How High Trust Workplaces Improve Life Quality (and the World)

How High Trust Workplaces Improve Life Quality (and the World)

Ask any employee or leader whether trust is important at work and nearly everyone will agree. 

Trusting others is a key component of being human.  As social creatures, we are biologically programmed to want to be with people and work together.   The relationships we have that make us feel safe are really important to us.

In the workplace, employees need confirmation that their fellow co-workers are looking out for them.  More importantly, workers need to feel connected to others and trust that their boss and their colleagues really care about them.  At the same time, employees need to believe the work they do matters, they’re making an impact and others appreciate their contribution.

According to 20 years of research by Great Places to Work Institute, the number one predictor of employee engagement is trust between a manager and employee.  When people feel that they can trust their boss to do the right thing by them, they feel confident that they can go the extra mile and their discretionary effort will be rewarded.

Employees that don’t trust those around them, close down.  In a low trust environment, the safest choice is to find excuses and rein in effort and commitment.  It means employees won’t contribute in meetings, raise issues or try anything new.  It stops innovation, team cohesion and increases the likelihood of psychological illness claims.

A study from Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management found that half of employees who were treated in an uncaring manner intentionally decreased the effort they put into their jobs, while around one-third reduced the quality of their work.

Creating a high trust culture boils down to every employee knowing they can rely on every person around them.  When employees trust management and the organisation, they are more willing to collaborate, share information, support each other and find ways to create synergy.  It means everyone is committed to performing at a high level and helping their peers achieve as well.

Think about the last time your boss or peers made you feel unworthy or under-appreciated.  Your first reaction (after you got over the hurt feelings) was to console yourself with “Well, because they don’t appreciate my effort, I won’t provide my full attention in the next meeting or answer that email promptly, or work late, or sign their birthday card or <fill in the blank with suitable excuse that makes you feel better>.”

Improving Our Well-Being

Humans are biologically programmed to want to be with others.  We want to be working on a team that’s going somewhere and that can accomplish more than we can achieve on our own.  We feel more alive when we are with other people.  Studies have found that our quality of life depends on how we experience work and our relationships with people.

Research by Dr Paul Zak found that a high trust culture even improves how people treat each other.  Those in high trust businesses have 11% more empathy for others, depersonalise colleagues 41% less, rate personal achievement 41% higher and face 40% less burnout from their work.

While in terms of quality of life, a Helliwell Huang study, found that a 10% increase in employee trust in company leaders has the same impact on life satisfaction as a 36% increase in salary.

The good news is that work is good for us.  Collaborating with our peers and hitting goals naturally aligns with who we are as human beings.  According to ground-breaking research on flow by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, people are more likely to report having optimal experiences at work rather than leisure.   The worst moods people report are when they are alone and nothing needs to be done.  Yet, despite work being good for us there are workplaces that are actually detrimental to our psychological health.

According to research by Heads Up, 9 in 10 Australian employees believe mentally healthy workplaces are important.  Yet, 5 in 10 Australian employees believe their workplace is mentally healthy.

So as an ambitious, results-driven leader how do you create a workplace that harnesses people’s natural drive to work together and feel good about themselves?  How do you create a work environment where colleagues can respond from choice instead of reacting impulsively from fear?  

Here are five critical areas that leaders need to understand about building trust that work perfectly with our biology.

1. Fostering Intrinsic Motivation

In the book, Drive by Dan Pink, he asserts that to get the best out of people organisations need to harness each individual’s intrinsic motivation.  Unfortunately, most companies are designed with the belief that work is inherently unenjoyable.  People have to be coaxed to work through external rewards (eg: pay, foosball tables) or even threatened with outside punishment (eg: no foosball table).

The reality is we are designed to seek out novelty and challenges.  Solving problems and hitting goals are enjoyable and sticky.  Work isn’t as boring as some business leaders believe.  It’s really about how it is framed.

To activate people’s intrinsic motivation, leaders need to communicate the meaning behind work and how it contributes to the success of the company and clients.  Leaders must take the time to explain to team members the importance of what they do and how it will be used.   This involves regularly referring to the company and team purpose to help people understand why their work matters.

2. Nurture a trusted team environment

Feeling part of a team working on a task makes people more motivated as they take on challenges.  A Stanford study found that even the mere perception of working collectively on a task can supercharge our performance.  Research participants who were primed to act collaboratively stuck at their task 64% longer than their solitary peers, whilst also reporting higher engagement levels, lower fatigue levels and a higher success rate.  Even better was that this impact persisted for several weeks.

To create a trusted team, promote the benefits of working collaboratively.  In addition, create an inclusive environment where everyone is expected to speak up, challenge the leader, make mistakes (without retribution) and offer ideas.  Leaders need to learn how to create and maintain a psychologically safe space where people can take risks and be themselves.

3. Provide People with Clear Goals and Direction

Csíkszentmihályi discovered that people must have clear goals and updates on progress.  To get the best out of people, they need direction.  It’s the responsibility of leaders to direct people by providing goals that are tied to the organisational purpose.   Goals release energy.  They help employees concentrate and avoid distractions.

But not just any goals.  Setting difficult, but achievable expectations engage the brain’s reward system.  If the action is challenging enough, a person can experience flow (a peak work experience where we lose track of time because our work is so engaging) continuously in their calling. 

