Employee Engagement Starts With Trust

Engagement is a useful term with built-in expectations and aligned metrics. It’s also a term that, at times, feels removed from the source. It’s easy to forget when assembling an internal communication plan or discussing long-term communication strategy that at the heart of employee engagement lies a deep universal need that is being tapped into – trust.

Trust is something that cannot be bought. Higher pay often fails to have lasting effects on performance or retention. While fashionable cultural additions (attractive environment, ping-pong tournaments, free meals, office slides…) can add recruitment appeal and boost short-term happiness, they will not hold an employee’s heart and mind long-term. A foundation of engagement cannot be built on perks alone. Only trust can do that.

Paul J. Zak, professor and founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, has uncovered some solid trust-building solutions in his recent article for the Harvard Business Review. Through experiments and surveys, he has devised eight management behaviours that foster trust and improve performance:

Recognize Excellence

Studies show 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. Public recognition not only uses the power of the crowd to celebrate successes, but also inspires others to aim for excellence. And it gives top performers a forum for sharing best practices, so others can learn from them.

Induce “Challenge Stress”

When a manager assigns a team a difficult but achievable job, the moderate stress of the task releases neurochemicals that intensify focus and strengthen social connections. When team members need to work together to reach a goal, brain activity coordinates their behaviors efficiently. This works only if challenges are attainable and have a concrete end – vague or impossible goals cause people to give up before they even start.

Give Discretion

Once employees have been trained, allow them, whenever possible, to manage people and execute projects in their own way. Being trusted to figure things out is a big motivator: A 2014 Citigroup and LinkedIn survey found that nearly half of employees would give up a 20% raise for greater control over how they work.

Enable Job Crafting

When companies trust employees to choose the projects they work on, people focus their energies on what they care about most. At Morning Star (a company Zak worked for), people don’t even have job titles; they self-organize into work groups. Gaming software company Valve gives employees desks on wheels and encourages them to join projects that seem “interesting” and “rewarding”. Clear expectations are set when employees join a new group, and 360-degree evaluations are done when projects wrap up so that individual contributions can be measured.

Share Information Broadly

Only 40% of employees report that they are well informed about their company’s goals, strategies, and tactics. This uncertainty about the company’s direction leads to chronic stress, inhibiting the release of oxytocin and undermining teamwork. Openness is the antidote. Organizations that share their plans with employees reduce uncertainty about where they are headed and why. Ongoing communication is key: A 2015 study of 2.5 million manager-led teams in 195 countries found that workforce engagement improved when supervisors had some form of daily communication with direct reports.

Intentionally Build Relationships

The brain network that oxytocin activates is evolutionarily old. This means that the trust and sociality that oxytocin enables are deeply embedded in our nature. Yet at work we often get the message that we should focus on completing tasks, not on making friends. Neuroscience experiments by Zak’s lab show that when people intentionally build social ties at work, their performance improves. A Google study similarly found that managers who “express interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being” outperform others in the quality and quantity of their work.

Facilitate Whole-Person Growth

High-trust workplaces help people develop personally as well as professionally. Numerous studies show that acquiring new work skills isn’t enough; if you’re not growing as a human being, your performance will suffer. High-trust companies adopt a growth mindset when developing talent. Some even find that when managers set clear goals, give employees the autonomy to reach them, and provide consistent feedback, the backward-looking annual performance review is no longer necessary. Instead, managers and direct reports can meet more frequently to focus on professional and personal growth.

Show Vulnerability

Leaders in high-trust workplaces ask for help from colleagues instead of just telling them to do things. Zak’s research team has found that this stimulates oxytocin production in others, increasing their trust and cooperation. Asking for help is a sign of a secure leader—one who engages everyone to reach goals.  Asking for help is effective because it taps into the natural human impulse to cooperate with others.

Trust is a fundamental building block to engagement examining truth, confidence in organization, and hope for the future. As Zak has found, the results speak for themselves.

“Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout.”

By communicating a clear path and providing supportive autonomy, leaders can inspire trust without gimmicks, relatively free of charge. All it takes is time, patience, and the trust of leaders as initial kindling. Contrary to the position many businesses take when facing organizational change, loosening the reins (or even letting them go) can do exponentially more for employee engagement, corporate culture and company productivity than tightening them ever could.

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