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This past year, I’ve been talking to clients about psychological safety and doing some research on the topic. Recently the term “building trust” has also been coming up. An Internet search would suggest that the two concepts have no connection, but that is not the case.

Trust is a feeling – an emotion! Trust is what a person can experience if they have enough depth of psychological safety to reach out to or accept another. The same is true for work groups and organizations. Employees will only dare to rely on others and truly join an organization if they feel safe enough to do so.

As a former university leadership professor who has seen corporate training programs come and go, I’ve learned that organizations cannot train for trust. No amount of effort to build or enable trust will create learning until the underlying needs are addressed.

The question then becomes, how do we get there? What needs must be met to make trust possible? The NeuroLeadership Institute defines them as follows:

  1. Status – our relative importance to others
  2. Certainty – our ability to predict the future
  3. Autonomy – our sense of control over events
  4. Relatedness – how safe we feel with others
  5. Fairness – how fair we perceive exchanges between people to be

Identified based on brain research, these needs are believed to be shared by all human beings. If they are not in balance, an individual’s brain can easily be hijacked by fear. We all need a different degree of each need. As an example, I am an independent executive coach. So, it is no wonder that I personally have a high need for autonomy in my work, while certainty is not as essential.

I used the NeuroLeadership Institute’s model above to define psychological needs and psychological safety, but other models exist, all based on neuroscience. The research is finding that like our early ancestors, we are wired to move away from threat and toward reward.

If you are a leader in an organization that wants to build trust, look to the needs above. You may have been told that trust is built by keeping your word or maintaining a level of consistency. This may simply be another way to describe certainty. You may have been told to push decision-making down in the organization – in other words to promote autonomy.

Maybe you tried these things and they didn’t work. If so, remember that all employees have different needs. For instance, you may have given great freedom to someone who needs status and feels threatened by too much autonomy.

Success in building trust comes from getting to know each other at a deeper level than has been the norm until now.

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