For a number of years now, scientists have been studying the relationship between trust and how it impacts business productivity. More specifically, their goal has been to determine if the concept of trust, when measured on a physiological level, can be shown to have a positive impact on productivity across any type or area of business. 

For business systems professionals, growing trust between themselves and different stakeholders across the business can pay dividends when it comes to the successful implementation of projects and new programs of work. In particular, this can help make business relationships more productive, first and foremost by enabling different stakeholders to be more honest with each other about their needs in order to succeed, thereby increasing each party’s mutual chances of success. 

Furthermore, 50 percent of CEOs worldwide consider lack of trust to be a major threat to their organizational growth, according to PWC, while a further one in four workers in the United States distrust their employers, according to the American Psychological Association. With a professional landscape like that, building trust at work has the potential to make a tangible impact on a business’ overall productivity. 

The Link between Productivity and Trust

In fact, taking trust seriously makes sound business sense given the numerous studies that have linked this emotion – and the motivational frameworks required to engender it – to higher business productivity than factors such as salary

For example, recent findings by Gallup indicate that, on average, people at high-trust companies feel less stressed (74 percent), have more energy (106 percent), are more productive (50 percent), more engaged (76 percent) and suffer less burnout at work (40 percent). At an organizational level, this translates into a more productive workforce. 

Similarly, these benefits have not only been shown to correlate with an eightfold increase in long-term employee retention for the business but also higher stock market returns versus the industry average for investors.

The Biology of Trust

So where does trust begin? For business system leaders, understanding its biological connection and relationship to business growth can be helpful for designing organizations that foster this emotion. 

The feeling of trust is closely linked with the release of a hormone produced in the brain’s pituitary gland, called oxytocin. The hormone acts as a natural inhibitor to certain stress-induced chemical reactions, which promotes social interaction in both animals and humans by signaling to the brain that another organism is safe to approach. In other words, oxytocin is the catalyst behind empathy between individuals, which leads to trust

Measuring the amount of oxytocin generated during certain kinds of interaction has therefore helped scientists to gauge whether the feelings of trust reported by participants in studies can be validated on a biological level. One notable 2016 study showed a clear positive correlation between people’s oxytocin levels and the trustworthiness of their behavior relative to others.

In turn, honing in on the biological triggers that generate trust has led to a greater understanding of the positive behaviors that generate trust in a business context. To validate their assumptions, scientists have shown how oxytocin-inducing behavior correlates to a host of benefits for employees, such as lower stress, as well as advantages for businesses in the form of greater customer sales, to name but a few.  

How to Drive Trust With Lines of Business

While investigating the biological triggers behind trust, scientists have also developed practical frameworks for increasing the emotion in an organizational context. These frameworks can be distilled into a series of behaviors which, when promoted in a systematic way, lead to greater trust and more productive businesses. 

At both a team and organizational level, building a culture of transparency and communication has been shown to build better team engagement, productivity and even boost brand loyalty up to 76 percent among consumers, not to mention making it more attractive to prospective employees. 

Greater clarity and communication can vary from team to team or even by the kind of business, however when it comes to building trust and collaboration it often entails encouraging the sharing of information that gives others a greater view into their successes and failures. On a biological level, the simple act of sharing information that can be perceived to be of value to others has been shown to foster greater trust between individuals.

For business systems, supporting this kind of behavior can be boiled down to simplifying the sharing of information from one person – or one business unit – to another. 

If you want to drive a transparent culture, have it start with you. One practical example of this is at SeatGeek, where everyone in the company receives a quarterly update from the business systems team about the projects that are happening across the business, as well as successes and problem areas from the previous quarter. Sharing insights into what worked and did not work helps build company-wide trust in the business systems teams, reminds everyone that the systems team is there to help them, and generates empathy across teams. 

Another way to build trust? Advocate for your contributions by giving back. Squarespace publicly celebrates wins by allowing the team who completed a successful project to host happy hours when they accomplish their goals. When the business systems team completes a project for, say, the HR team, they get to host the happy hour and, again, reinforce that they are great partners to the business. 

Why Trust Works at an Organizational Level

Interestingly, these concepts work at an organizational level too. For example, being open about salary information, like Trader Joe’s, has been shown to prevent employee attrition by helping workers understand how their – and their peers’ – performance is evaluated. 

Meanwhile, by publishing an open business manifesto like Holstee or Buffer, can pay dividends for shareholders as much as employees. Why? This kind of transparency not only inspires other businesses in the industry to follow suit but has also been shown to boost brand power among mission-driven millennials, Gen Z-ers and empowered consumers alike.   

Similarly being open about business benefits and employee experience, like Basecamp, can do more than just influence public perception of company culture; it results in higher volumes of applicants for every position. In addition, research has shown that workers at companies who trust their organization are twice as likely to those in low-trust organizations to stay with their employers, cutting turnover costs for employers. 

