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To Increase Employee Engagement, Focus on Trust and Purpose

man sitting in front of a laptop happy

You may have noticed many of your employees are distracted, confused, and hesitant. There are a lot of people working from home wondering if and when they’ll get the call that they’re being laid off.

Companies are realizing no matter how hard they try to build a rockstar team, creating a culture conducive to high engagement involves a lot more than finding the right hires.

No one is immune to the side effects of disruption and chaos in business. So if we’re all having trouble concentrating, how can we encourage employee engagement without seeming oblivious to the emotional and physical toll certain events take on our workforce?  

The answer could come from neuroscientist Paul Zak, who has found that trust and purpose causes employees to experience joy at work and feel invested in their companies.

Trust is the feeling of confidence you put in another person such as your doctor, whom you visit for a prescription when you’re ill. But purpose is more personal. It’s the reasons that motivate you to perform a task or accomplish a goal. Most of us cannot discover joy at work without the security to pursue it and the belief that our efforts represent who we are and what we stand for.

The positive feedback between Purpose and Trust is captured in the equation Joy = Trust × Purpose. And in times of crisis, Zak suggests that managers who help employees find their identity in their work may succeed in improving engagement levels.

Trust and Purpose Create Joy at Work 

Neuroscience makes a nonobvious prediction about high-trust organizations: Trust combined with Purpose results in Joy at work.

Experiments from Zak’s lab and others show that working in a high-trust culture modestly increases Joy. Trust effects Joy through the interaction of oxytocin and dopamine, making it feel good to be around trusted team members.

Being trusted by others also keeps chronic stress levels low, eliminating a drag on Joy.

But understanding the value the organization creates for society, its Purpose, provides a second oxytocin stimulus. Helping others—even at a distance—is a powerful oxytocin booster.

The science here is subtle, and many organizations have missed the point: Organizations should not try to make people happy at work.

Joy is the result of working with trusted colleagues who have a transcendent purpose. Joy arises naturally when people want to be at work and are challenged and recognized for what they do.

Connection Outweighs Independence in Crisis

Joy results from the process of being trusted and the autonomy it enables, but it depends critically on embracing the organization’s transcendent purpose: how a business or nonprofit serves the needs of customers, students in school, or citizens in one’s city.

There is abundant evidence that Purpose is essential to an individual’s psychological well-being. At work and outside of it, colleagues focus, flourish, and are more resilient when their activities have meaning.

Even when times are difficult, people who identify with a Purpose in their lives are more satisfied than are those who do not have a clear Purpose.

“If there is meaning in life at all,” Viktor Frankl wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering.”

Yes, sometimes we suffer at work, suffer to meet deadlines, suffer to achieve excellence, but when this is done alongside trusted teammates and with Purpose, the struggle can produce Joy.

How Purpose Impacts Zappos Employees

Zappos has long been recognized for his impeccable company culture. It made Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list seven times.

In an experiment with Zappos employees, Zak and his team asked one-half of the participants tested in groups of four to discuss Zappos’s Purpose. The other half of Zapponians discussed, also in groups of four, a newspaper article about retail sales in their home city of Las Vegas.

They took blood samples before and after these discussions, had participants complete surveys, and collected several streams of neurologic data throughout the discussion period and while participants did work-relevant tasks.

Zak’s analysis showed that discussing Zappos’s Purpose increased positive mood 10 percent from baseline (compared to a 3 percent reduction in positive mood for those discussing retail sales).

Participants in the Purpose condition also had increased feelings of closeness to work colleagues by 16 percent (compared to a 7 percent reduction for those discussing retail sales). Perhaps most surprisingly, the Purpose group had a 44 percent smaller increase in heart rate from baseline to the discussion period compared to the retail sales group.

Discussing Zappos’s transcendent Purpose kept them markedly calmer. The researchers found that when participants felt closer to their colleagues, their productivity was 15 percent higher in an objectively measureable task.

So the next time you’re stuck wondering how you’ll lift the spirits of increasingly stressed teammates, consider stepping away from the spreadsheets for a moment and discussing the actions your company is taking to live out its mission and contribute to the greater good.

That won’t recoup business losses by any stretch of the imagination. But building trust and igniting purpose is more likely to keep your employees committed to your company and its goals.

Paul Zak

Human connection. Paul's two decades of research have taken him from the Pentagon to Fortune 50 boardrooms to the rain forest of Papua New Guinea. All this in a quest to understand the neuroscience of human connection, human happiness, and effective teamwork. His academic lab and companies he has started develop and deploy neuroscience technologies to solve real problems faced by real people.

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