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Why you can be confident in the power of trust

Delphine Dépy Carron & Yann Sonneck
printemps 2021

@HiMage / Thomas Carron

There can be few words more likely to raise an emotive response than the word “trust”. For many, it represents taking a chance on someone or a situation and letting go of control of what may happen. For others, it has the opposite effect—it evokes a need to reinstate barriers and defensive behaviours. Yet a survey by founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Paul Zak[1] has shown that companies who have high levels of trust have employees who are 76% more engaged at work, experience 40% less burnout, and are 50% more productive. That has to be enough reasons for business leaders to take the issue of trust seriously—and be sure that they know how to engender and protect their own personal and professional brand of trust.


In reality, trust is complicated and challenging—for individuals, teams and organizations—and has been especially so during the pandemic. Monthly global pulse surveys conducted by Accenture Research[2] from March to July 2020 found that 71% of European C-level executives considered themselves more trustworthy than before the pandemic, but only 57% of workers trusted that their company was doing the right thing during the crisis.

Trust it is often confused with confidence. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive. But there are some subtle differences going on in the brain that represent these two important responses. Let’s take a quick look at the neuroscience behind trust and confidence. Trust is first base. We are born with ultimate trust built-in as a result of chemical reactions in the brain. Research has shown that it is the production of oxytocin that influences trust by increasing our emotional connection to others—that is, our empathy.[3] Oxytocin is a chemical produced in the brain that signals whether a situation is safe—a fundamental aspect of our survival instinct (and one which can be dulled by stress).

Even in today’s climate without a sabre-tooth tiger around every corner, we benefit from feeling secure—the ventral parasympathetic part of our autonomous nervous system that regulates our unconscious actions enables us to rest, digest, create, communicate and relate with others more fully when we feel safe. And trusted companies can see better returns on the stock market—which is why ransomware cyberattacks can be so damaging, as there is not only the financial loss, but also the loss of reputation which can often cause longer term harm.

Confidence is more about rationality. In some ways, it can be seen as an adaptation of trust. Unlike trusting your gut, confidence comes from more baked-in past experiences. It originates as a core cognitive process that helps us to optimize behaviours, such as learning or resource allocation, and it’s the basis of metacognitive reasoning[4]—that is, our ability to apply the when, why and how to solve different types of problems. 

As research has shown, confidence is not only a subjective belief, but also a statistical means to quantify whether a decision is correct based on existing evidence. But while self-confidence is important for leaders as a means to manage their own strengths and weaknesses, when coupled with high levels of trust it can bring new value to any business operation.

Train to trust

The popular proverb: “With great power comes great responsibility” implies leaders cannot be complacent about trust or rely solely on self-confidence to manage their organizations, especially during disruptive times.

So what do leaders need to do to foster a culture of trust and confidence?  In our work coaching senior leaders and their managers, we have identified three personal actions that can make a difference:

  1. Adapt your management style: Traditional hierarchical structures and behaviours need to be consigned firmly to the past. Leaders today need to show empathy and understanding. They must encourage a culture where employees are free to be confident and to trust in agreed common goals and ways of working. And they need to balance the rational inputs of a data-driven world with the gut instinct and vulnerabilities that make good leaders excel. Jim Whitehurst, CEO of open-source software maker Red Hat said: “I found that being very open about the things that I did not know actually had the opposite effect than I would have thought. It helped me build credibility.”[5]

  2. Display your personal integrity: Leaders need to talk the talk and walk the walk. By seeing alignment between what you say and what you do, employees will be more neurally receptive and feel better able to trust you and the outcome from your plans and strategies. Our brains create our reality—how many times have you had negative thoughts about a situation and seen it play out as imagined—so it’s important to be a consistent, positive role model. People perform better if they care about one another—to avoid letting their team down. And trustworthiness appears to be the most important factor in how we actually size up and relate to others.[6]

  3. Live your vision: By exuding a sense of purpose and hope, leaders can inspire others to be on board with their ambitions for the organization. A leader must be stable to enjoy a secure relationship with others, which can then lead to creating the right environment to promote agility and intrapreneurial spirit. Zak’s research showed that organizations that share their “flight plans” with employees reduce uncertainty about where they are headed and why.[7] Innovation demands people who feel secure enough to leap into the unknown—and they need to be supported by a living, breathing, change culture.

As longstanding coaches to executives around the world, we have seen the difference that can come from leaders who tackle trust and confidence, from their own perspective and within their teams.

You probably recognise yourself that when you are anxious, it tends to get mirrored by others around you as negative emotions breed negative actions that can hinder progress with a plan or project.

By undertaking specific exercises and better understanding how you see the world, there is not only a reaction in the brain (with the release of happy hormones, such as oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin and endorphins) but also greater self-awareness to redirect your approach toward more positive outcomes.

Employees who trust don’t need to be convinced—they are prepared to follow the lead. Our coaching sessions, for leaders or managers, draw on what it takes to be self-confident, how to inspire confidence in others and how to exploit the relationship between trust and confidence to benefit of the company. Why not think about joining us on one of our upcoming masterclasses?



[1] The Neuroscience of Trust: Management behaviors that foster employee engagement, Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2017

[2] Care to do better—Europe, Accenture, 2020.

[3] The Neuroscience in Building High Performance Trust Cultures, Kenneth Nowak, Paul J. Zak, February 9, 2017

[4] The Neurobiology of Confidence: From Beliefs to Neurons, Torben Ott, Paul Masset, Adam Kepecs, 2018.

[5] The Neuroscience of Trust: Management behaviors that foster employee engagement, Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2017

[6] The Neuroscience in Building High Performance Trust Cultures, Kenneth Nowak, Paul J. Zak, February 9, 2017

[7] The Neuroscience of Trust: Management behaviors that foster employee engagement, Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2017


Coach certifiée HEC et docteur en Neurosciences, Delphine Dépy Carron accompagne depuis 2002 les dirigeants, leurs équipes et leur organisation à se réinventer et réussir leurs projets d'innovation.


Coach certifié HEC, expert en stratégie d’entreprise, Yann Sonneck accompagne les organisations, les équipes et les individus dans leurs transformations depuis plus de 10 ans.

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