Managing techniques to improve employee’s engagement: build a culture of trust

In a very interesting article in last Harvard Business Review “The neuroscience of trust” by Paul J. Zak. describes how trust works, and its relationship with employee engagement. Then presents eight management behaviors that create a culture of trust as the base to improve productivity through employee engagement.

Gallup’s meta-analysis […] shows that high engagement—defined largely as having a strong connection with one’s work and colleagues, feeling like a real contributor, and enjoying ample chances to learn—consistently leads to positive outcomes for both individuals and organizations. The rewards include higher productivity, better-quality products, and increased profitability.

[…]In my research I’ve found that building a culture of trust is what makes a meaningful difference. 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. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance.

Leaders understand the stakes[… but] they aren’t sure where to start. In this article I provide a science-based framework that will help them.

Paul Zak is a professor of economics, psychology  and management, and founder of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies. He knew that a brain chemical called oxytocin was responsible in rodents to signal that another animal was safe to approach, and he wonder if it was the same for humans. He initiated a long term research to verify if the same neurological signal was also indicating us that we can trust someone. His  experiments proved that:

Oxytocin appeared to do just one thing—reduce the fear of trusting a stranger.

My group then spent the next 10 years running additional experiments to identify the promoters and inhibitors of oxytocin. This research told us why trust varies across individuals and situations. For example, high stress is a potent oxytocin inhibitor. (Most people intuitively know this: When they are stressed out, they do not interact with others effectively.) We also discovered that oxytocin increases a person’s empathy, a useful trait for social creatures trying to work together. We were starting to develop insights that could be used to design high-trust cultures, but to confirm them, we had to get out of the lab.

So he developed safe experiments to measure oxytoxin and stress levels of employees, and also measured their productivity and creativity.

Through the experiments and the surveys, I identified eight management behaviors that foster trust. These behaviors are measurable and can be managed to improve performance.

  1. Recognize excellence.
    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. 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.
  2. Induce “challenge stress.”
    When a manager assigns a team a difficult but achievable job, the moderate stress of the task releases neurochemicals, including oxytocin and adrenocorticotropin, that intensify people’s focus and strengthen social connections. When team members need to work together to reach a goal, brain activity coordinates their behaviors efficiently. But this works only if challenges are attainable and have a concrete end point; vague or impossible goals cause people to give up before they even start. Leaders should check in frequently to assess progress and adjust goals that are too easy or out of reach.
    76% of people reported that their best days involved making progress toward goals.
  3. Give people discretion in how they do their work.
    Once employees have been trained, allow them, whenever possible, to manage people and execute projects in their own way. […]
    Autonomy also promotes innovation, because different people try different approaches. Oversight and risk management procedures can help minimize negative deviations while people experiment. And postproject debriefs allow teams to share how positive deviations came about so that others can build on their success.
    […]
  4. Enable job crafting.
    When companies trust employees to choose which projects they’ll work on, people focus their energies on what they care about most.
    […]
  5. 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, which inhibits the release of oxytocin and undermines teamwork. […] 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.
    […]
  6. Intentionally build relationships.
    […] at work we often get the message that we should focus on completing tasks, not on making friends. Neuroscience experiments by my 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.Yes, even engineers need to socialize. A study of software engineers in Silicon Valley found that those who connected with others and helped them with their projects not only earned the respect and trust of their peers but were also more productive themselves. You can help people build social connections by sponsoring lunches, after-work parties, and team-building activities. It may sound like forced fun, but when people care about one another, they perform better because they don’t want to let their teammates down.
    […]
  7. 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. […]
    Investing in the whole person has a powerful effect on engagement and retention.
  8. Show vulnerability.
    Leaders in high-trust workplaces ask for help from colleagues instead of just telling them to do things. My 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. Jim Whitehurst, CEO of open-source software maker Red Hat, has said, “I found that being very open about the things I did not know actually had the opposite effect than I would have thought. It helped me build credibility.” Asking for help is effective because it taps into the natural human impulse to cooperate with others.

The effect of trust on self-reported work performance was powerful. Respondents whose companies were in the top quartile indicated they had 106% more energy and were 76% more engaged at work than respondents whose firms were in the bottom quartile. They also reported being 50% more productive—which is consistent with our objective measures of productivity from studies we have done with employees at work. Trust had a major impact on employee loyalty as well: Compared with employees at low-trust companies, 50% more of those working at high-trust organizations planned to stay with their employer over the next year, and 88% more said they would recommend their company to family and friends as a place to work.

My team also found that those working in high-trust companies enjoyed their jobs 60% more, were 70% more aligned with their companies’ purpose, and felt 66% closer to their colleagues.

Looking at his conclusions, I see the same values that we foster on Agile/SCRUM management methodology.

[…] you cultivate trust by setting a clear direction, giving people what they need to see it through, and getting out of their way.

It’s not about being easy on your employees or expecting less from them. High-trust companies hold people accountable but without micromanaging them. They treat people like responsible adults.

His research proved that these techniques work, and also that a culture of trust accounts for more joy: “joy on the job comes from doing purpose-driven work with a trusted team”.

Embrace the movement for a happier society raising awareness on the benefits of stopping micro-management and  of trusting people to do their jobs.

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