Is Trust Meaningful in Organizational Life?

November 2, 2022

Trust is essential in our personal lives. You know when you trust someone. You just get a sense that what they are saying is true, and you relax. You open up as well and say what you mean, share what is true for you. You show up more fully, wanting to know more about the other and letting the other see more of you. This is the foundation of our personal relationships and creates intimacy. Mistrust creates the opposite feeling of caution and leads to closing down or moving away. That comes from a sense too, such as when the hair along your arms ripples or a pit forms in your belly and sends a warning signal.

Such is the realm of our personal relationships. But what about at work? Is trust relevant there, where many of us have learned to not show up fully and to keep parts of ourselves or our lives hidden from view? What would trust in each other look like at work and why might it matter?

What is Trust?

The Oxford dictionary defines trust as a “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.” What creates that firm belief? Does that come from me and my ability to trust, or does that emanate from the other or the situation?

Ernest Hemingway believed that, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

Let us unpack how trust develops in the human biological system.

Rick Hanson, PhD, a psychologist, speaker, and author recently described the neuroscience of trust and connection at an event sponsored by the Greater Good Science Center. He identified different biological pathways toward or away from trust and connection that are initially triggered by neurochemical reactions in our body to external stimuli. These are largely automatic responses. If we feel threatened, then cortisol, a steroid hormone, gets released into our system and we become defensive and rigid. On the other hand, if in response to an external stimulus we feel safe, then endorphins are released, and we become open and flexible in our demeanor. We trust and relax.

Paul Zak, PhD, a professor of economic sciences, psychology, and management and the Founder of Immersion Neuroscience takes this one step farther. Zak identifies the hormone oxytocin as the key link between external stimuli and the formation of trust. Oxytocin is an evolutionarily ancient molecule, known to be a key part of the mammalian attachment system. It is commonly referred to as the “love hormone.” Through ten years of experiments, Zak’s lab was the first to demonstrate that the release of oxytocin promotes prosocial behaviors, such as trust and connection, among human beings.

In his experiments, Zak modified what is known as the ‘trust game’ in research circles. In the trust game, participants must decide whether to transfer money given to them to a total stranger they cannot see or communicate with. They know that any amount they hand over will be tripled in value, but they do not know what the recipient will do with the funds. The recipient has free choice to share or keep all the money. The modification Zak made in his experiments was to take blood samples during the game and measure levels of various hormones.

His experiments show that when the recipient of money receives the generosity, or what is considered a signal of trust, from the giver there is a higher level of peripheral oxytocin in the blood than in subjects who receive the same amount of money in a random monetary transfer. Oxytocin levels also increase when the recipient shares back a greater proportion of the monetary gains. This sharing back is considered a signal of trustworthiness. In other words, when one is trusted, oxytocin is released in proportion to the degree of trust shown. The amount of oxytocin released then predicts the degree of reciprocation. Zak’s further experiments have shown that oxytocin turns “on” when one is shown or receives the trust of another, and it also shuts down during periods of high stress or extreme competition.

Trust and Performance at Work

Okay, now what about trust in organizations? I enjoy the feel-good effects of oxytocin with my friends and loved ones but is that appropriate at work?

Zak found that teams whose members stimulate each other’s brains to produce oxytocin are more productive and innovative. Oxytocin motivates trustworthy behavior and makes it feel good to cooperate with others. It does this by increasing empathy — our capacity to tune into others’ emotional states. This is true at home and at work.

“Teams with high trust work like musicians riffing off each other, they intuitively know what their teammates need and deliver it reliably.” –Paul Zak

Great Place to Work partners with Fortune to produce the “100 Best Companies to Work For” list and they report that trust is the determining factor of high-performing and healthy workplaces. This is based on their 30 years of data from more than 130 million employees. They describe high-trust companies as ones with “cultures where employees trust the people they work for, have pride in what they do, and enjoy the people they work with.” For employees this means they can be themselves at work, that they are treated fairly regardless of their age, race, gender, sexual orientation and other demographic factors, and that the workplace is psychologically and emotionally safe. They look forward to coming to work, feel that they make a difference at work, and that management cares about them as a person, not just as an employee.

Another example of trust impacting performance at work is in the Google research known as Project Aristotle. In 2013–14, Google analyzed 180 different teams to understand what differentiated high-performing and low-performing teams. They analyzed myriad factors, including composition of teams in terms of diversity of backgrounds, skillsets, and level of experience of team members, and could not initially find a distinguishing characteristic for high performance. Ultimately, they discovered that what made the difference is not who is on the team, but how the team worked together. Their analysis identified five traits found in high-performing, but not low-performing, teams. The most important is psychological safety, which could also be called trust.

The concept of psychological safety was first identified in the 1990s by Professor William Kahn at Boston University. From his research with summer camp counselors and employees at an architectural firm, he concluded that: “Psychological safety was experienced as feeling able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career. People felt safe in situations in which they trusted [emphasis added] that they would not suffer for their personal engagement.” The impact of psychological safety? Higher personal engagement at work — people showed up more fully.

Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, continues to study psychological safety. Her work shows that high performance requires the capacity and willingness to take risks. The workplace needs to be an environment in which people feel free to speak up when needed and she has also found that psychological safety is the key ingredient. Her works shows that “psychological safety is present when colleagues trust [emphasis added] and respect each other and feel able, even obligated, to be candid.”

The Bottom Line

So, trust is important for the development of our personal relationships and motivates us to collaborate at work. It increases personal engagement and creates high-performing teams. How does this translate in terms of return on investment for creating environments that develop trust among colleagues?

Stephen Covey, in his article in the Harvard Business Review, The Connection Between Employee Trust and Financial Performance, addresses this question directly. He argues that trust is not a social virtue but an “economic driver for every organization.” His work shows that trust effects business outcomes through its impact on speed and cost. “When trust goes down (in a relationship, on a team, in an organization, or with a partner or customer), speed goes down and cost goes up.” He names this a “low-trust tax.” There is also a “high-trust dividend:” when trust increases, cost goes down, speed goes up, and business results improve.

Covey goes so far as to declare that “most organizational performance issues are actually trust issues in disguise … It’s not that leaders aren’t smart or don’t care; they’re just focused on the wrong cause and they mistakenly underplay trust-building as ‘soft’ or secondary — when it should actually be the primary focus.”

“Often, in poor-performing cultures, the virus that is infecting the organization is low trust and the symptoms are wide-ranging dysfunction, redundancy, turnover, bureaucracy, disengagement, and fraud.” — Stephen Covey

Covey ends that article by assuring us all that trust-building is a learnable skill, not a given or static condition.

Zak was also curious about this bottom-line question. In 2016, he surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 1,000 working adults in the United States to understand the impact of trust on business performance. In addition to data from the companies he has worked with, those working in companies in the highest quartile of trust vs. the lowest quartile report:

· 106% more energy at work

· 76% higher engagement

· 50% greater productivity

· 60% higher job enjoyment

and … high-trust companies had half the employee turnover.

Analysis from the same dataset showed that if a company moved up one quartile in organizational trust, the average employee would produce an additional $10,185 in revenue annually.

How to Build Trust

So, trust is a key driver of business performance. It effects our well-being and our capacity to show up fully and contribute what is ours to offer. It is the elixir for productive collaboration. But if it is an automatic biological response, is trust something that can be proactively developed in organizations?

Stephen Covey, William Kahn, Amy Edmondson, and Paul Zak all report from their research that the conditions for trust at work can — and must — be created and nurtured. But how?

Covey presents a three-pronged approach for trust-building in organizations: Declare Intent, Demonstrate Respect, and Deliver Results.

Zak has identified eight building blocks for developing a culture of high trust. He uses the acronym OXYTOCIN to capture them:

· Ovation: recognize those who meet or exceed goals, and this is most potent when the recognition is peer-driven, public, unexpected, tangible and close in time to a goal being met

· eXpectation: design difficult but achievable challenges and hold colleagues accountable to reach them, ideally with clear goals and weekly milestones

· Yield: enable employees to complete their work as they see fit, including how, where, and when things get done

· Transfer: facilitate self-management in which colleagues choose the work they want to do

· Openness: share information broadly, make decision-making transparent, listen to others and communicate clearly

· Caring: intentionally build relationships with colleagues

· Invest: promote personal and professional growth, investing in a human being and not just a human resource.

· Natural: behave authentically and ask for feedback and help

At AwakeTeams, we believe that trust-building is one of three core competencies that enables employees to show up, participate fully, and thrive at work. The other two competencies are effective communication and productive collaboration. We train practices to develop skills in each of these areas.

For trust-building, we train employees in practices that build to these outcomes:

· Bring Yourself

· See Others

· Welcome Divergence

· Reflect

· Include

Our training modules describe the outcomes in more detail and offer specific and simple behaviors to practice over time. We train at the team level, offering a learning journey over six months that includes team training sessions, individual micro-modules of training, and ongoing peer feedback. The team process enables peer learning and the revelation of blind spots (gaps in skills) via peer feedback. Teammates also hold each other accountable, with the support of online dashboards, for ongoing participation and team performance.

Most things in life are learnable. We need to be brave to adapt and change, and to be open enough to take in relevant input and see where change is necessary (or at least beneficial). And then we need to practice what we learn! Usually we need input from others in this process and benefit from practice partners. AwakeTeams creates a collective learning journey so that no one is in it alone and there is an ongoing loop of input and feedback. It also integrates nudges and reinforcements along the way to support individual development of team members.

If you are curious about building trust in your organization, AwakeTeams is just launching in beta form. If you would like to discuss the possibility of piloting this program in your organization, please reach out! You can reach me at

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