Deep Dive: Putting trust at the center of innovation
Can B2B companies develop a sharper focus on the human side of business on their way to delivering world-class innovation?
In an earlier edition, I repeated my argument for human-centric innovation as an essential balance for innovations that increasingly push us all toward doing business in the virtual world. My idea is that by understanding how we think, we will create better innovations. I also shared advice offered by Annie Murphy Paul, a leading expert on human cognition. (Side note: Paul is a fellow Substack author: Thinking Outside The Brain: A Newsletter.) In this edition, I share powerful new human-first insights from a Harvard Business Review article, The Neuroscience of Trust, by Paul J. Zak, a scientist and author with essential discoveries about how our brains enable cooperation and trust, and advice for making a difference in the real world.
Every B2B innovator must innovate around trust
In my article, Do Your Customer Relationships Advance the Human Condition?, I shared research that identified three requirements for creating human-centric customer relationships – trust, commitment, and purpose. I frequently argue that trust, commitment, and purpose are critical inputs for every B2B innovation because they are essential elements of the human condition. Human-first innovation is about not putting on blinders in pursuit of the exponential benefits of digital technologies. Rather, human-first innovation is about delivering new, game-changing benefits where we all live our lives and do our work—in the real world. Human-first innovation is about finding a new way of doing business but improving the human experience by doing business as humans for humans.
In his HBR article, Zak offers similar advice. He provides solid recommendations for improving every employee’s experience working within their companies. In this edition, I take his advice and go a step further by suggesting how B2B innovators can focus on trust as a key for designing B2B innovations that improve the business experience with B2B partners. I found Zak’s advice easy to understand and immediately applicable to B2B situations. Below, I share his “eight management behaviors that foster trust” and Zak’s quoted explanation. My advice follows. For me, this is just a starting point. We can all dig deeper as we focus on trust for B2B innovations. By combining our understanding of trust with a deeper knowledge of commitment and purpose, we can drive B2B innovations further and further.
The neuroscience shows that recognition has the largest effect on trust when it occurs immediately after a goal has been met, when it comes from peers, and when it’s tangible, unexpected, personal, and public. Public recognition not only uses the power of the crowd to celebrate successes, but also inspires others to aim for excellence. And it gives top performers a forum for sharing best practices, so others can learn from them.
Zak’s advice applies directly to metrics tracked for customers, channel partners, suppliers, and service vendors—whether the metric is attached to an established reward program or not. Automatic notifications may trigger recognition policies when fixed goals are attained around sales, marketing, training, and more. Artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities may be applied to notice accomplishments that combine subtle or unmeasured factors, especially in situations where success is contingent on circumstances, and machine learning can be used to detect more accomplishments consistently over time.
Induce “challenge stress”
When a manager assigns a team a difficult but achievable job, the moderate stress of the task releases neurochemicals, including oxytocin and adrenocorticotropin, that intensify people’s focus and strengthen social connections. When team members need to work together to reach a goal, brain activity coordinates their behaviors efficiently. But this works only if challenges are attainable and have a concrete end point; vague or impossible goals cause people to give up before they even start. Leaders should check in frequently to assess progress and adjust goals that are too easy or out of reach.
In a previous newsletter, I introduced workforce ecosystems—the trend toward project teams staffed by employees and workers from other companies. B2B companies may establish such teams to collaborate on a project that will lead to mutual benefits, including improving end-customer satisfaction, identifying new product opportunities, leveraging data to inventory management and delivery performance, and so forth. Zak’s advice goes to setting appropriate objectives and coordinating managers (at all participating companies) to assess progress and adjust goals.
Give people discretion in how they do their work
Autonomy also promotes innovation because different people try different approaches. Oversight and risk management procedures can help minimize negative deviations while people experiment. And post project debriefs allow teams to share how positive deviations came about so that others can build on their success.
In my past work designing channel programs, I learned that most B2B programs set outcome goals and left methods for achieving those programs up to the business partner. In a sense, B2B collaborations may already meet this recommendation. However, Zak’s suggestion may create an imperative to break this paradigm. B2B companies should work more closely with partners not to specify how they work but to understand how they work. By comparing methods across multiple partners, new insights may be gained that can lead to unexpected innovation opportunities. Facilitators, process experts, and, perhaps, human resources staffers could be assigned to every program to achieve this outcome.
Enable job crafting
When companies trust employees to choose which projects they’ll work on, people focus their energies on what they care about most.
This advice could be re-written as “When B2B partners trust workers to choose which projects they’ll work on, people focus their energies on what they care about most.” The first step, of course, is to establish cross-partner teams. In some cases, these teams may already exist but may not be recognized as such. Traditional examples include collaborations between salespeople and buyers, responding to shared bid or project opportunities, and ad hoc discussions at tradeshows or industry association meetings. Leaders may want to announce cross-company collaborations to address industry frictions or new initiatives around improving end-customer experiences or fending off outside disruption.
