Is trusting the team the key to effective employee engagement?

19th August 2015

HR professionals have known for some time that being up to date with the latest thinking about the way the human brain works can provide some important insights into people management. However, with the ever increasing drive towards employee engagement to combat the effects of the employees’ changing attitudes towards employment, it’s even more essential that understand the brain’s hardwiring and how this impacts on their levels of engagement. Oxytocin might be the key to this.

The thing is, as far as we are aware, there’s no one system in the way the brain is wired up that will ensure employees are engaged. Although it’s much more complicated that a one solution fits all there is a wealth of information out there that deals with the psychological science for creating environments that are engaging for employees however one of the most important things that needs to be considered in creating an engaging environment is the element of trust.

HR professionals generally take charge of the policy and work hand in hand with the businesses brand champions to develop and maintain the company’s culture however it takes real trust from every section of the business in order to develop and perpetuate employee engagement. At HRonline we understand how important it is to create the kind of culture of trust that empowers people to feel they can play in the workplace because we know they’ll work harder when they need to because of the freedoms that have been created in our office Cloud9.

Paul Zak of California’s Claremont Graduate University is a neuro-economist at the forefront of research into the field of trust. This research suggests countries with high degrees of citizen trust are the most economically successful.

It’s likely the research around trust on the macro country level can be applied to the level of inter-relationships within businesses. The research is specifically centres around oxytocin, which is a neuromodulator hormone, a hormonal molecule which is most often associated with the way in the bonding process between mother and child.

The traditional view of management, and more specifically HR, focusses on putting processes in place to mitigate the potential from risk for the business from the employees. Most managers can tell you stories of where employees have been late, taken too many holidays, not worked when they were supposed to be or overspent on their expenses.

officeSome people believe that if an employee can take advantage of the company they work for they will, we’re strong proponents in the belief that if you trust your employees they will pay you back with openness and honesty. The view you take on your employee’s intentions is crucial to how effective you will be in developing an employee engagement strategy and a culture of engagement.

Research has been carried out to review how trustworthy people are and how trusting they are, whilst correlating the results with oxytocin levels during the research. Research found that when people felt more trusted they released oxytocin and these levels could be increased by showing the interviewee more trust.

Significantly, those people with raised levels of oxytocin tended to respond in a more trustworthy manner. Paul Zak calls oxytocin the “Trust Molecule” and is sometimes referred to the “Cuddle Hormone”. It stands to reason therefore that if we can increase the oxytocin levels of our employees we can increase their engagement and the business’ productivity.

So thinking about how we can do this many of us will understand about emotional contagion. If you’ve been in HR or business for long enough it’s likely you’ll have seen the impact of a positive or negative person on the culture of the business. There is a lot of research that suggests emotions are contagious. If you think about our evolutionary background, there would be clear advantages to emotional contagion, take for example a group of our ancestors experiencing emotions related to fight or flight, in which a group runs away. This means we save valuable time in reacting, and its clear people stick within the group norms and empathise and build trusting and trustful relationships with other people from within that group.

In addition to trusting people within our group, we also have an instinctual instinct to reflect the facial expressions, the things that we say as well as the body language of other people around us and when they reflect ours this builds trust. A smile therefore is a simple way in which all of us can share and encourage contagion of happiness and the trust between groups of people.

Research also suggests that happy people tend to be central to their social circles, however this also means that their happiness is determined by the happiness of the people within their social networks, and the people within the social networks of the people in their social networks (that’s a lot of people to influence!).

This offers some insight as to how the more engaged employees can be sued within the business, including placing them together – to maximise their positive cultural output, or place them in clusters of people who are less engaged in order to increase the engagement of the overall business.

Trusting those individuals to effectively communicate the cultural values of the business in a positive ways is something we have seen to be very effective at HRonline. Every touch point with the outside world effects the perceptions of the brand, which has a reinforcing effect on the brand perception, the culture of the business, the overall engagement of the employees and the trust management feel they can place in the employees as they become more engaged.