No Image Available

Jan Hills

Head Heart + Brain


Read more about Jan Hills

Science of Engagement: the key is trust


An understanding of some aspects of how the brain is ‘wired’ can help you to increase the likelihood of people being engaged at work and avoid creating situations that destroy engagement. There is no set of system in the brain that ensures people are engaged. It’s more complex than that but there are a number of areas that help and this series of articles – The Science of Engagement – will cover the science and the practical implications for creating an environment where people are more engaged.

This is part four of our article series on the science behind engagement and in this piece we’ll look at the final element in creating an environment where engagement thrives – the element of trust.

How important is trust?

Trust has been shown to be a core component of employee engagement by many studies, including the Edelman Trust Barometer. HR are often the key players in developing policy and custodians of the cultural norms that will promote or inhibit trust.

Much of the work on trust has been carried out by neuro-economist Paul Zak at California’s Claremont Graduate University. Zak has found that countries characterised by high levels of trust between citizens are also the most economically successful. And it is feasible that this applies to businesses too.

The trust molecule

Zak’s focus is on oxytocin, the neuromodulator hormone commonly associated with mother and child bonding. The studies carried out by Zak and his colleagues were designed to understand how the human brain determines when or when not to trust someone. Consider this scenario and whether the company had high engagement results?

A while ago we were working with an HR leadership team, and in the course of a workshop they got into a debate about trust. Opinions were split, with the senior leader insisting their role was to mitigate risk by putting policies in place and policing people to ensure the company was safe. He cited the examples of people taking excess holidays, overspending on expenses and not working when home-based.

His starting premise was people are not trustworthy: if they can they will cheat the company. Others in the team held a different view which could broadly be summarised as “If you trust people, they’ll respond honestly.”  It was clear the issue could have significant ramifications for policies the company was developing, and especially for their culture.

In Zak’s research participants took part in the Trust Game designed to study individuals’ propensity to be trusting and to be trustworthy, and their oxytocin levels were monitored throughout. The researchers found that when participants felt they were trusted, their brains responded by producing oxytocin, and when participants were shown increased levels of trust their brain produced even more oxytocin.

Most significant however, was the finding that the rise in oxytocin levels resulted in participants behaving in a more trustworthy way. This research suggests the leader above had it wrong. The researchers conclude that people who feel trusted become more trustworthy as a result of increased oxytocin levels in their brain, leading Zak to call oxytocin “the trust molecule.”

Emotional contagion

So how can you spread engagement and with it business productivity?

There is lots of research that emotions, both positive and negative are contagious. There is an evolutionary reason for why someone else’s grumpy or happy mood can infect you.

Originally we contracted fear and alarm according to Frans de Waal, a psychologist and primate expert. For example when one bird takes off in fright the whole flock takes off. Or you jump when your colleague does. This reaction meant we saved vital seconds in reacting to danger. Mood contagion also serves the function of synchronizing activities. The individual who doesn’t stay in tune with what everyone is doing will lose out, they will be behaving outside of the in-group norms.

The contagion theory of mood explains why there’s a tendency for groups of people in a training workshop or a project team to share a similar experience of the emotions generated. In addition psychologists believe another form of evolutionary development includes our instinctive tendency to unconsciously imitate other people’s facial expressions, vocalisations, postures, and body movements. For example, if someone smiles at you, you will tend to smile back even if you don’t know the person. Our built-in system for mimicry explains why we transfer our good and bad moods to each other.

Happy (engaged) networks

In a study reported in the British Medical Journal in 2008 it was found that social networks have clusters of happy and unhappy people within them that reach out to three degrees of separation. A person’s happiness is related to the happiness of their friends, their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends; that is, to people well beyond their social horizon.

The study found that happy people tend to be located in the centre of their social networks and to be located in large clusters of other happy people and that each additional happy friend increases a person’s probability of being happy by about 9%. Happiness is not just a function of personal experience, but also is a property of groups. Emotions are a collective phenomenon. Given positive mood is crucial to engagement we might reasonably assume this finding also applies to engagement clusters.

This idea can be used for good or ill in your engagement policy. It implies that to create more engagement you want to gather your already engaged people together and help them reach out to others until you get a tipping point of engaged networks.

So engagement is more likely when people are connected with an in-group, have a clear purpose and autonomy to carry out their role, feel positive about what they are doing and trust those they work with.

How does this stack up in your company environment?

No Image Available
Jan Hills


Read more from Jan Hills

Get the latest from HRZone.

Subscribe to expert insights on how to create a better workplace for both your business and its people.


Thank you.