Manners play an important role in building trust, and trust is instrumental when it comes to driving behavior change at work.

What do good manners cost? You got it in one: nothing! But how useful are manners in a chat-based learning system designed for change management?

A few clients over the years have asked us why we bother to greet our learners in Cognician. Why do we ask them how they’re feeling about what they’re learning? Surely the learners know they’re talking to a machine!

Yes, they do. But it’s a machine that’s amplifying the voice of a leader. A colleague. A friend. It’s a machine that’s making it easy for them to clear their mind of distractions so they can focus their attention on something meaningful. It’s a machine that’s putting them in a state where they’re ready to learn. And we create that experience in tech, because that’s how it works in the real world.

Manners are an important step to to building trust

I’m using the term, “manners” as shorthand for politely greeting others, and showing interest in them and their wellbeing. For acknowledging the humanity and dignity in our colleagues. For showing them the courtesy and respect they deserve. 

What does that look like in practice? It means asking your colleagues how they’re doing and meaning it. It means giving them the space to respond and listening actively when they do. It means engaging with them in an authentic, unhurried way. And it means doing the same by sharing in return.

But manners are not just niceties when it comes to building trust. The neuroscience behind these conversational basics is clear. Judith Glaser built a career studying the neuroscience of conversations, and this Psychology Today article is a great summary of her work.

To summarise even further, our brains are wired to detect trust. They open up if they do. They close down if they don’t. So when you start a meeting by saying, “We have very little time, so let’s jump right in,” you are not sending signals of safety to your colleagues. You’re heightening their stress response. But when you slow down and allow some time for your call participants to check in with each other, you lower their stress responses and enable the release of oxytocin, which is associated with trust and collaboration.

And yes, sometimes there is very little time, and you need to jump right in. Hopefully, in those circumstances, you have built up a reserve of trust. 

The bigger picture right now is that nearly all of our clients are asking for help in building trust. In the past year, trust in large organisations has crumbled under the pressure of pandemic working hours, excess layoffs, a lack of human contact, economic uncertainty, future uncertainty, health fears, money fears, fear of loss, experience of loss and a host of other stress-inducing factors. 

These days, many of my colleagues are starting internal calls with some version of, “I’m utterly exhausted.” Our clients are confiding in us with similar turns of phrase. If we ignore these feelings, and leave them unexpressed in conversation, they don’t stop holding the attention of the person we’re speaking to. In fact, their state of mind will probably get worse. And you’ll be talking to someone who is neurochemically incapable of giving you the best of their attention. 

And the very same thing applies when holding a learner’s attention online. When they log in to Cognician to pick up a behavioural challenge, or to reflect on one, they’re probably utterly exhausted. They’re struggling to focus. There are umpteen tasks competing for their attention. 

If we simply presented them with another one, would their minds be ready to accept it? Probably not. And that’s why we greet them warmly, by name and by time of day. And we ask what they’re concerned about. We ask how confident they are in the topic. We ask what they feel the future will be like. And anything that will allow them to articulate the noisy thoughts that are clouding their focus. Anything to decrease stress and increase trust. Because only then can they begin to connect with what we have in store for them.

Trust is a key requirement to driving change at work

Learning can only happen when learners’ minds are focussed and uncluttered. Particularly when their minds are clouded by a flurry of worries. The best learning programs enable this focus for learners by gaining their trust. 

Trust in the content, trust in the management of the process, trust that the program will have the impact it promises. But there is a simple basis to enabling the positive neurochemistry of trust, and that’s to communicate with your learners like dignified adults. With the good manners they deserve.

Patrick-Kayton-Opinion-Piece About the Author:
 Patrick Kayton is co-founder and joint CEO of Cognician, an award-winning international company that builds programs to activate behavior change at scale, which help organizations transform. He is a learning and behavior change specialist with 20 years experience in instructional design and corporate learning.
In 2010, he founded Cognician with his brother Barry to solve the problem of how to activate behavior change through action and reflection. He became an Endeavor Entrepreneur in 2013 and accepted a fellowship in the Unreasonable Group in 2020.