver and the receiver with the receiver getting the largest boost. Giving recognition where there are others who hear the giving of recognition other than the receiver, also gives a boost of oxytocin to all the hearers – less than the giver and receiver – but a boost. So at work – giving praise should be a skill that everyone develops and if possible is even institutionalized.


Group Challenge Stress: Think military boot camp. Take a group of individuals who have never met – put them through demanding and stressful experiences together – and they come out fully confident that their “buddies” have their back. They trust each other with their lives. That is more than most companies request or require. In these limited times of high stress the brain boosts oxytocin levels many times. Most companies have more than enough “projects” that could be used to create Group Challenge Stress situations. Critical requirement – time for recuperation after the time of high stress. If you don’t give time for recuperation then you will soon have people going into “shell-shock” – chronic stress.


Autonomy: Giving people the right to find their own way of solving the daily challenges. Leaders shouldn’t normally be telling their employees what and how to do, but rather setting direction and ensuring that their employees are capable of solving those challenges. This giving of responsibility boosts oxytocin in both giver and receiver of this responsibility. And remember to give help when it’s needed – that also releases oxytocin – and remember to give praise for solutions of all kinds!


Self-Management: Let people choose what they want to work on – deliver results – and evaluate them. This is a challenging proposal in most companies and is definitely cutting edge in organizational development – but how much could you actually implement in your department?

As a bit of inspiration I had a department with a number of project managers. Some of them were more excited about certain projects than others. So I just asked them – here is the list of projects we need to complete – which 2-3 would you like to be project manager on. I was “lucky” – we actually managed to cover all projects with this voluntary approach. The result? The projects got done quicker, with engaged project managers and we created good results!


Openness: Share information openly! The AES Corporation (has since changed procedure) actually took an internal vote on openness. If the employees wanted to continue having full access to all financial figures then according to US stock exchange rules, then they would all be considered insiders with regards to stock trading. Unanimously (several thousand employees across the globe) they voted to be insiders and retain their access to information. Telling everyone that we as a company are being challenged financially for example is BIG trust – trust fosters trust!


A Caring Environment: Typically, we check our “humanity” at the door when we enter our place of work. We put on a professional “mask” and our colleagues maybe know surprisingly little about who we really are. There is huge trust in sharing who we actually are. Leaders need to go in front and show the personal openness which releases oxytocin in the hearers which opens the way for reciprocation and the release of more oxytocin. What we can also experience in this environment is that team members start helping each other with personal challenges – and helping other people is a huge oxytocin releaser for both parties.


Mastery: As human beings we have an innate desire to be good at things – to master them. Giving team members the opportunity for personal development and getting good at something releases oxytocin – especially when they are allowed to show it in a Caring Environment and receive praise for their personal achievements. Note: personal development will often have a professional angle, but it doesn’t have to have!


Honest and Vulnerable: When was the last time that you as a leader actually acknowledged that you weren’t perfect and that you actually made a decision that wasn’t quite the best. Being honest, open and vulnerable has actually the opposite effect of what we normally fear. Very few people will “attack” someone who is honest and acknowledges that they need help. Showing vulnerability actually causes a release of oxytocin in the other person who then wants to help – releasing oxytocin for both the giver and the receiver.


So what are the business results of building and maintaining a trusting working environment?

To name a few:

70% decrease in chronic stress

69% increase in job retention

33% reduction in sick days

22% increase in innovation


Show me a leader who doesn’t want this!

But it’s not easy!

To start with you may have to make changes in your working procedures – and that’s the easy part. The hard part is actually living it! Find yourself a mentor who can help you through the personal transformation process so that you can enable a trusting working environment for your team.


Good luck! The results will be fantastic!





(1) The only exception to this is with regards to true clinical psychopaths who we must not ignore, but neither should their actions control how we build and grow trust in our organizations!

2 Comments on “Trust

  1. Great post David. Trust is a foundational element for almost everything in the workplace. Trust requires authenticity and it requires that we “walk the talk” as leaders. Trust is how you feel about another’s intentions, and at another level it is how you feel about their competence. Leaders DO need to demonstrate that they have a sense of where they want to go, and why, or they won’t be trusted no matter how pure their intentions!

    1. Thanks Frank, Great word – authenticity!
      Very valid point. Being open and vulnerable and asking for help doesn’t work if I don’t actually have my own idea of how the issue could be solved. I am the leader – I need to have a pretty good idea of where we want to go (and why) and be able to communicate that. If I don’t, then I will be considered more like a bag of hot air and will undermine any trust that I actually have built up.

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