The UK government caused controversy recently by rolling back its commitments to net zero. Commenting on the backpedalling, Ford’s UK chair Lisa Brankin raised concerns, citing the rampant upheavals Ford (and every company in the automotive sector) have been making in order to act in accordance with the now-reversed ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.
As well as the UK 2030 target being “a vital catalyst to accelerate Ford into a cleaner future,” Brankin stated that, “Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three” .
Essentially what the government has done is undermine the trust of Ford and every other leading player in the automotive sector. They said they were committed to something and then showed they were not. They had the whole sector aligned and working at breakneck speed to overhaul old practices only to discover they’d been wasting their time and money.
As the old saying goes, trust is hard to earn and easy to lose. And in business, a loss of trust is catastrophic.
The value of trust
Research published by Harvard Business Review found that workers at companies where trust is high report 106% greater energy in the office, 74% lower stress levels, 76% greater engagement, and 50% more productivity than their peers at low-trust businesses .
Meanwhile PwC reports that 91% of business executives say their ability to build and maintain trust improves the bottom line (including 50% who strongly agree), 58% of consumers say they have recommended a company they trust to friends and family, and 64% of employees say they recommended a company as a place to work because they trusted it .
Trust pays. It builds relationships – both internally and with clients – and only grows stronger with time. It produces happier, more productive employees and reaps dividends in profit. Evidently, then, it’s something worth investing in. But to do so, we first need to clarify what we mean by trust.
What is trust?
Writing for Forbes, John Hall, a motivational speaker and co-founder of the time and scheduling management app Calendar, says workplace trust relies on two fundamentals: “First, every team member is making their best effort to further the interests of the company; second, everyone assumes that fact about everyone else on the team unless they see evidence to the contrary” .
In lieu of trust falls, office ping pong or other more performative variants of workplace integration, trust boils down to something more fundamental, whether you are doing your best and giving everyone else in your team the courtesy of assuming they’re doing the same.
This second part can prove especially difficult. We can control our own work ethic, not others. And within almost all office environments there’s a sense of competitiveness, the rate and quality of your output exists in constant competition with the rate and output of your colleagues. Who’s in the boss’s good books? Who’s getting the bonus? The promotion?
All these considerations can’t help but cultivate attrition. We may like to think our colleagues aren’t working as hard or to as high a standard as we are out of pride or to build up our own sense of self-worth. This is misguided. We need to bestow trust freely and unsparingly. When considering how best to decide who is trustworthy, Ernest Hemingway put the answer most succinctly: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them” .
It’s a leap of faith. That’s what trust is at its core. And until somebody gives you a reason not to trust them, your best bet is to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The science of trust
In an era marred by a seemingly endless carousel of corporate jargon and buzzwords, it’s possible to read about the notion of trust and think it’s more of the same – a benevolent, ultimately abstract notion that holds no quantifiable value but makes for a useful throwaway LinkedIn post or hastily churned out blog. But there is a science to trust, as demonstrated by Paul J. Zak, the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and a professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University, and the CEO of Immersion Neuroscience.
Having seen in rodents that a rise in the brain’s oxytocin levels signified that another animal was safe to approach, Zak wondered if the same was true for humans. He conducted an experiment following the model of Nobel laureate in economics Vernon Smith . In the experiment, a participant would choose an amount of money to send to a stranger via computer, knowing that the amount they chose to send would triple once they’d sent it. The recipient would then have the option of sharing this tripled amount with the sender or keeping all the cash for themselves. It was a trust exercise made of two parts. First, how much do you send? Second, do you share or steal?
To measure oxytocin levels during the exchange, Zak and his colleagues developed a protocol to draw blood from people’s arms before and immediately after they made decisions to trust others (if they were senders) or to be trustworthy (if they were receivers). The participants were not informed as to the content of the study (and even if they had been, they still would have had no control over the amount of oxytocin their bodies release).
They found that the more money people received (denoting greater trust on the part of senders), the more oxytocin their brains produced. The amount of oxytocin recipients produced then also predicted how trustworthy – that is, how likely to share the money – they would be. To prove that this was not just a result of the brain randomly generating chemicals, they performed further tests, administering doses of synthetic oxytocin into the brain through nasal spray and comparing participants who’d had a dose with those who’d had a placebo. They found that giving people 24 IU of synthetic oxytocin more than doubled the amount of money they sent to a stranger.