Projects That Increase Productivity and Trust

Translating business commitments to transparency and communication into action has also been shown to support a greater level of trust. 

This all starts with facilitating social connections across an organization, which opens channels of communication and can foster dialogue between departments and team members. This is why a number of businesses today host regular sponsored lunches, events and team-building activities or support wellness regimes to lower stress levels and increase the likelihood for employee interaction.  

The same principle can be applied to a business’ systems infrastructure by encouraging the adoption of automated systems of work and tools that facilitate collaboration and communication, which is particularly important given the rise of remote or distributed teams.   

In addition to making it easier for workers to communicate with each other, research shows this is something employees actually want at every level of a business. 41 percent of executive respondents in a recent McKinsey Global Survey stated social communication tools were the feature most likely to impact their ability to collaborate effectively with other team members. 

Implementing a social communication tool if you don’t have one is a great first step. You can, however, go beyond using messaging apps for collaboration and social connection — instead, moving entire manual workflows, such as assigning and enriching sales leads, into tools like Slack through the use of workflow automation. This is where employees already spend their day. Completing a project that makes their lives easier and allows them to do work from where they naturally collaborate and socialize will build trust between your team, as the implementer, and business teams, as the user.

A great example of this is a project that the business systems team at smart security systems’ maker Arlo implemented using automation and Slack to support giving workers public kudos for a job well done. Workers can type “/Kudos” into Slack and Workbot will collect the person’s name to send them positive feedback about their work. The person getting Kudos instantly receives a Slack message with the positive feedback. The automation also enters the recipient into a company-wide pool of people set to get recognition at the next company All Hands, a very public way of showing thanks for their hard work, which incentivizes others to strive for the same recognition! 

“It’s instant and there is no friction. [Before, you had to go into Salesforce and fill out a form and] you think, ‘I’ll go home and do it’ or … ‘I’ll do it when I have time.’ Now you don’t have to. The technologies are good enough that you can do all this at the stroke of the key or on your mobile,” says Sridevi Pasumarthi, Arlo’s Head of Business Systems. “Make it easy for them.” 

And by “them” Pasumarthi is of course referring to the lines of business (LOB), the end users of all your projects as a business systems leader. Implementing workflows like Arlo’s can help shift the balance of communication between teams towards a culture of more open recognition and, ultimately, trust. This works because social recognition has been shown to build trust among team members by encouraging them to recognize positive qualities in each other, which generates a feel-good (oxytocin again) factor when the feeling is reciprocated (and studies show this is likely to be the case). 

Taking this kind of approach to recognizing good performance within a team may also inspire team members to learn from each other too, driving productivity through continuous upskilling. 

Setting Human-Centric Goals for Your LOB Partners

Next up, challenging people to do well in the form of tangible and mildly stressful goals has also been shown to generate trust by triggering a rush of oxytocin when the goal is achieved. This is especially the case when, just like a classic team-bonding activity day, meeting goals requires a certain degree of collaboration with others. 

However making the goals too stressful or unobtainable overwhelms the body with stress hormones instead, which can lead to systemic employee failures, so getting tasks right is a delicate balance when it comes to generating trust. When executed in the right way though, these kinds of tasks of activities can help trust to percolate in a team as individual series of “small wins” start to stack up, triggering business-wide feelings of oxytocin-induced empathy and trust.  

One classic example of positive – and very public – goal-setting, which also draws on the idea of transparency and the benefits of positive collective action, was when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency offered up a public prize for innovation in the field of self-driving cars. The prize challenged the public to collaborate towards a common goal and resulted in game-changing innovation for the Agency thanks to ideas from a group of graduate students, motivated as much by the glory of out-competing years of industry research as the prize itself. 

While the challenge was tough, it provided just the kind of opportunity for a budding and bright group of students to show their credentials, made easier thanks to the decision to work as a team and, to their credit, share in the glory of winning the prize.

As a systems leader, you often need information or work from an LOB team member in order to move the project forward. Using this insight into the kind of goals that create trust can help you foster goodwill and make your deadline.

Bottom Line: Trust Boosts Business Productivity

In summary, research indicates that trust is a clear driver of business productivity, retention and overall employee performance. For employers, trust translates into economic savings, happier investors and customers to boot. 

For business systems professionals, this research offers an opportunity to approach systems in a way that encourages or supports trustworthy behavior or generates empathy among coworkers. Even better, this can make the difference between securing long-term business productivity and worker performance or the likelihood of potential problems ahead.

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Ruth Temianka
About Ruth Temianka

Ruth has driven innovation in tech, food and design for organizations around the world. Now she writes about it too. Learn more about her work at: ruthtemianka.com