Most companies* today recognize that low employee engagement equals lost value: lower levels of productivity and reduced profitability. Most also agree that engagement isn’t at all that easy to create.

Paul J. Zak, the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University, states that if you wish to increase engagement among your employees, you ought to go for trust: is THE major factor strengthening corporate culture.

Mr. Zak has spent more than 10 years carrying out in-lab and on-field site neuroscience experiments on trust to find out how culture affects performance. An important human hormone, the positive chemical oxytocin, has been involved.

To assess productivity and people’s ability to innovate, Mr. Zak decided to measure employees’ levels of oxytocin and stress hormones. As a result of his findings investigating people’s brain activity, he could create a survey instrument, that quantified trust within organizations. The survey tool made it possible for him to study thousands of companies over the years.

The aim: develop a valuable framework for managers to build trust.

A Productive Chemical

The reason Mr. Zak became interested in measuring levels of oxytocin in the first place, is that he knew that rodents use the hormone to signal that it is safe to approach.

Mr. Zak was curious to find out whether this constructive brain chemical could be an important factor among humans in business, too. If, then, oxytocin, would prove to be beneficial for creating trust, and trust an important factor for increased engagement and a stronger corporate culture; what could you, as a leader, then potentially do to stimulate higher levels of released oxytocin among your employees?

His experiments showed that feeling joyful at work, doing a purposeful job, enjoying trust and collaborating with others, stimulate oxytocin production. Stress, on the other hand, lower these levels.

Also, Mr. Zak found a correlation between purpose and trust. Trust and purpose mutually reinforce each other, giving a mechanism for extended oxytocin release among people – which leads to happiness at work!

Benefits of Trust

The return of trust is, according to Mr. Zak, employees that work harder and better, with more energy, have more fun, collaborate better, stay longer, are less stressed and ill, innovate better, and are more aligned. This all fuels performance.

Hence, fostering trust would clearly be relevant.

Through his studies Mr. Zak found eight management behaviors that he believes create trust and sense of purpose at work. He suggests that leaders take on these habits, to increase the level of employee engagement in their organizations.

Eight Behaviors that Create Trust – > Engagement – > Stronger culture

This is what he urges leaders to do:

1. Recognize success.

The moment a team or someone has achieved a goal, be sure to recognize this immediately afterwards. This has a large effect on people’s trust; particularly if the recognition comes from peers.

Appreciation ought to be tangible, direct, from peers, unpredicted, personal and – public. Use the power of the crowd to celebrate success: it inspires others to seek success, too.

2. Manage stress.

A moderate level of stress is good. Be sure to set clear goals that are achievable – big stretch goals that are unattainable create negative stress and reduce productivity. Stimulate collaboration between people. On a regular basis, check in on people’s stress levels: evaluate project progress, adjust goals if needed. Again: people need to face attainable goals.

3. Trust people to do things their way.

Being trusted is a great motivator. Having enough autonomy to figure out how to solve issues, execute projects and carry out tasks their own way not only promotes engagement, but also fosters innovation. Why? Different people try different approaches. Avoid defining everything; “this is the way it’s always been done…”

4. Let people choose what to work on.

If your employees get to decide on what they would like to focus on, their energy and engagement rises.

5. Communicate and share information broadly.

Openness creates trust. Share goals, strategies, tactics, results. Stress is reduced if people know where the organization is going and why.

6. Help build relationships.

Socializing is far more important than one might think. Among others, Google carried out a study and found that the managers who cared most about their team members “outperformed others in the quality and quantity of their work”. Similarly, according to Mr. Zak, a Silicon Valley study among engineers, showed that those who connected with other employees gained respect and trust, and, moreover, were more productive themselves. People who care about one another, work better. So, help people socialize; encourage after works and other social-bonding activities.

7. Help people grow.

Pave the way for professional as well as personal development. Ways to do this can be to help create a development plan in line with their strengths, interest and experience, and with the overall business strategy. It can be to pair employees with mentors, help them build networks. It can be to challenge your employees with assignments outside of their comfort zones.

8. Show vulnerability.

If you, as a leader, manages to show yourself vulnerable you will strengthen your trustworthiness. Asking for help, seeking advice is a sign of a secure leader -one who engages everyone.

If you practice these behaviors, Mr. Zak states, you will eventually manage to increase the level of trust in your organization – as well as your own trustworthiness. This will lead to greater performance; higher productivity and stronger teams.

To conclude, a few revealing facts on the return on trust: compared with people at low trust companies, people at high trust companies report:

74 % less stress, 50 % higher productivity, 106 % more energy at work, 76 % more engagement, 13 % fewer sick days, 29 % more satisfaction with their lives and 40 % less burnout.



*Global PWC study 2016, showed that 55 % of CEOS think that lack of trust is a threat to their organizational growth. Most of them have done little to change this.
Source: HBR, Jan-Feb 2017, p85, Paul. J. Zak. The Neuroscience of Trust