Creating a High Trust Culture

And How Credit Unions Have an Advantage

I recently read The Trust Factor, by Paul Zak, a fascinating read using neuroscience to help explain difficult questions such as: Why is “culture” so difficult to improve? What makes so many good employees check out?

Science has shown that when a stranger demonstrates that they trust us, our brains release oxytocin. In fact, the more we feel we are trusted by others, the more oxytocin our brains release. Oxytocin is our brain’s way of signaling trust. In other words, trust begets trust.

Oxytocin activates an entire network of reactions inside our brains that make us more empathetic. It’s for this reason that Zak calls oxytocin “the moral molecule because when the brain releases it, we treat others well.”

Here’s the thing: Competition and power (or status) increases testosterone in both men and women, and high levels of stress and testosterone inhibit the release of oxytocin. On the other hand, immersing ourselves in environments of interpersonal trust and cooperation encourages the release of oxytocin. Zak goes on to outline 8 factors that are the building blocks of organizational trust, organizing them by using OXYTOCIN as an acronym.

Reading this book, which is both a call and a roadmap for organizations to build high trust cultures, I was struck by how much of an advantage the Credit Union industry has in this effort. The Credit Union Movement is built from a foundation of trust and cooperation. In a world built on competition, our cooperative nature is what sets us apart. It’s part of what makes us, us.

As such, I believe that most Credit Unions foster a high trust culture by the very nature of who we are.

Still, I found value in Zak’s list of the 8 elements of organizational trust and wanted to share them with you.

1. Ovation. Ovation is about recognizing colleagues who contribute to the organization’s success. Having just written about the importance of Leading with Gratitude, I was once again reminded of how important it is to recognize the efforts and accomplishments of others. Zak points out that ovation should be unexpected, tangible, and personal. It should also be close in time (no more than a week), consistent, and done publicly.

2. eXpectation. Zak explains that one of the keys to creating a high trust culture is setting challenging yet achievable expectations. Doing so engages the brain’s reward system, creating an environment in which meeting goals becomes highly engaging and enjoyable. Quite simply, challenging activities are good for us. In addition, when we receive consistent feedback about our performance, the brain creates neural pathways that further adapt behavior to meet our goals.

3. Yield. This is a call for leaders to let go. High trust cultures empower people to use their strengths, share their expertise, and make decisions. Innovation, learning, and growth are achieved on the back of mistakes. As such, leaders must create an environment in which their people not only have the opportunity to make mistakes, but one in which they can learn from them, and share that learning with others.

4. Transfer. Transfer is about supporting autonomy and enabling self-management by permitting colleagues to have some influence over the requirements and expectations of their own jobs. In high trust cultures, leaders actively facilitate self-mastery and skill development. Whenever possible, they advise rather than dictate. It’s important to note that for transfer or self-management to be effective, Ovation, eXpectation, and Yield must already be present in the organization.

5. Openness. In high trust cultures, openness is valued because open communication in which everyone is well informed is valued. Organizational trust occurs when decisions are transparent, and reasons for decisions are shared. In open cultures leaders share information, solicit input, and demonstrate value for the input of others.

6. Caring. Leaders in high trust cultures intentionally build relationships and prioritize empathy. They support others, taking the time to get to know them, and encourage them to get to know each other. In this environment, emotions are recognized and accepted within the knowledge that sometimes, when people are being “difficult”, what they most need is to be recognized and shown care.

7. Invest. Investing in others is about committing to “whole person” development and work-life integration. Even though it provides the foundation for a long-term commitment to the organization, investing in people is sometimes just an afterthought. Zak encourages leaders to complete “Whole Person Reviews” that ask three questions: Are you growing professionally? (Am I helping you to get your next job?) Are you growing personally? (Are you and your family happy?) Are you growing spiritually? (Are you developing as a human being?)

8. Natural. In high trust cultures leaders and colleagues are allowed to be human, honest, and vulnerable, and encouraged to ask for feedback on a daily or weekly basis. “A natural leader is one who accepts responsibility for mistakes and includes others in wins, who know the organization at every level, from the front lines to the executive suite.”

When combined with purpose, trust is one of the biggest factors behind happiness at work. “Organizations should not try to make people happy at work. Joy is the result of working with trusted colleagues who have a transcendent purpose.

Put simply,  Trust + Purpose = Joy.

I, for one, am grateful to work in an industry in which both trust and purpose are so engrained in who we are and what we do.

About Dan Finerty

Dan Finerty is the Director of Marketing at the Mountain West Credit Union Association, a Credit Union champion, a Credit Union Development Educator (CUDE), and an award-winning marketer. Dan has over 14 years of marketing experience in communications, retail, packaged goods, and, of course, Credit Unions. He believes that Credit Unions have an incredible story to tell and works with some of the brightest Credit Union professionals to help promote Credit Unions to the public. Dan holds two Bachelor’s of Science in Marketing and in Management. He is also a swell guy.


  1. Pingback: Why Empathy is an Important Leadership Trait | Mountain West Credit Union Foundation Blog

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