The Trust Factor

May 12th, 2010 by Hilary Rosner

What makes us happier (and better citizens) isn’t money, research says. It’s feeling secure.

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Say your employees want raises. You’d love to oblige, but you can’t, not in this economy. But it turns out there is something else you can do for them — something easier, cheaper, and, says Canadian economist John Helliwell, better for everyone: You can earn their trust.

Helliwell, an economist at the University of British Columbia, studies the well-being of individuals and societies, part of the increasingly popular field of happiness research. He’s found that the single biggest factor contributing to a person’s life satisfaction is the degree to which they feel they can trust their managers at work. In fact, in one Canadian survey, workplace trust was so important that a one-point increase on a scale of one to 10 had as big an impact as a one-third increase in income. In other words, while your staff may be right that you hold the key to their quality of life, they probably don’t realize it’s not about the paycheck. “There’s quite a lot of psychological evidence that people overestimate the benefit they’ll get from material things and underestimate what they’ll get from social networks,” Helliwell says.

His findings have implications for building superior institutions, not just companies but communities, governments, and societies. Trust, it turns out, is important across the board. “Trust is instrumental in making lives better for people,” Helliwell says. The more “domains of trust” people have, the happier they are, “in a big time way.” Studies have shown that countries with lower levels of social trust have higher levels of suicide, and that’s no coincidence, Helliwell says; social trust can actually have “life-saving potential.”

Helliwell is by no means the first person to equate the idea of social trust with overall well-being. In the late 19th century, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim studied the impact of social cohesion on health. More recently, Robert Putnam seeded the idea into mainstream consciousness with his bestselling book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” “Other things being equal,” Putnam wrote, “people who trust their fellow citizens volunteer more often, contribute more to charity, participate more often in politics and community organizations, serve more readily on juries, comply more fully with their tax obligations, are more tolerant of minority views, and display many other forms of civic virtue.”

Helliwell was a colleague of Putnam at Harvard, where the two collaborated on studies of the economic consequences of “social capital,” the idea that social networks have quantifiable value. Since then, Helliwell has continued to pile up hard evidence for the relationship between trust and happiness, in essence providing a scientific basis for the Golden Rule. “You can’t ask for other people to do what they do differently unless you yourself are implementing the same principles,” he says. “Everyone has their own role in the system.”

If the idea that trust is better than money sounds strange, it could be because many of us simply don’t understand what makes us happy. Helliwell’s research also shows that people in Canada’s rural provinces are happier overall than those in its urban ones, despite being poorer. “So you have to ask, what is it about life in those towns?” he asks. The answer, he says, “is a whole range of human behaviors.” Some are as simple as people greeting one another on the street or bus. Others are more deeply integrated into urban planning, like well-designed public spaces that encourage people to gather safely. These elements can be achieved in most large urban environments; what’s often missing is the will. The more bureaucracy we encounter in our everyday and work lives — the more rules, regulations, and contracts that imply “We don’t trust you” — the less trusted, and trusting, we feel, Helliwell says. “That’s the wrong way to connect people.”

We all bear a responsibility for building trust in the society around us. "We all as a group influence the well-being of others,” explains Ed Diener, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois and an expert on happiness and well-being. “If I have social support in my life, it’s good for my life satisfaction. But if there is social support generally in a society, it’s even better — it adds to my own resources. So if I am trustworthy and help my family and friends, it also creates a societal-level effect that increases people's feelings of well-being.”

But because workplace trust is so measurably significant, bosses carry an added duty. While you can’t single-handedly change corporate culture, you can make changes that affect the people who work for you. By far the best way to foster trust among employees, Helliwell says, is by encouraging community service. Banding together builds cooperation, and because it’s an activity that’s clearly not self-serving, it also engenders trust. Encourage your employees to choose the projects and take responsibility for executing them.

Small gestures — simple workplace good manners — matter too. Take an interest in your employees’ lives. Experiments have shown that helping strangers, even merely exchanging pleasantries, spreads happiness. “Think of turning an elevator ride from a short-term prison sentence into a social event waiting to happen,” Helliwell suggests. And if you’re feeling bold, he adds, you could consider the cooperative-business model. “It’s no surprise that employee-owned firms have higher trust between managers and workers than others. It says, ‘we’re all in this together.’” Which, of course, is precisely the point.

Hilary Rosner is a science journalist based in Boulder, Colorado. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, Popular Science, The New York Times, Newsweek, OnEarth, and many other publications.