employee collaboration

The neuroscience of leadership and trust: 8 ways to promote employee collaboration

The neuroscience of leadership and trust: 8 ways to promote employee collaboration

Despite collaboration being at the heart of modern business processes, most companies – and their leaders – are still in the dark about how to manage it.


Employee collaboration should play a major role in any organisation’s culture. Why? Because collaboration and innovation make easy bedfellows and innovation is now vital for growth.

But collaboration doesn’t just breed innovation; it should be like a thread running through every stage of the employment relationship. Talented people of all ages don’t just want to work for the kinds of companies that make collaboration a central part of their employer brand; they expect to.

Companies need people to operate as if they are running their own businesses: employees given a voice through collaboration with leaders and colleagues are more likely to buy in to the goals of the organisation.

But many companies get it wrong because the processes and hierarchies they have in place aren’t conducive to collaboration, and that assumes they even know what good collaboration looks like in the first place.

How should leaders promote a new way of working?

The good news is there now exists of a body of neuroscientific evidence which shows what happens in peoples’ brains when they experience – or don’t experience – relationships with the behaviours associated with collaboration.

This goes some way to helping explain why people react the way they do to different situations. And it shows that physiological reactions can have as much impact on behaviour as the strategies leaders put into place. So how should leaders promote this way of working?

1. Define successful collaboration for your organisation

A lot of the traits and behaviours which lead to successful collaboration – trust, openness, coaching – may be self-explanatory but are rather nebulous concepts to clarify. How can leaders enable a coaching culture if they don’t really know what it means or what success looks like? Consider your organisation’s function and work out how collaboration can be used to achieve its goals within its specific operating environment.

2. Create a shared vision or purpose

The organisation’s function and goals are vital for collaboration. But they must be shared with the workforce, even if some people need extra convincing. Unless you make employees feel that they have some sort of stake in the business’ future, they won’t collaborate.

3. Focus on networks

Collaboration cannot happen without networks of people. And sometimes, as Cross, Martin and Weiss of McKinsey point out, leaders have no idea where these networks exist within their organisations.

They don’t necessarily fall down departmental lines. But companies must think systemically and examine where effective collaboration occurs both within and between teams and what value it has. Sophisticated network analysis is possible with technology, but it should consider what value is added by collaboration, not just where collaboration takes place.

4. Look at the physical space of the workplace

Collaboration requires different kinds of contact. If diverse areas for people to meet and work together aren’t possible, find different places outside of the workplace where people can be inspired to collaborate. And don’t assume people working elsewhere can’t collaborate.

The homeworker shouldn’t be left out of collaborative processes when video technology and social networking are possible. Equally, remember to give employees physical and metaphorical space to think: collaboration is not the only way to achieve innovation.

5. Strive for high-quality relationships with team members

Organisations need new kinds of leaders who can develop genuine, positive relationships with the employees in which they are not frightened to show their vulnerability, or admit their mistakes.

Boyatzis found remembering good relationships with managers resulted in the activation of many regions of the brain associated with exciting attention and activating social relationships. Equally remembering dissonant relationships meant fewer regions lit up and those that did were associated with narrowing attention, lowering compassion and triggering negative emotions. You can’t begin to collaborate with someone if you don’t get on with them.

6. Prioritise trust

These relationships should be defined by trust. Paul Zak’s research on trust show that the neurotransmitter oxytocin is released when we are around people we trust. In turn this makes us feel greater levels of empathy with other people and more emotionally connected.

Value is the result of co-operative relationships because, as humans, we are meant to feel connected to others. A leader who demonstrates that they trust their employees by adopting open communication styles and demonstrating honesty and vulnerability will reap the benefits with employees who feel more inclined to collaborate and co-operate.

7. Avoid high levels of stress, but don’t avoid stress completely

Zak’s research shows that a stress hormone called epinephrine released when people are very stressed, stops the release of oxytocin and makes people retreat in order to focus on themselves. Yet moderate stress increases the release of oxytocin and makes people more likely to collaborate. Stress isn’t unavoidable but creating a collaborative environment will enable people to share problems before they become insurmountable.

8. Inspire from the top-down

Don’t underestimate the power of role models, either as a leader or as a collaborator. Once workloads and office politics get in the way leaders can easily slip into bad habits, which they wouldn’t want team members to mimic.

Leaders should collaborate with their peers and their team members who report to them. When they do, a clear message is sent to the workforce which says: ‘This is a collaborative culture’.


  1. Collaboration needs to be defined through a shared vision or purpose.
  2. Employee collaboration is dependent on networks of people through physical and metaphorical space.
  3. For collaboration to succeed, leaders need to be able to develop genuine, positive relationships with employees defined by trust.
  4. Trust between leader and employee can work best through open communication, where the leader is unafraid to be vulnerable and honest.
  5. Moderate levels of stress can actually help collaboration to take place but high stress can cause people to focus on themselves instead.

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