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What’s Trust Got to Do With It?

January 15, 2021 Leadership
mary slaughter
By Mary Slaughter LinkedIn

I was singing along with Tina Turner while cooking dinner the other evening, primarily to stop thinking about work and unwind a bit. I’d been pondering the topic of trust for the last month, as I wasn’t sure how to jump-start this article. You may remember the tune:

Oh-oh, what’s love got to do, got to do with it?
What’s love but a second-hand emotion?
What’s love got to do, got to do with it?
Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?

Apparently, Tina did the trick.

In my head, I substituted the word “trust” for “love” and that turned out to be the catalyst I needed.

What’s trust got to do, got to do with it?

Thank you, Tina.

And the answer iseverything.

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I spend a great deal of my professional thinking time attempting to discern why people behave the way they do inside organizations. There are all the usual suspects — goals, metrics, rewards, recognition, training, processes and tools. These are all extrinsic levers that the organization defines, not necessarily us as individuals. As good corporate citizens, we typically make the effort to comply with and even promote the policies our employers have created, partly out of genuine loyalty and partly out of self-preservation.

However, our brains have a mind of their own (no pun intended). While we’re actively using the limited intellectual horsepower of our prefrontal cortex to solve persistent operational gaps at work, the vast unconscious parts of our brain are busy noticing everything around us and then signaling us how we should feel. As a species, humans value predictability and safety, as the No. 1 job of our brains is to keep us alive. We also crave connectedness and relationships with others, particularly those whom we view as “similar” to us. Metaphorically speaking, our brains prefer all the puzzle pieces to effortlessly align to create the anticipated image atop the puzzle box. We like coherence — when things add up, make sense together and match our expectations.

Enter stage right — reality. We live in a world filled with incoherence, messiness, uncertainty, challenges of all kinds and increased social isolation. As my teenage daughters would say, “We’re in a hot mess. There are red flags everywhere.”

Our tried and true assumptions about organizational effectiveness and leadership have hit troubled waters. Our organizational life raft is taking on water and we need new strategies, assumptions and tools to stay afloat.

Social science data suggests that we’re seriously underestimating the importance of our interpersonal relationships in the workplace. We’re wired to connect with one another and the feelings resulting from those interactions are very powerful. Foundational to all those interactions is the degree to which we trust one another.

When trust exists, a wide range of goodness occurs. The numbers may vary depending on which study you read, but the patterns are remarkably similar. There’s a positive correlation between the presence of trust within an organization and increased business performance. It’s been measured in a variety of ways — increased productivity, increased engagement, decreased attrition, increased job satisfaction, reduced burnout, increased retention, increased alignment to company purpose and increased candidate referrals.

Building trust is a mutually beneficial activity, as it uplifts both parties. The personal benefit to being trusted is our social connections soar, both in quantity and quality. The desire to connect, exchange ideas, seek guidance and share insights is not just about organizational collaboration. Those safe moments of interpersonal exchange are the fuel of trust — being encouraged to openly share our thoughts and respectfully say what we really think.

Paul Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and Professor of Economics, Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University

Paul Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, professor of Economics, Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University, and author of "Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High Performance Companies":

"As social creatures, human beings cannot survive without trusting others, including strangers. We form alliances, collaborate, and make friends quite easily. Why? Research over the last two decades, initially from my lab and then replicated by others, showed that when we are shown trust, our brains release a neurochemical called oxytocin that produces several effects that impact our work lives. Oxytocin reduces the physiologic stress from being around others, increases our ability to understand others' emotional states, and motivates work on group goals. This is the recipe for high performance teams. Trust acts like a lubricant that smooths out the frictions that crop up at work. High trust organizations objectively out-perform their peers using multiple measures, including higher stock prices, lower employee turnover, and greater productivity.

Further, employees at high-trust organizations suffer less chronic stress, find their work more enjoyable, take fewer sick days, and are even more satisfied with their lives outside of work. While my original research measured oxytocin using blood draws, organizations now measure effective teamwork by pulling data from smartwatches and applying algorithms in the cloud. Once trust is measured, it can be managed to build high performance — and highly satisfied — teams."

As a trust pulse check, reflect on the following questions. The more you say “yes,” the better.

  • Are your words and actions aligned?
  • Are you willing to give others the benefit of the doubt in their intentions?
  • Do you seek to understand differences and make room for those not like you?
  • Are you willing to be vulnerable with others?
  • Do you freely share resources and information that help others succeed?
  • Are you known for seeking a broad range of input to inform your decisions?
  • Do you help others grow and learn from their mistakes?
  • Do those around you experience empathy from you during challenging times?
  • Do you communicate in a way that helps others succeed?
  • Is your behavior consistent over time?

While trust is not a substitute for clear strategies or effective operations, without it organizations (and individuals) are far less likely to reach their full potential.

The views reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.

About the Author

Mary Slaughter is the Global Head of Employee Experience at Morningstar, an investment research and management firm headquartered in Chicago, IL. Prior to joining Morningstar, she served as a managing director, People Advisory Services at EY.

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