What drives trust and intrinsic motivation at work?

8 Jan 2018 By Susanne Jacobs

Susanne Jacobs outlines a new model for creating an environment that works with – rather than against – our neurological make-up

‘Today I boarded the train to work and trusted that the driver would get me to my destination in one piece and that every passenger meant me no harm. These thoughts were not conscious, it just was. I got to work and walked through the grand revolving doors into a place where, unlike the world outside, I know many people but do not really trust anyone.’

We use trust every day to make our way through the world; whether it’s walking down the street, driving on the motorway or simply crossing the road. We place our trust in others who, more often than not, we will never actually meet.

Trust as a term is used frequently within the corporate world. There is a desire to build it, get it and secure it, but it sits as an ethereal concept rather than a tangible action. Putting ‘grow trust’ on the list of expected leadership behaviours or within the business values does not give instructions on the how or what or even the why. It’s akin to telling someone to eat healthily or to get fit – the instruction doesn’t work because we don’t have the knowledge to even start.

Through his work in neuroeconomics, Paul Zak discovered that trust is among the strongest known predictors of a country’s wealth – nations with low levels tend to be poor. The neuropeptide oxytocin is released in direct correlation to the level of trust. As oxytocin rises, so does the perceived trustworthiness of an individual. Oxytocin calms the fear centres of your brain and boosts serotonin release, the feel-good neurochemical. It is literally rewarding to trust and be trusted.

Distrust, on the other hand, plays out in offices all over the world through behaviours such as gossiping, micro-management and battles to maintain individual power. This damages our emotional engagement and creativity and ultimately injects risk into the business and into our performance and wellbeing. Distrust leads to distress, which hinders the production of oxytocin. Relationships start to falter, slowing down every interaction as suspicion creeps in. As Stephen Covey puts it: “Financial success comes from success in the marketplace, and success in the marketplace comes from success in the workplace. The heart and soul of all of this is trust.”

Our brain’s primary function is to keep us out of harm’s way by ensuring we are always motivated to go towards safety and away from threat – a simple premise controlled by the most complex system in our known universe. Trust is neurological safety. When we move towards safety, we are neurochemically rewarded, intrinsically motivating us to do more of what keeps us alive and flourishing by flooding our physiology with health-protecting hormones delivering feel-good sensations.

This process is fundamental to why we do what we do. So what if we can create workplaces that support and leverage this natural biological reward mechanism? And, if so, what are the factors that our brain equates as trust?

The answer is the ‘drivers’ – a trust checklist drawn from various fields of science including evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, psychology and anthropology. The drivers establish and embed trust, sparking intrinsic motivation and reward. The research shows that if each are supported in the workplace, intrinsic motivation, engagement, improved wellbeing and sustainable performance are the results.

The drivers themselves are worth considering in more depth:

  • Direction – my sense of purpose and meaning.

  • Relative position – my sense of significance, identity and position within my group. That my contribution is understood and valued by others.

  • Inclusion – my perception of belonging.

  • Voice and choice – my sense that my view will be heard and that I have choice, autonomy and control over the decisions that affect my life.

  • Equity – my perception of being treated fairly and of fairness and equity within my group.

  • Reliability – my sense of certainty and security in my surroundings, others and my life.

  • Stretch – my opportunities for growth, learning and achievement through effort.

The drivers are a result of more than a decade of academic research and evidence from across many scientific fields of study. They pull together a deep understanding of human motivation into one place so it can be translated and practically applied to the workplace by leaders at all levels to establish environments of trust that deliver sustainable high performance, engagement and enhanced wellbeing. Trust, after all, is the true performance currency.

Susanne Jacobs is programme director at Positive Group and author of Drivers: Creating Trust and Motivation at Work.

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