Team of employees together in a meeting. Workplace cultures of trust have been proven to boost loyalty, productivity and engagement. — Getty Images/fizkes

Business owners often lean on random perks to forge a productive company culture, like installing ping-pong tables or providing pizza every Friday. But if you want to build a loyal, productive team, work first on creating a culture of trust, research suggests.

People who work in companies that do the best job creating a culture of trust, compared to those in companies that are the worst at it, are 50% more productive, 76% more engaged, and have more than double the energy, according to research led by Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

"Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies,” Zak wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance.”

Are you trustworthy?

The first step in building trust is to determine if you, as leader, are viewed as trustworthy. Signs that you might not be, according to Betsy Allen Manning, an author and leadership consultant:

  • Employees constantly question your expectations of them.
  • There’s lots of gossip or disrespect among employees.
  • You don’t trust people to take on new responsibilities.
  • Employees tend to underperform.

On the other hand, research found that if you tend to worry you might feel guilty if you make bad decisions, you’re quite likely a trustworthy person. Such guilt-proneness is the strongest personality indicator of an underlying sense of interpersonal responsibility, scientists concluded in a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Assuming you are trustworthy, there are several ways to build on that quality and fuel greater levels of trust throughout your company.

Great leaders, to build trust, have to be honest themselves, have to be a little bit vulnerable themselves.

Paul Walters, a workplace consultant, Gallup

Strategic ways to earn trust

“Great leaders, to build trust, have to be honest themselves, have to be a little bit vulnerable themselves,” said Paul Walters, a workplace consultant at Gallup, the polling and consulting firm. “You need to try to intentionally engage your managers, recognize your managers and continue to foster that trusting relationship with them so that it all cascades downward.”

Research led by Zak, a professor of economics, psychology, and management and author of “Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies,” measured brain activity and bodily chemical levels as people interacted with others on work tasks. The conclusion: When person A trusts person B, the actions of person A can fuel in person B higher levels of oxytocin, a chemical released by the brain that the researchers believe actually stimulates trust.

Zak ultimately landed on several ways to foster trust among employees. Among them:

  • Make sure all employees know the company’s goals, strategies and tactics.
  • Set individual goals that are moderately stressful but achievable.
  • Recognize excellence, as soon as possible after a success, and do it publicly.
  • Encourage employees to take on projects they’re most interested in, and give them leeway to tackle projects in their own way.

With such autonomy comes the need for effective oversight and measurement of results to keep everyone accountable, of course.

Honesty, humanity and humility help

Beyond specific work-related strategies, you can foster trust by simply building relationships with and among your employees. “Neuroscience experiments by my lab show that when people intentionally build social ties at work, their performance improves,” Zak wrote.

In fact, psychologists and other business experts say creating trust within your company boils down to the ways you’d treat a friend, and the way you’d hope to be treated.

“A person builds trust by listening, by acknowledging, by respecting,” said Jeanne Brett, professor emeritus of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. A little honesty and humility go a long way. “I cannot always do everything you are asking of me,” Brett said. “But I am willing to say what I can and cannot do and why.”

With your deeper understanding of each others’ needs or concerns, you can then work with an employee to move forward from a sticking point. Brett, author of the book “Negotiating Globally,” has learned these lessons through her research as well as her own collaborative actions.

“I build trust by being responsive, by following up, by delivering what I say I will deliver, and by taking responsibility when I screw up,” she told CO—. “How can we fix this? No one is perfect 100 percent of the time.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published March 23, 2021