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Why Trust and Transparency Matter in the Workplace

Many business experts champion trust in the workplace. They include the likes of Stephen Covey and my dear friend, David Horsager. (His 8 Pillars of Trust and his many excellent books should be required reading.) However, what is perhaps less well known is the neuroscience of trust. As a species, we’ve developed an array of neurochemical survival mechanisms. Employers often ignore these mechanisms, and as a result, miss the opportunity to build trust and transparency in the workplace. 

The Neuroscience of Mistrust

Let’s start with the opposite of trust. It is the “fight or flight” response we experience when faced with a perceived threat. These “threats” elevate the hormone cortisol, which narrows our focus to deal only with the immediate. The threat could be actual, imminent, physical, or merely a harsh interruption in our day. The problem is, our bodies can’t easily tell the difference.

Of course, cortisol has other important functions. Cortisol controls blood sugar levels, memory formation, and blood pressure. At normal levels, it keeps us engaged with the day’s activities. When elevated, cortisol puts us on “alert status” and makes trust a low priority.

Trust and the Willingness to Take Risks

In my book, The Velocity Mindset, I discussed how cortisol can prevent leadership teams from identifying and achieving objectives. Additionally, I highlighted the role another hormone, oxytocin, plays in velocity (speed with direction and alignment).

Trust in the workplace—and its neurochemical roots—are key drivers for business success. Compelling research by Dr. Paul Zak and others champions the well-established science around oxytocin and trust. According to one study, oxytocin “affects an individual’s willingness to accept social risks arising through interpersonal interactions.” Additionally, researchers have found that oxytocin “enhances an individual’s propensity to trust a stranger when that person exhibits non-threatening signals.”

Obviously, creating artificial trust in the workplace via oxytocin injections would be a short-sighted and ethical nightmare. Nevertheless, there must be practical ways to promote trust knowing that our biology.

Fortunately, trust in the workplace can be accomplished with common-sense approaches, as Horsager and others have shown. An Oxford study summarizes the key drivers and human resource practices that develop trust. These include mutual respect, open communication, and fairness, especially in appraisals of work. The study also identifies factors which decrease trust, such as a lack of transparency in decision-making.

The Risk of Betrayal in the Workplace

Trust is the gold standard. It is the glue that makes alignment and velocity possible. The benefits of increased trust in the workplace are enormous. Over the long term, it increases individual employee productivity and engagement. To paraphrase Zak, it improves collaboration and cultivates a happier, more productive workforce. On the other hand, the consequences of breaking that trust are far worse than not having it in the first place.

Studies have shown that a betrayal of trust, whether familial, cultural, or institutional, creates high levels of long-term stress, including the release of cortisol. If such responses become ingrained in an employee’s experience and memory, the chances of returning to a state of unqualified trust are slim. Consequently, employees might resist a manager or HR professional’s efforts to right a wrong or be transparent after a breach of trust. 

Though a proactive HR team may be capable of rebuilding this trust, the effort is complicated by the very neurochemicals that make us human.

Transparency: The Path To Velocity

It is not easy to win trust and transparency in the workplace. As a result, people are taking a risk when asked to make decisions that may not benefit them. The deciding factor is often how comfortable they are with those asking the question. Transparency, trustworthiness, empathy, and understanding are not just words. They are requirements for every HR professional and executive who aspires to true leadership. 

Today, it is impossible to take a “my way or the highway” approach to business. We need everyone’s buy-in to remain focused on tasks that support a purpose. Trust and transparency in the workplace, like everything else that enables leadership, begins with an understanding of what makes us human. And most importantly, it requires a willingness to work hard to gain that trust. 

Photo: Jose Mizrahi

#WorkTrends: Building Trust In Uncertain Times

Listen to the full conversation and see our questions for the upcoming #WorkTrends Twitter Chat. And don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast, so you don’t miss an episode.

It’s safe to say uncertainty is universal these days. But how do we get past it and stay engaged in our work? Remember the T-word: trust. So I invited Iain Moffat, Chief Global Officer of MHR International, to #WorkTrends to share his best practices for building workplace trust during these uncertain times.

Iain said we need to be better listeners to be better communicators. And organizations really need to step up their game on this, and “address and communicate aspects around safety, the relationship, and the connected aspects of work,” he added. I wanted to know what else companies can do to enable their employees to trust them and feel trusted. 

Iain’s answer: make a conscious effort. Managers must regularly communicate, actively listen, and continue to work through the kinks of being remote and virtual. You only learn by doing, so start now. Treat trust as a collaboration. 

Here’s another straightforward way to build trust between managers and employees:  invest time in really checking in. Don’t just run a checkup. Regular check-ins can help employees stay motivated. Plus, it’s an opportunity to tackle deeper questions about where your organization is heading and how that employee fits into it all. Creating this sense of belonging can even lead to better employee performance. And besides, it makes everyone feel better.

We covered a lot of ground in this discussion, so I encourage you to have a listen for yourself. Got feedback? Feel free to weigh in on Twitter or on LinkedIn. (And make sure to add the #WorkTrends hashtag so others in the TalentCulture community can follow along.)

Twitter Chat Questions

Q1: Why do organizations struggle with building trust? #WorkTrends
Q2: What strategies can boost trust and a sense of belonging remotely? #WorkTrends
Q3: How can leaders overcome uncertainty and promote a sense of trust? #WorkTrends

Find Iain Moffat on Linkedin and Twitter

This podcast is sponsored by MHR International.

(Editor’s note: In August we’ll be announcing upcoming changes to #WorkTrends podcasts and Twitter chats. To learn about these changes as they unfold, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.)

Photo: Mathias Jensen

#WorkTrends: Leading Through Uncertainty

These times have truly challenged us all, leaders or not, to look at the critical role leadership plays in a crisis. Doug Butler of Reward Gateway came to #WorkTrends with plenty of answers to the pressing question: what’s the best way for leaders to bring teams together, through, and past these times?

Start with open, honest and clear communication, said Doug. When it comes to decision-making, employers need to explain the uncomfortable. And if the business is facing risks, say so. Share the potential “ramifications to the business” of a certain strategy, he added. But don’t leave out a sense of hope. Employees need to hear “that there will be something on the other side.” Meghan noted that a balance — between transparency and cautious optimism — can do much to build a sense of trust. And trust during a crisis is what we all need.  

Maintaining visibility means being there — and video is a great tool for that, said Doug. Another factor to maintain is balance. Change brings opportunities, he pointed out, but it’s important to focus on the priorities — it’s not a time to undo an entire system that’s working just because you can. Keep listening and be receptive both to ideas and mistakes. More than ever, a culture of understanding is powerful right now, Meghan added. 

For any leader, these times are testing our organization’s ability to pivot, and pushing our employees to be agile — and willing to embrace (and not resist) change. It’s a time of growth for all of us — and leaders are no exception.   

Listen to the full conversation and see our questions for the upcoming #WorkTrends Twitter Chat. And don’t forget to subscribe, so you don’t miss an episode.

Twitter Chat Questions

Q1: Why are some organizations struggling in today’s economic crisis? #WorkTrends
Q2: What strategies can help organizations better survive a crisis? #WorkTrends
Q3: What can leaders do to best lead their company through a crisis? #WorkTrends

Find Doug Butler on Linkedin and Twitter

This post is sponsored by Reward Gateway