The brain science behind trust


It all comes down to who you trust. Our brains interpret messages differently depending on the source of the information.

Received feedback from co-workers you don’t trust? Liane says we’re more likely to feel frustrated and second-guess when information comes from someone we don’t trust. But when a trusted person provides feedback, we’re more likely to be receptive.

“People are hard-wired to take neutral information and process it differently depending on the level of trustworthiness,” Liane explains. “Trust is a form of psychological safety, and being vulnerable is easier with someone you trust.”

That’s because being vulnerable is a risk, and when employees feel comfortable with risk, it increases team effectiveness, she says. Risks might include things like sharing information, asking for help, working through challenging situations and helping others – all things that can be accomplished through trust.

“Trust is foundational to all aspects of work,” explains Erin Stein, who guides leadership development and culture at RBC. “It’s especially important for people managers to develop trust with their teams because that’s when teams do their best work.”


Levels of trust

Liane says there are four levels to trust: connection, competency, reliability and integrity.

Connecting is the first step. Yet, connecting with coworkers became more challenging during the pandemic because trust didn’t come as easily in a two-dimensional, virtual environment.

Liane explains, “We lack what the research calls mutual knowledge. We don’t have context about what’s going on in each other’s lives. For example, you may be on a virtual phone call, but people on the call don’t see your child off-camera asking for a snack.”

She suggests building trust by doing non-task-related activities together, like organizing a virtual lunch together. A more subtle tactic? Wear your company gear. Visual clues that you are all on the same team strengthen your connection.

Another key aspect of connection is establishing it early with teammates. The old adage is, “Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to dig a well.”


Skills to build trust

Incorporating trust-building skills starts by making them part of our everyday routines.

For example, when team members identify and bring forward issues early, Liane says a simple “thank you” acknowledges and encourages colleagues to continue that proactive behaviour.

“Rewarding behaviour is important. Don’t just focus on the problem. If you do, people will be afraid to come to you next time,” says Liane.

Integrity is another crucial behaviour and something everyone can model simply by admitting when they make mistakes and learning from them quickly, Liane explains.

Trust also relies on discretion. As a rule, leaders should avoid discussing issues that shouldn’t be discussed as a team because that leads to gossip. Have something you need to get off your chest? Go to a peer instead.

The final and most important skill? Effective listening. “Listening is one of the core behaviours that leaders demonstrate at RBC,” explains Erin. “By listening fully, we gain perspective and show compassion, which leads to better outcomes.”

Listening is about more than hearing what someone else is saying – pay attention to body language as well because that’s where feelings and emotions often appear. Also, fight the urge to multi-task and make sure to give the conversation your full attention, as well as ask open-ended questions to clarify understanding.

Because understanding leads to trust in our work and, more importantly, those we work with.

“There’s so much more to our workdays than just what we have to get done. When a trust-focused workday replaces a task-focused workday, people become the priority and team effectiveness improves,” Erin adds.


A word from our lawyers

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subject matter discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or its affiliates.