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3 min read

An Important Update to "The Neuroscience of Trust"

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Six years ago, Harvard Business Review published “The Neuroscience of Trust: Management behaviors that foster employee engagement” – an excerpt from the book “Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies” written by Immersion cofounder Dr. Paul J. Zak.

The article explains how to build high-trust organizational cultures and why these cultures consistently outperform their low-trust peers in just about every metric that matters.

“Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, [and] 40% less burnout.” - Dr. Paul Zak, HBR

Any organizational leader who wants what’s best for their employees – and their bottom line – should take note. With benefits this profound, it’s clear that fostering a high-trust culture should be among every company’s top priorities. 

Fortunately, the article also shows managers how to make that happen.

“Dr. Zak identified eight key management behaviors that [had been scientifically tested and shown to] stimulate oxytocin production and generate trust between colleagues:

  1. Recognize excellence.
  2. Induce challenge stress.
  3. Delegate generously.
  4. Enable job crafting.
  5. Share information broadly.
  6. Intentionally build relationships.
  7. Facilitate whole-person growth.
  8. Show vulnerability.- Dr. Paul J. Zak, HBR


These eight management behaviors are powerful tools for leaders who seek to develop high-trust organizations and see the benefits, including higher productivity and greater colleague satisfaction, engagement, and energy, with associated reductions in attrition and burnout.


“The reason to take a neuroscience approach to how you organize people is so they're most effective at work… There are lots of psychological theories out there and they may or may not work [in practice],” Dr. Zak said in our recent interview.

“But if we understand the brain mechanisms driving cooperation, then we can very precisely and efficiently create high-performance teams: it tells us what to measure in order to manage teams for high performance,” he explained in reference to his original research.

Since the article was published, Dr. Zak has discovered additional insights about how to build high-trust cultures – most notably, the presence of psychological safety among team members was found to be a critical prerequisite for trust.

“The precursor for trust is psychological safety,” he told me.

“If [people] don't feel comfortable, then they're not going to extend trust to those around them, and therefore you have a friction that [exists] in that environment… That may not be an obvious link, but it comes right out of the neuroscience that one of the potent inhibitors of trust is high levels of stress,” he elaborated.

As with the HBR article, Dr. Zak provided an applied solution for organizational leaders seeking to improve levels of trust and psychological safety within their companies. 

For his original studies, he developed a survey to assess organizational trust. But for his more recent work, Dr. Zak and his team at Immersion Neuroscience created a tool to measure trust and psychological safety neurologically in real-time using the Immersion platform – no survey needed.

“Immersion has [developed] the first and – as far as I know – only physiologic, continuous, passive measures of effective teamwork and psychological safety that capture objective and actionable data on work cultures,” he said in reference to Immersion Neuroscience’s patented technology.

He explained that interpersonal trust is reflected in high and consistent Immersion scores among team members, and that these data are strongly associated with productivity and job satisfaction.

“When we look at Immersion in teams, then we can objectively assess when that team is working effectively with each other. In fact, high Immersion by one or more colleagues ‘spreads’ to others, facilitating trust.” Dr. Zak explained.

“This means that measuring Immersion over the course of hours or days [provides an objective analysis of] how effectively teams are working together,” he concluded.

As hybrid and remote work have become increasingly common – along with increasingly diverse, global workforces – objective measures of trust and psychological safety can help ensure that teams are able to trust each other and work well together in the modern era.  

Immersion’s physiology-based neurologic measures avoid the biases of self-reported survey data, as well as survey fatigue. At the same time, they provide leaders of organizations with actionable data to help their people do their best work, and hopefully gain a sense of satisfaction from this, as well. 

It’s clear that Dr. Zak hasn’t been sitting on his hands since the Harvard Business Review article was first published. Rather, he and the team at Immersion Neuroscience have worked to develop tools that allow organizational leaders to efficiently and effectively create and maintain high-trust, high-performance cultures. 

As he says, “It’s not rocket science, but it is neuroscience.”


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