The Science of Looking into the Window of the Soul

Shakespeare is said to have penned the phrase: “The eyes are the window to the soul.” We have long measured trust by way of face-to-face contact.  Now, that trust metric is stretched by eyeing someone on Zoom or click-to-purchase response time commercially.  The way we connect during this social-distancing tumult may deregulate long-ingrained trust-building mechanisms.  Hard-earned trusting relationships among employees, customers, shareholders and policymakers may need a reboot once we emerge from public-health isolation.  The pandemic ripple effect may even reorient how we secure trust in the future.  


To assess business model strength and post COVID-19 workplace wellbeing, leaders will need to do much more than measure workforce productivity or online engagement.  Some suggest that among the unwanted side effects of coronavirus-required physical distancing is COVID-related emotional disengagement.  We yearn to be out and about, connected and extend trust to others.  That social process is now disrupted. For how long, we don’t know.

As the anxiety temperature of emotional (and social) isolation rises, institutional trust may well decline.  At this time, absent from looking into the eyes of those asking for our confidence and not seeing the brands we depend upon historically to address our needs, there is a trust-risk. Like playing hide-and-seek, if they don’t see us, we too wonder where they are hiding. This environment may change our perceptions of workplace leadership and brand-buying experience.

Trust is personal, earned through consistent, overtime action. How companies – CEOs, marketers and communicators – engage with transparency and timeliness during COVID-19 defines the future of truth and trust. Companies looking at “Beyond COVID-19” customer and employee connection should begin to rethink their communication strengths and strategies. They should reflect on how newly learned human dynamics patterns may shift community relationships.

PWC consultants Todd Bialick and Scott Greenfield, specializing in trust and transparency write:

“When the economy revolved around trades of goods and services among neighbors, trust was easier to establish. As the modern market evolved, transactions increasingly involved diverse partners and stakeholders, with people doing business across borders and with parties who have different views and motivations. As this circle expanded, trust became depersonalized. At the same time, companies gained more and more information about their customers and often shared that information within their ecosystems, increasing the potential for trust to be violated.”

If corporate stewards once opined about the depersonalization of trust as we shifted from main street shops to multinational conglomerates, how will we maintain trust as employees operate as scattered feathers in the wind? What happens now that we have moved from structured set-locations to womb-like workplace hives?


In the first year of life, infants learn that looking is a language onto itself and a way to transmit bonding signals. Cries of hunger or need for an urgent diaper change not answered can disrupt the ability to form attachments and trust people.  When people are uncertain and their needs go unmet or their safety is in question, early life experiences of lack of trust may be triggered. When our leaders are two-dimensional ZOOM figures, does the trust once bestowed intuitively come into question?

Paul Zaks, PhD., professor of economic sciences, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University Division of Politics and Economics, discovered neurologic mechanisms that trigger cooperation and trust tendencies. Professor Zaks writes that our brains develop two patterns that enable us to trust people outside our immediate social group. The first involves the brain’s outer surface, where insight, planning, and abstract thought occur. There we achieve something unique to humans: to see things from another person’s perspective.  The second neurologic mannerism is empathy, our ability to share people’s emotions. These are outside-in physiological strengths – honed ability to see the world from someone else’s experience and feelings.

These are the basic foundations of most trusting relationships – personal or business – to identify with other people’s perspectives and feel concern for their wellbeing.  When the link between the two – perspective and empathy – is broken, trust is weakened. 

Here are five COVID-19 era suggestions to mend decentralized trust links:

  1. LIVE IN THE QUESTION:  It’s okay to say: “I don’t know.”  An honest answer is a good place to secure trusting connections.  Like the shop owner who answers a customer’s question on whether something is in stock (or not), that response is followed generally with:  “But, I’ll find out! It is the starting point to a relationship Ask the right questions; you are bound to get outside-in answers that lead to reborn personal connection.
  • BE TRANSPARENT:  When people are surprised or when they find out after-the-fact, something happens – loss of trust.  COVID-19 has provided people with ample doses of surprising news – about food access, stay-in-place timing, job security and savings stability.  We may not control the news.  We do control the clarity and speed of information shared.  Reflect on how people respond to information. No more surprises.
  • COMMUNICATE FROM THE HEART: How would you feel? It is a great place to start when communicating business information.  Forget the jargon and legalese. More often than not consumers and employees see that language as “uninvited hide and seek.”  Empathy is a powerful connector.  The vulnerable virtual connection is today’s eyeball-to-eyeball look into the soul.  Speak with consideration for each person’s wellbeing.  Share how you feel.  This broadens the two-dimensional face-to-face Zoom link.
  • BE AUTHENTIC:  After the memo is sent out or the ZOOM meeting ends, employees gather in smaller tribes for virtual watercooler conversation to examine your words.  Imagination is the neurologic mechanism that bridges cooperation and trust.  Your customers and staff cross the communications bridge you build.  Make sure it’s strong enough to support you and those relationships long-term.  How?  Talk the talk and walk the walk of your expressed values. Build trust every moment.
  • DON’T GO IT ALONE: We are living through unprecedented times.  Even while COVID-19 requires us to “flatten the curve” and guard our and other’s lives, we are not islands.  Whether it’s the sound counsel of trusted colleagues or wise advisor – ask!  When you ask for help, you convey that you value their input.  Getting people involved in building shared solutions is a great way to secure trust.

What leaders should take away from the physical-distancing COVID-19 experience is that trust has long been a micro-building activity – house-by-house, person-to-person and eye-to-eye.  Over time, we granted trust to leaders often operating thousands of miles away. Now, we are placing trust in local leaders – mayors, governors, local hospital officials. Federal officials are not necessarily the most trusted authoritative voices. At a time when people pretend to know “what’s up,” and ideas are disproven quickly, the trust bar is raised higher and higher. 

The Bard had a clear understanding that trust in a changing world comes down to basic rules: “Talking isn’t doing.  It is a kind of good deed to say well, and yet words are not deeds.”  When we remerge from our hives, and the world reopens, here is time-proven advice:  If you can’t look them straight in the eye, watch what they do, not what they say! Trust is ultimately about people talking the talk AND walking the walk.  Looking will always matter, it is how babies learn at the beginning of their journey to trust authority. But it’s also about responding to the need.  Those early life lessons serve us well in making sure trust endures.