If you ask 100 leaders if they believe trust on a work team is important 98 of them will likely say yes, even if for 2 or 3 it is only the politically correct answer. Ask that same group how they build trust on their team and how much time they spend doing it and you will probably hear deafening silence.

How high is the trust level on your team? You might be unpleasantly surprised. Based on my experience asking this question of leaders and then administering The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™ assessment that, among other things, asks team members to rate trust on the team, leaders tend to significantly overrate the level of trust on their teams.

What is trust? Because trust is a part of our “hard-wiring” and is controlled by a different part of the brain than the part that processes language, trust is difficult to define in a way that truly resonates. One definition that I like when talking about trust in organizations is “Faith in another’s intentions and behaviors.” Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team talks about the importance of vulnerability based trust on teams. He defines vulnerability based trust as “confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around team members”.

Trust is intricately tied to a feeling of safety. In organizations that means feeling safe to speak-up, provide your opinion, and disagree. It means feeling safe to admit a mistake or ask for help.

The fields of Neuroscience and Neurobiology are shedding new light on the topic of trust and why it is so important in organizations (and societies). Here are three truths about trust based on research in the field of neurobiology conducted by Paul Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University and his associates.

Truth 1: Trust is among the strongest known predictors of a country’s wealth; nations with low levels tend to be poor. While the researchers do not make the generalization to business organizations, I would hypothesize that the same would hold for businesses: those with the highest level of trust have the best financial performance over time while those with the lowest levels of trust of the worst financial performance over time.

Truth 2: Trust is associated with the neurochemical oxytocin. High levels of stress inhibits the effect of oxytocin and causes people to move into survival mode focusing only on themselves. Therefore, when stress is high in a business environment the ability to collaborate and work together to pursue a common goal or purpose is not possible. The ability to function as a cohesive team disintegrates as each team member begins to focus only on their own best interest.

Truth 3: Trust breeds trustworthiness. This means that when we show trust towards someone they are more likely to act in a way that is trust worthy. Research indicates that the opposite may also be true. That when we distrust someone they are more likely to act in non-trustworthy way. Again there are implications for leaders: show trust to your employees and you are likely to be rewarded with trustworthiness; show distrust and your expectations are likely to be met as well.

As a leader, how can you build trust on your team?

  1. Help team member find similarities. Our “hardwiring” predisposes us to trust those who are similar to us.
  2. Develop an appreciation of differences. Help team members move from judging differences to understanding and then valuing the different skills, experiences and perspectives that each team member brings.
  3. Show sincere appreciation and give public praise. Encourage your employees to do the same. Appreciation and praise leads to an increase of oxytocin which leads to increased trust and cooperation.

While the implications and the benefits of trust in business are huge, the implications for society are staggering.