(Originally published as guest column in June Publication of HRE Online)

Trust is the gel in every single human interaction. It is a necessary component in all our relationships and partnerships, including the relationships we have with the companies we choose to engage with and rely on.

Trust-dependent decisions range from benign activities like trusting your flight will leave on time, or that a package will arrive as promised; to more consequential, potentially life changing decisions such as choosing a doctor or buying a house. The decision to participate and engage in a retirement savings plan is right up there as one of the most trust-dependent decisions a person will ever have to make. It is a decision that will have long-term and possibly irreversible consequences.

Which is why trust in financial institutions is so important. Unfortunately, as a society we are losing ground in this area. Trust in retirement savings providers has fallen from just 13% in 2015 to a shockingly new low of 8% in2016. This lack of trust has very real consequences in terms of savings behavior. Our research at NARPP shows that it is very hard, if not impossible, to increase engagement and improve sustained financial decision-making in low-trust environments.

Conversely, people with higher levels of trust in their plan provider demonstrate higher levels of personal financial courage. We define “financial courage” as a person’s level of trust and confidence in their ability to make good financial decisions. Our data show that people with higher levels of financial courage save at higher rates, are more committed to their long-term savings, feel more confident in their future and are more satisfied with their decisions.

In a nutshell: trust + financial courage = deeper engagement. Increased trust translates into increased engagement and higher savings rates.

Communications are a key lever to increasing financial courage, and it all starts with building trust into communications. There is an inherent intangibility in retirement savings — there is no real product to look at or evaluate. In a real way the communications we give participants serve as a proxy for the product itself. And it is in these brief moments and exchanges where we form our opinions and impressions, and either build or erode trust.

We look for symbols and signs of trust in all of our interactions — trust building is hard to fake. We are really good at sensing trustworthiness because it is a primal gut reaction. And while we cannot make a person trust where it is unwarranted, we can help create the conditions that encourage trust building when there is a desire to do so on the part of the communicator.

If we want to start building trust with participants, the following elements need to be present in all communications:

1. Empathy: Understand and recognize the needs of the individual (this involves making information simple and clear).

2. Transparency: Ensure information and motivations are clearly outlined, including information on fees. (How about those participant statements?)

3. Conversational Tone: No jargon. Use simple language to explain difficult concepts.

4. Reciprocity: Offer genuine help to ensure participants’ best interests are at heart

5. Optimism: Convey a belief that people can change their financial behavior and that goals can be accomplished.

Saving for retirement is hard. It requires sacrifice and commitment to an intangible, future promise. Additionally, it forces us to look at uncomfortable topics like our current finances, budgets, family money issues, and mortality. And, it requires us to do complicated math in the form of story problems — that actually involve real life activities — not just trains leaving the station.

There are a lot of factors that impact savings behavior that we can’t change or control, but building trust is one factor we can control.