The Neuroscience of Trust – HBR February 2017

Trust can be a somewhat elusive concept in business; employers have long been trying to determine the causes and effects and how to increase trust amongst employees. Recently, an article published in the HBR has shed some light on the science behind trust.

Oxytocin has been found to increase trust and trustworthiness in others. This was discovered when experimenters asked participants to transfer an amount of money to a stranger, knowing it would triple in amount, but the recipient may or may not share the money with them. Therefore the recipient’s trustworthiness was measured by whether or not they shared the money. They found that the more money the recipients received, the more oxytocin they produced. The amount of oxytocin they produced also predicted how likely they were to share the money – or how trustworthy they were. This clearly shows that trust fosters trust, the more they were trusted, the more trustworthy they were.

In order to prove that the oxytocin caused the trust, the experimenters administered a (safe) 24IU dose of synthetic oxytocin to the participants and found that those who were sending money to strangers more than doubled the amount they sent after being given the dose of oxytocin. Furthermore, not only did the participants remain cognitively intact, they also did not take any more risks during a gambling task – showing that the oxytocin did not simply reduce inhibitions – all it appeared to do was “reduce the fear of trusting a stranger”.

8 ways to foster trust in your organisation:

  1. Recognise excellence in your employees – the most powerful way to do this is to make the recognition tangible, unexpected, personal and public.
  2. Challenge stress – moderate stress releases neurochemicals oxytocin and adrenocorticotropin, the latter of which intensifies people’s focus and strengthens social connections. The task needs to be challenging yet achievable otherwise people give up.
  3. Autonomy – it has been found that almost 50% of employees would rather have greater control over their work than a 20% pay rise. An added benefit is that this also promotes innovation, allowing people to try differing approaches.
  4. Job crafting – allowing employees to choose to work on the projects that interest them most, whist ensuring that clear expectations and objectives are outlined from the outset.
  5. Sharing information – ensuring that employees are kept up to date and informed, uncertainty leads to stress and a decrease in oxytocin.
  6. Intentionally building relationships – when people build relationships in work, performance improves. This also extends to managers – those who show an interest in an employee’s goals and wellbeing outperform others in the quality and quantity of their work
  7. Facilitate whole-person growth – focus not just on the individual at work, but also on their work/life balance. Emphasis should be on the future, rather than the past – goals can be set with managers, but the employee should be given the autonomy to reach them, allowing them to develop personally as well as professionally.
  8. Showing Vulnerability – when leaders ask for help, this stimulates oxytocin in others, increasing their levels of trust. Being open about needing help shows the leader is secure in themselves and helps build credibility


The impact of trust was highlighted in this study – findings included:

  • Respondents whose companies were in the top quartile in terms of trust were 76% more engaged and 50% more productive than those in the bottom quartile
  • Those working in high trust companies enjoyed their jobs 60% more, and felt that they were 70% more aligned with their company’s goals and missions.
  • High trust employees had 11% more empathy for their co-workers and felt 66% closer to them.
  • High trust employees also experienced 40% less burnout.
  • Another interesting finding was that companies in the highest quartile of trust pay 17% more compared with those in the lowest quartile, indicating that they are able do so as the high trust company employees are likely to be more innovative and productive.