4. Make Actionable Feedback a Habit

Once people are working on their goals they need clear feedback on their progress.  Providing this direction creates action.   While action creates inner order.  When external input is lacking, attention begins to wander.  Thoughts become chaotic and workers go into flight, fright or freeze mode.  The result is they get confused about what work to do next or waste time working on the wrong tasks or priorities.

The antidote is regular performance feedback which actually builds neural pathways in the brain that adapt to the new behaviours that are required to meet goals.  The most detailed information about who are as individuals comes from those we communicate with and from the way we accomplish our jobs.  Receiving constructive feedback helps us understand what we are capable of achieving and encourages us to do more.

Ideally, leaders need to focus on faster feedback loops to accelerate progress towards goals.  It needs to be provided so that employees feel that the leader wants to help them grow (which is a big way to build trust with them).

Providing feedback at an annual performance review isn’t enough.  Accumulating feedback over time is not only too late, but it’s overwhelming and unfair.  The infrequency of feedback means that employees are missing out on regular learning opportunities. 

Instead, Dr. Zak recommends leaders undertake a whole person review that acknowledges the whole person, rather than just work goals.  This also includes people’s personal and spiritual goals, as well as performance feedback.

For example, Lululemon, an athletic clothes brand has every employee set personal, professional and health/activity goals.  These goals are publicly displayed in each store.  Not only does this generate workplace conversations, but it encourages co-workers to support each other in reaching their goals. 

If work is actually good for our well-being, then tying all of our goals together provides the opportunity to improve the quality of life in all areas, not just one.  And let’s face it, when people turn up to work each day, their personal struggles turn up with them as well.  

Leaders who humanely care about their employees and see them as people, rather than tools of productivity, ensure that their colleagues know they care about them.  When an individual feels that their manager deeply cares for them, they trust their leader.  As a result of giving and receiving support,  both the leaders and team member’s reward networks in the brain light up.  Activating the reward centre in the brain encourages people to create and contribute, rather than shut down and hide in self-protection mode.   

5. Create celebrations

Recognising and rewarding employees for their work is critical for high trust workplaces.  Employees need to feel like they are accomplishing outcomes and making progress.  In addition to providing regular positive feedback, celebrate wins and milestones.

This even includes praising and appreciating people who have tried something new, but it didn’t turn out as hoped.  Help people understand that scrutinising failure for lessons and insights is really important for both personal and organisational growth.

For those who have achieved their goals, get them to explain to the team how they made the goal and what problems they overcome.  This provides an important forum to discuss best practices and to motivate other employees to keep going when things seem unachievable.

Some ideas include:

  • Reward achieving team goals and individual goals.  Unexpected, personal and tangible rewards link recognition with the goal that was met and reinforces the intrinsic reward of helping the team achieve success.  This emphasises the importance of hitting goals to each team member.
  • Get team members to also appreciate each other verbally in weekly team meetings.  A great exercise I use in meetings is to encourage each person to give a shout out to someone on the team who recently helped them and explain the impact.  It gives everyone the warm and fuzzies (and therefore, more likely to help out again).
  • Include friends and family.  This increases our level of pride and boosts dopamine and oxytocin levels that provide a long-lasting feel-good factor.
  • Have regular get-togethers outside of work.  Never underestimate the importance of socialising outside of work hours (or inside).   If the only communication team members have with each other is task related, it reduces the ability for team members to be resilient during conflict.  Give teams time to socialise and talk about things that are non-task related.  Rather than assume people want a work happy hour, ask your team members what activities would be meaningful to them.   Customised team-building activities can include a museum tour, seeing a speaker or a comedy show.  Creating events around personal goals builds solid working relationships that translate into better collaboration.

Butterfly Effect

Trust gives us a sense of safety to explore and understand our world.  A high trust environment encourages closeness to colleagues which in turn helps people work together more effectively.  In a business context, it means we can commit to actions, make decisions faster and have the confidence to buy into a big vision and get an innovative project off the ground.  

Leaders have an important role where they can choose to either light up the pain or reward networks of their team members.  Demonstrating benevolence and fairness to colleagues is the best way to help team members enjoy their work, improve their well-being and feel connected to each another. 

People who really enjoy their jobs benefit not only through job and life satisfaction, but the organisational pay-off is that they are also more efficient and loyal to the organisation.

But it’s not just the company that is rewarded.  The impact on other people’s lives is also considerable.  People who are satisfied with their work and lives are better partners, parents, and friends.  They love their work because it is a calling, not a job.  They don’t leave work angry and take it out on the next person they see.  Instead, they also highlight to their friends and family the benefits of reaching goals and working with others.  This creates a ripple effect that makes the world a better place.  

Can you imagine a world where everyone gets up in the morning to go to a job they love with people who love them?  The flow on positive effects would be huge.  I don’t know about you, but that’s the world I want to live in and the world I want for my children.

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Marie-Claire Ross is the Founder and Chief Corporate Catalyst at Trustologie. She is a workplace sociologist, author, speaker and consultant focused on helping leaders put the right processes in place to accelerate trust during change and growth. She does this through strategic diagnostics, roundtables, workshops, coaching and consulting. Marie-Claire is also the author of the number three ranked book on Amazon, Transform your Safety Communication. She has been interviewed on “Technology Behind Business” for Sky Business News and regularly contributes articles to FM Magazine and LogiSYM on company culture. She is also a Graduate of the Company Director’s Course and is on the SME Committee for the Australian Institute of Company Directors.


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