Share information broadly
Only 40% of employees report that they are well informed about their company’s goals, strategies, and tactics. This uncertainty about the company’s direction leads to chronic stress, which inhibits the release of oxytocin and undermines teamwork. Openness is the antidote. Organizations that share their “flight plans” with employees reduce uncertainty about where they are headed and why.
Every B2B company’s employees may not know the importance of collaborations with other companies to achieve goals and market success. By making these partnerships known, B2B leaders can provide context to strengthen day-to-day interactions that happen in the ordinary course of doing business. It may be helpful to organize virtual or in-person events to help employees understand the partnerships and make the connections more human by introducing leaders, managers, and workers to their counterpoints. Then, by sharing information about mutual performance measures, outcomes of successful collaborations, stories of partners' innovations, as well as sales, marketing, and operational data that defines the partnership, B2B partners can build cross-company cultures and a shared sense of purpose.
Intentionally build relationships
The brain network that oxytocin activates is evolutionarily old. This means that the trust and sociality that oxytocin enables are deeply embedded in our nature. Yet at work we often get the message that we should focus on completing tasks, not on making friends. Neuroscience experiments by my lab show that when people intentionally build social ties at work, their performance improves. A Google study similarly found that managers who “express interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being” outperform others in the quality and quantity of their work.
It is not uncommon for marketing, sales, and purchasing teams to hold ad hoc meetings or planned events with employees from their customers’ and suppliers’ businesses. However, employees in functions that are not customer- or supplier-facing are often left out. By including these workers in ad hoc meetings or planned events, employees across the organization can build human-to-human relationships with people at B2B partner companies. By intentionally building these relationships, the partnership may be strengthened, resulting in improved efficiency and effectiveness for each company’s benefit and the combined contribution of partners toward shared success.
Facilitate whole-person growth
High-trust workplaces help people develop personally as well as professionally. Numerous studies show that acquiring new work skills isn’t enough; if you’re not growing as a human being, your performance will suffer. High-trust companies adopt a growth mindset when developing talent. Some even find that when managers set clear goals, give employees the autonomy to reach them, and provide consistent feedback, the backward-looking annual performance review is no longer necessary. Instead, managers and direct reports can meet more frequently to focus on professional and personal growth.
Communities can usher in the coming B2B revolution. In a previous newsletter, I argued that communities are an untapped strategic tool for B2B companies to fend off disruption and lead their markets to the future. That same edition explored how technology companies built and leveraged communities and applied their approach to established B2B companies. For me, Zak’s advice goes to a very human method for creating incredibly empowering B2B communities. By adopting communities as an essential capability for innovation, B2B innovators can ensure that their company avoids a fixation on digital technologies, data, and artificial intelligence, and instead create balanced innovations that are about doing business where it is ultimately done—in the real world, by humans living and working with other humans.
Leaders in high-trust workplaces ask for help from colleagues instead of just telling them to do things. My research team has found that this stimulates oxytocin production in others, increasing their trust and cooperation. Asking for help is a sign of a secure leader—one who engages everyone to reach goals.
Channel strategists have long known that making public commitments about their company's intentions was a way to signal to channel partners that they would step up to address mutual threats and follow through on promises made. One example was supplier messages to distributors as big-box retailers emerged and posed a threat to traditional partnerships. Zak’s advice takes the power of open communications to a new level. Communications with B2B partners, up and down the value chain, need not only come from a position of strength but may also be about mutual vulnerability. These vulnerabilities may be the hard threat of outside disruption by players who target individual businesses and the incumbent value chain. Or they may go to soft vulnerabilities that go to not acting on shared opportunities, failure to transform for mutual advantage digitally, or turning a deaf ear to social trends and evolving workers' preferences about the future of living and working in a digital economy.
Join our innovation community (by asking questions)
In making his case, Zak offered these very compelling statistics:
Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout.
Turning these facts on end, B2B leaders may revolutionize traditional B2B partnerships, for every partner’s benefit, by intentionally and consequentially working toward building cross-company trust among partners by following Zak’s state-of-the-art advice. Trust can and must be a primary objective and measure of every B2B innovation. If Zak’s arguments above are not enough, I suggest that every B2B innovator explore three questions, and bring the discovered answers to every leader’s attention:
How does your company measure up against Zak’s “eight management behaviors that foster trust” as executed by your managers, team leaders, culture, and human resources policies? How do you measure up in your B2B partnerships?
Can you establish trust as a driver of loyalty and measure trust as a leading indicator that paves the way to loyalty in your B2B partnerships and innovations??
Can you borrow from an earlier edition and create an impact ecosystem to drive trust-based initiatives and establish impact ecosystems as a standard, often-used practice in your markets?
I encourage every reader to read Zak’s entire article, The Neuroscience of Trust. In this edition, I have not touched on every idea and suggestion, nor have I dug into the underlying research or mentioned the many examples he provides. Then, share your thoughts, experiences, and especially questions with our innovation community in the comments section of this edition, or if you prefer, reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Trust matters, after all.