I am reading so much about TRUST lately, and how leaders should ‘trust’ their employees or how they should ‘improve trust’ amongst their team members and it all sounds to me like another holy grail… Trust is declared to be some near-magical economic elixir, facilitating productivity, creativity and humanity at work.

What are we talking about? What IS trust anyway and are there different kinds or trust? How do you know you trust someone? ? In my years in the corporate world I have witnessed and also been on the receiving end of ‘being trusted’ one day and being treated as a company’s worst betrayer the next day when I announced to my employer that I am resigning. In fact, I told my line manager (Managing Director of the organization) that he is acting as a ‘cheated husband’ … So, do trust and ‘doubt’ co-exist at the same time?

In the rural areas around Ithaca it is common for farmers to put some fresh produce on a table by the road. There is a cash box on the table, and customers are expected to put money in the box in return for the vegetables they take. The box has just a small slit, so money can only be put in, not taken out. Also, the box is attached to the table, so no one can (easily) make off with the money.

This is definitely an illustration of trust towards people but there is surely some doubt there as well. Obviously, trust is revealed by leaving vegetables and the cash box unguarded, however, doubt is revealed in the small slit in the cash box, and the attachment to the table. How many such examples can you think of in organizations? The mere definition of people management is about both! So, trust and doubt do co-exist.

And what’s the fuss with trust? Beyond the physical needs of hunger, thirst and sleep, from a psychological perspective, the interpersonal needs the need for attachment, which begins from birth is one of the most substantiated basic need. Let’s talk biology for a moment: The hormone that has been associated with this specific bonding is oxytocin and its name comes from a Greek word, which means ‘quick birth’. Oxytocin is released when women are in labor, when humans have an orgasm, when we hug each other, or even with a simple shoulder massage. Animals’ trust to humans is based on oxytocin. The release of oxytocin in the brain during trusting interactions makes humans treat each other as being of the same tribe or family. There has been loads of research where participants have been administered with oxytocin through their noses and were asked to participate in games involving trust and money. The results were consistent for men and women. Trust and cooperation, or even the willingness to open up was increased via the intranasal administration. So, a spray up your people’s noses would have far faster results than having them into a hotel room, participating in laborious and expensive team-building workshops! Ok, I am kidding….or maybe not…

There are many types of Trust, but I am only going to introduce you to the following because it is relevant to our work in organizations. We can have ‘cognitive trust’, which is when our employees trust us because we ‘can do the job’. We are more experienced than them and we have the answers to all their questions, so they come to us whenever they are in trouble. This type of trust needs to be applied with caution because it may create a dependency relationship. ‘Affective trust’ which, as the word implies, is when people trust us for some deeper, emotional issues. It is the second type of trust with which you actually build relationships and it is the type of trust that is usually absent.

Why is all this relevant to you? For many reasons: First, when you are in discussions about concepts as vague as ‘trust’, make sure to define what these concept mean to your employee(s). Most of the times they have a different view of the world than you. Otherwise, you enter into a philosophical discussion and both of you are under the illusion you are talking about the same thing while you are not.

Second, know your biology. What happens in our brains can have a significant impact on behavior in the workplace, from how you give feedback to how you conduct a performance appraisal. The increase in social status, like for example a promotion within an organizational setting, increases testosterone in both men and women. So, knowing what changes in behaviors the neurochemicals in one’s brain can play, allows an organization to encourage or not certain behaviors depending on what they would want to achieve.

Third, unless you define something in behavioural terms that has practical relevance for your organization you won’t be able to either measure it, improve it, or change it and this is why many ‘work-life balance’ or ‘employee engagement’ programs fail in the first place.

If you are a ‘Doubting Thomas’ go to www.leadershippsychologyinstitute.com

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