This is an attempt to summarise my research I did as part of my Doctorate. A version of this article has been published in the EDGE magazine, a publication of the Institute of Management and Leadership (ILM, UK, Autumn 2017) with the title “The Biology of Trust”.

Background & Research Objective

Due to the global financial crisis of 2008, the effectiveness of leadership teams has come under scrutiny more than ever before. However, the focus has been on issues of corporate governance and fraud, or an inappropriate choice of strategies, or other team dysfunctions like inattention to results, avoidance of accountability, etc. Corporate governance is critical and boards and executive leadership teams are the prime gatekeepers. However, the dynamics of those boards and executive leadership teams is almost never explored, mainly because it is not easy to access those teams and their proceedings are highly confidential.

My personal interest was to expand understanding of the reasons for failures by exploring the unconscious processes that come into play and affect the choices of leadership teams related to trust. In addition, during my research I came across an abundance of evidence about how trust occurs between team members and the role of oxytocin and trust from a neuroscience perspective. Those studies, however, focused mainly on administration of intranasal synthetic oxytocin on individuals or groups and measuring the effects.

Therefore, my research objective was to measure the existing oxytocin levels of an intact leadership team, treat the team with an organizational development intervention using David Kantor’s model of interpersonal communication called Structural Dynamics and then measure the oxytocin levels again. At the same time members also completed a paper and pencil questionnaire on trust before and after the intervention in order to compare these results with the oxytocin results.

A key purpose of this study was to utilize an interdisciplinary approach, i.e. merging knowledge from the leadership literature and practice with knowledge from psychology and neuroscience.

On Oxytocin

Beyond the physical needs of hunger, thirst and sleep, from a psychological perspective, interpersonal needs of humans come to the forefront. The need for attachment, which begins from birth, can be regarded as the empirically most substantiated basic need. The importance of fulfillment of this need is crucial as it may be linked to mental disorders etiology. The patterns for a human’s style of attachment are formed and influenced during the recurrent relationship that a child experiences with their primary caregiver. The hormone that has been associated with this specific bonding is Oxytocin. Its name comes from a Greek word, which means quick birth. There is a correlation between trust and oxytocin and there are several studies that have shown evidence of this effect. The release of oxytocin in the brain during trusting interactions makes humans treat each other as being of the same tribe or family.

Research – Design:

This was a quasi-experiment, which took place in a hotel over 2 days. Oxytocin was measured through a saliva swab and a microbiologist was hired to run the procedures, twice, i.e. in the beginning of day 1 and at the end of the second day. Participants also completed a paper-and-pencil questionnaire on trust twice, once at the beginning and once at the end of the two days.

On the Intervention:

Structural Dynamics, created by Dr. David Kantor (Massachusetts, USA) is a model of how face-to-face communication may be facilitated or hindered amongst team members including the leader. It includes a self-reported psychometric instrument, the results of which provide an individual as well as an aggregate team report. Structural Dynamics when used as an intervention allows us to make the invisible structure of the discourse visible and hence uncover problems of face-to-face communication. It also allows for the creation of that necessary breakdown or perturbance in the system (the team in this case), which can bring about change once all unspoken issues are dealt with.

Participants – Sample:

The participants of this study were an actual leadership team of an organization (retail industry) consisting of seven members including the leader (Managing Director).

Results:

All participants showed an improvement in the Trust scale scores (paper and pencil psychometric) with the exception of the leader whose scores remained the same.

Interestingly, women’s scores improved more than men’s.

In terms of Oxytocin, all participants’ oxytocin levels rose dramatically.

Conclusion:

Clearly what this study showed or confirmed is the importance of neuroscience knowledge for managers, leaders, practitioners, interventionists, and others involved in people management. The profound effect that humans can have on each other is staggering, and the implications are great from a leadership or management perspective whether this is related to how people communicate, how they may be providing feedback, how they create a safe environment during a team-building activity, etc. We are able to inform the creation of conscious opportunities for constructive social interaction amongst team members or between leader and team members. Thanks to Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans we are able to see the impact of our behaviour on someone’s brain…and if providing unsolicited feedback to your direct report has the SAME impact as if they were listening to footsteps following them in the dark… imagine the effect you can have on them! We’d better get to know our biology and realize that TRUST is not some near-magical elixir, but something we can actually work towards and even measure it! So, what do you think? Is this Neuro-science or Neuro-nonsense?

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