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The Neuroscience of Trust: How Managers Can Boost Engagement and Performance

In today's fast-paced and competitive business environment, employee engagement and retention have become critical concerns for organizations. While many managers have tried various strategies and perks to address these issues, the impact has been limited. However, recent advances in neuroscience have offered new insights into the factors that influence employee engagement and retention. One of the key factors is trust, which is closely linked to the brain chemical oxytocin.

Today we will explore the findings of Dr. Paul Zak, a pioneer in the field of neuroeconomics, who has developed a framework for creating a culture of trust and building a happier, more loyal, and more productive workforce.

Recognize Excellence

According to Zak, recognizing excellence is one of the most effective ways to stimulate oxytocin production and generate trust. When employees receive recognition for their work, it sends a signal to their brain that their efforts are valued and appreciated. This recognition can take various forms, such as public acknowledgment, rewards, or promotions. However, it's essential to ensure that the recognition is genuine and based on objective criteria to avoid creating a culture of favoritism.

As an example, Google's famous "Thank You" program allows employees to recognize and reward their colleagues for a job well done. This not only boosts morale but also fosters a sense of community and collaboration.

Induce "Challenge Stress"

Zak's research also shows that inducing "challenge stress" can stimulate oxytocin production. Challenge stress occurs when employees are given tasks that are challenging but achievable. This type of stress triggers the release of oxytocin, which helps individuals to focus and collaborate with others to overcome obstacles.

As an example, IBM's "Extreme Blue" program pairs employees with mentors from different departments to work on high-priority projects. This not only provides employees with new skill-building opportunities but also fosters collaboration and innovation.

Give People Discretion in How They Do Their Work

Giving employees discretion in how they do their work is another key factor in stimulating oxytocin production. When employees have the freedom to choose their work processes and approaches, they feel more engaged and motivated. This autonomy also encourages employees to take ownership of their work and promotes a sense of accountability.

As an example, GitHub's "Friday Hackathon" allows employees to work on any project they choose, as long as it's related to the company's mission. This not only fosters innovation but also gives employees a sense of control over their work.

Enable Job Crafting

Job crafting refers to the process of redesigning jobs to provide employees with more autonomy, variety, and meaning. When employees have the opportunity to shape their jobs in this way, they are more likely to feel engaged and motivated.

As an example, Atlassian's "FedEx Day" allows employees to work on any project they want, as long as it's delivered within 24 hours. This not only fosters innovation but also gives employees a sense of ownership and control over their work.

Share Information Broadly

Sharing information broadly within an organization is another key factor in building trust. When employees have access to information about the company's goals, strategies, and performance, they feel more connected and engaged. This transparency also promotes a sense of collaboration and teamwork.

As an example, at Google, employees have access to a wide range of information through the company's internal platform, "Google Docs." This platform allows employees to collaborate on documents, share information, and work together on projects.

Intentionally Build Relationships

Building relationships is a critical aspect of building trust. When employees feel connected to their colleagues and managers, they are more likely to feel engaged and motivated.

As an example, Zappos's famous "Zappos University" provides employees with a comprehensive onboarding program that includes social events, team-building activities, and training sessions. This not only fosters a sense of community but also helps employees to build relationships with their colleagues.

Facilitate Whole-Person Growth

Facilitating whole-person growth is another key factor in building trust. When employees feel that their personal and professional growth is supported, they are more likely to feel engaged and motivated. This can be achieved through training programs, mentorship opportunities, and flexible work arrangements that allow employees to balance their work and personal lives.

As an example, Google's "70/20/10" rule requires that employees spend 70% of their time on their primary job, 20% on related work, and 10% on unrelated work. This allows employees to explore new areas of interest and develop new skills, while still fulfilling their primary job responsibilities.

Show Vulnerability

Finally, showing vulnerability is an important factor in building trust. When leaders are willing to admit their own weaknesses and mistakes, it sends a signal to employees that it's okay to be vulnerable and take risks. This can help to foster a culture of innovation and collaboration.

As an example, Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, has been open about his own struggles with depression and anxiety. By sharing his vulnerabilities, he has created a culture where employees feel comfortable opening up about their own struggles and seeking help when needed.


Building trust is a critical component of creating a positive and productive work culture. By implementing these eight management behaviors, managers can foster a culture of trust, engagement, and performance. While it may take time and effort to see results, the payoff can be significant in terms of increased employee retention, productivity, and overall success.

As Dr. Paul Zak concluded, "Trust is not a soft, fluffy concept. It's a hard-edged, quantifiable driver of performance." By prioritizing trust, managers can create a work environment that is not only more enjoyable but also more productive and successful.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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