How to Build Trust at Work (Bonus: It Boosts Your Culture)

April 28, 2021
MRA Edge
Engagement & Retention
Read time: 4 mins

Is your job an adventure that makes you happy? Are you treated like a responsible adult without being micromanaged? If so, chances are you work for a high-trust company, where your leader sets clear directions, gives you what you need to get your job done, and gets out of your way to let you do it.

Unfortunately, for some people, work can be unfulfilling, where employees are disengaged and surrounded by an unpleasant culture. It has a lot to do with trust, which is a human characteristic that is highly respected. Trust is earned, and once lost on a person or organization, trust is tough to get back.

Author Paul Zak, neuroscientist, wrote the book Trust Factor. In his publication, he defends the notion (with facts) that the key to providing an engaging, encouraging, positive culture that keeps your employees energized is, in fact, trust. 

If that’s true, then why do companies everywhere continue to grapple with toxic cultures and the unhappiness that goes with them? Is it because they don’t understand how to infuse trust into their culture, or don’t know what leadership behaviors foster trust, or worse, don’t hold their leaders accountable to those behaviors? For decades, business leaders have equipped themselves with every book, philosophy, reward, and program the experts have convinced them to buy into. However, companies everywhere continue to struggle.

We dug into this fascinating book and highlighted the main takeaways.

Enter Oxytocin


Zak’s years of research have shown that trust among team members is essential to effective teamwork. When someone shows you trust, a feel-good jolt of oxytocin surges through your brain and triggers you to reciprocate. This simple mechanism creates a perpetual trust-building cycle between management and staff and the end of workplace patterns. 

Teams whose members stimulate each other's brains to produce the neurochemical oxytocin are more productive and innovative. Oxytocin motivates us to be trustworthy by increasing our empathy for others. When we are empathetic with colleagues at work, we know what they are doing and why. Teams with high trust—like musicians riffing off each other—are intuitively aware of their teammates' needs and deliver them reliably.

Trust-Driven Management Styles

Zak uncovered the eight management behaviors that influence leaders to create a culture of trust. They are:

  1. Recognize excellence. Acknowledge those who meet or exceed goals.
  2. Promote challenge stress. Design achievable challenges that stretch an employee’s capability but don’t set him or her up for failure.
  3. Embrace task flexibility. Enable employees to complete their work as they see fit.
  4. Enable job crafting. Encourage self-management where colleagues choose the work that fits their strengths.
  5. Be open. Share information broadly and candidly.
  6. Care. Intentionally build relationships with team members and colleagues.
  7. Invest in growth. Support personal and professional development by providing the time and financial resources.
  8. Show vulnerability. Ask for help instead of pretending to know all the answers.

A culture of trust is sustainable by continuously monitoring the eight management behaviors of trust. Culture should be measured and improved like any other business process. By doing so, many companies can reboot their stagnant or troublesome cultures.

Stats That Impress

While researching, Zak collected a nationally representative sample of more than 1,000 working adults in the U.S. and questioned them about their organizations.

He found that those working in companies with the highest level of trust, compared to those with the lowest, reported having more energy at work, were more engaged, and felt more productive. High-trust companies had half the employee turnover of low-trust companies, with employees at these companies reporting they enjoyed their jobs more. 

The (Financial) Bottom Line 

Trust matters. Analysis of this data showed that if a company moved up one quartile in organizational trust, the average employee would produce an additional $10,185 in revenue every year. Because many ways to increase trust do not cost very much, the return on investment in trust is often hundreds of dollars for each dollar spent.

Trust is not something that magically appears in companies. It is a strategic asset that should be demonstrated, supported, and managed for high performance. Leaders should learn to cultivate a workplace where trust is a pivotal component so joy and commitment will compound naturally.

~ Sue Piette, Writer

MRA Edge May/June 2021

Read the full issue.