To ensure that the oxytocin spray did not cognitively impair the participants – and thus that their actions were actually born of brain fog or psychosis rather than trust – they performed other tests, this time replacing the money test with a gambling model. They found that increased oxytocin led to no rise in risk taking. In other words, the sole and genuine effect of increased oxytocin was to reduce the fear of trusting a stranger.
Over the following ten years, during which he conducted various further tests on oxytocin levels, Zak found that stress is a potent oxytocin inhibitor, as well as learning that oxytocin increases a person’s empathy, which of course is a vital tool for any act that requires collaboration.
How to develop trust
There is a gap in how executives see trust in business and how employees and customers see it. According to PwC, 84% of business executives think that customers highly trust their company, yet only 27% of customers say the same. Similarly 79% of business executives say their employees trust the company, but only 65% of employees agree . Clearly, then, the first step a higher-up can take to improve trust in the company is to be aware that it’s lacking.
Zak’s continued research shows that recognition and attainment of goals are the most proven ways of garnering trust. “The neuroscience shows that recognition has the largest effect on trust when it occurs immediately after a goal has been met, when it comes from peers, and when it’s tangible, unexpected, personal, and public” .
Setting goals that are difficult but achievable is crucial. The moderate stress of the task releases neurochemicals, including oxytocin and adrenocorticotropin, that intensify people’s focus and strengthen social connections. However, the challenges have to be achievable and have a clear endpoint. Research shows that vague goals cause employees to give up before they’ve even started.
Pivotal to trust rates within an organisation are messaging and communication. Internal trust networks are hard to maintain because the flow of communication is so much looser and unrestrained than in a strictly employee-client relationship. Organisations are sending their workers multiple, often contradictory messages every day. Different departments are working towards distinct, sometimes contrasting goals. Maintaining alignment to a clear, single message is extremely difficult and does not happen by accident.
Inconsistent messaging, inconsistent standards and false feedback all contribute to the sense of a company unworthy of trust. If one boss is asking workers to pull one way while another boss asks them to pull the other, employees will lose faith in management. This is even more true when it is just one boss flip-flopping on the direction of travel, unsure of their own wants.
Regarding standards, if a boss sets a line, verbal or written, as to what is acceptable behaviour or what is the demanded standard of work but then fails to live up to this standard themselves then trust will quickly dissipate. The same is true if they allow others to get away with clear or repeated breaches, especially if the boss is thought to be playing favourites. It is for managers to set the tone and take responsibility for their organisation. A leader’s words and actions are ascribed deep meaning by their employees, and will be scrutinised heavily. Trust starts at the top and filters down.
Former Herman Miller CEO Max De Pree once said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant” . That ability to humble oneself is pivotal to good management.
One way leaders can achieve this is to be willing to ask for help from their workers rather than just telling others what to do. This forms trust and connection with the employees and shows signs of a secure leader, far more trustworthy than one who pretends to have all the answers. As Steve Jobs said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do” . Ask questions and show a willingness to learn, you can bet your employees will do the same in turn.
Lending employees trust is of greater importance today than ever before due to the prevalence of home and hybrid working. Employers are not able to see and covertly monitor their employees through the day as they can in an office, and so must trust their teams to get the work done in a more autonomous fashion.
People can meet the same standards of in-office productivity from home on their own, less constrained schedule. The numbers back it up . But still some companies are wary. We’ve all seen stories of organisations that want to remotely monitor the usage of their workers’ computers throughout the day to check that they are always at their desk during work hours. This draconian approach shows a total lack of trust. Who would want to work for a company that held them in such low regard? What kind of atmosphere does that cultivate? We talk a lot about company culture. Well, a culture that doesn’t trust its staff is unlikely to get the best out of them, and frankly doesn’t deserve to.
Workers will only grow more remote with time. The traditional 9-5 is unlikely to return. Employers need to bestow the requisite levels of trust to get their employees thriving no matter where they are.
Trust is money
Hall recommends we treat trust like we treat money: “Save it carefully, and spend it wisely. You may not be able to measure it like you can a bank balance, but sooner or later, you’ll see it there, too” .
Trust is pivotal to any team endeavour and business is no different. Businesses need to cultivate trust with their consumers. To do so, they must first build it internally, starting from the top. That requires consistent messaging and open communication. It requires humility from leaders, not bullish overconfidence. It requires vulnerability and a willingness to trust someone until they prove you wrong, which inevitably some will. But for companies able to garner a truly trusting environment, one in which every worker is giving their best and working under the assumption that each of their colleagues are doing the same, the rewards are enormous.