Over the last three decades, extensive workplace research on "employee engagement" from several credible sources has informed leaders and HR professionals on strategies and "frameworks" for improving teamwork, productivity, and company performance.

While the evidence is obvious by now that "people quit managers, not companies," few scholars, scientifically speaking, examine workplace productivity and thriving work cultures by starting with how the brain works. 

That's why Dr. Paul Zak's research is so compelling. He is founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and author of Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High Performance Companies.

Dr. Zak's discovery

Zak's team measured the brain activity of people while they worked and discovered that trust is truly the secret sauce of what makes work exciting, productive, and innovative. While this may not come as a shock to many, Zak set out to understand why two people trust each other in the first place.

It came down to one word: Oxytocin.

Basically, Zak's team was the first to discover that the brain chemical oxytocin "facilitated trust, generosity, connection to others." In Zak's lab studies, it's oxytocin that allows us to determine whom to trust.

Digging deeper, he was able to find the promoters and inhibitors of oxytocin. As you may have guessed, high stress is a big inhibitor -- it kills the ability to effectively interact with others. If this is the case, kiss your teamwork adiós.

What leaders and managers need to after are the promoters of oxytocin -- figuring out the job tasks, team atmosphere, and leadership behaviors (like empathy and compassion, for example) that will release the feel-good neurochemicals in the brain, like oxytocin. 

Managing for trust eight different ways

In Zak's research, he found that eight specific "trustworthy" management behaviors will do just that, thus increasing trust and boosting performance across an enterprise. They are:

As a result, Zak says that "Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies."

Zak adds a trust bonus for those suffering from stress: "They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance."

Bringing it home: The return on trust.

If you want the hard numbers, data collected from Zak's surveys revealed these findings:

  • Respondents in high-trust companies had 106 percent more energy
  • They were 76 percent more engaged at work than respondents whose firms came from low-trust companies.
  • They also reported being 50 percent more productive.
  • They were 50 percent more loyal, planning to stay with their employer over the next year
  • They were 88 percent more likely to recommend their company to family and friends as a place to work.

That begs the question: Do you work for a high-trust organization? Leave me a comment.