Building Trust

Building employee trust is something that many organizations say they want to do. A leader will say something like 'I want to build a culture of trust'. This sort of statement makes me curious and I tend to follow up such a statement with a series of questions: What do you mean by trust? What outcome would you expect to see in a 'culture of trust' that you don't have currently? What do you think 'trust' would feel like in your day to day operation if you were able to build it? And so on.

In my experience 'trust' is one of those often ill-defined concepts that people intuitively feel would improve organizational performance. They believe it is within the standard remit of an organization development consultant to help with building trust. And they wonder if it could (perhaps) be designed into the organization.

In some respect their intuition is correct. There's a certain amount of evidence that people are more productive and motivated if they are treated respectfully, honestly, and fairly by their supervisors, and have an open and supportive relationships with both supervisors and colleagues. Leader member exchange theory is one that supports this perspective. (See Leader-Member Exchange Theory and Research: Accomplishments and Future Challenges, Leadership August, 2006 2: 295-316). These concepts of fair treatment and so on are close to some of the many definitions and expressions of trust.

The reason why trust is top of my mind right now is that I am working with a couple of clients who are debating whether to devolve accountability for certain aspects of the workforce lifecycle from a central function to business units – recruitment is one, the hierarchical profile of the unit aka organization chart is another. They are wondering whether they can trust the business unit heads to ensure diversity, to not create higher level jobs in order to promote indiscriminately, and to structure their organizations in a way that would enable lateral movement across the business units.

This is an interesting organization design and development situation because the 'trust' they are talking about is the opposite of 'office politics' where one group wants to control another, and is not about employee expectations that are a form of trust – like getting paid for work done, or having a safe working environment. (Although this is not an across the globe expectation that is met and perhaps development of trust begins with these basic hygiene factors). Trust is about the ongoing endeavor of relationship building and as the various stories about children and broken vases illustrate trust is something that is hard to develop and easy to lose. ( My daughters' favorite on this when they were children was The Berenstain Bears and the Truth)

This type of children's story illustrates the concept of trust as a dynamic social practice that has to be learned. Robert Solomon and Fernando Flores in their book Building Trust, in business, politics, relationships and life are clear that "Trust is dynamic. It is part of the vitality … of relationships. It involves personal responsibility, commitment and change and is characterized by sincerity, authenticity, integrity, virtue, and honor (matters of ethics"). From this perspective trust could be viewed as part of the portfolio of 'humanistic values' that inform organizational development work. Almost certainly the opposite of trust – what Solomon and Flores describe as 'cordial hypocrisy' is not going to result in a motivated and energetic workforce.

In a useful article Trust in Management and Performance: Who Minds The Shop While The Employees Watch The Boss? Roger C. Mayer and Mark B. Gavin, The Academy of Management Journal Vol. 48, No. 5 (Oct., 2005), pp. 874-888, the authors report that "Mayer, Davis, and Schoorman (1995) defined trust as the willingness to be vulnerable to another party when that party cannot be controlled or monitored. "

In the organizational cases I mentioned earlier, devolving accountability to local business units from a centralized 'authority', does not necessarily mean that the central authority will be giving up control or monitoring and this is where the design aspect of trust development could come into play. For example, one way of handling this issue of whether to trust business unit heads to take accountability for their workforce is for the central authority to work with the business unit heads to develop a system that progressively

a) builds trust between the parties at an individual relationship level
b) enables monitoring across the organization so that patterns, themes, and any red flags, can be assessed
c) works towards the minimal level of monitoring and the maximum amount of trusted local autonomy for effective overall organizational performance

Designing an accountability and monitoring governance structure with the involvement of all stakeholders itself would start to build trust amongst the parties. Although people can often see the value in this approach they are not always able or willing to take the step of opening themselves to risk and vulnerability. Rather, they 'guard their patch' as Annette Simmons in her book Territorial Games: Understanding and Ending Turf Wars at Work so tellingly speaks of.

Another way of approaching the building of trust is to look at applying an appropriate trust based model. An easy to read start-point on this is the (downloadable) paper Trust in Business: The Core Concepts, by Charles H Green, who is one of the co-authors with David Maister of The Trusted Advisor. Green lays out three models

1. The Trust Equation: a deconstructive, analytical model of the components of trustworthiness;
2. The Trust Creation Process: a process model of trust creation through personal interaction-—mainly conversations;
3. The Trust Principles: four principles, or values, which serve as guides to decision-making and conduct to increase trust.

In the case of my particular clients acting as a facilitator of the Trust Creation Process is another way that offers potential. This would involve:

1. Engaging the stakeholders in an open discussion about issues that are key to them;
2. Listening to what is important and real to the stakeholders; earning the right to offer solutions;
3. Framing the true root issue, without the language of blame, via caveats, problem statements and hypotheses; taking personal risks to explore sensitive issues-—articulating a point of view; creating by giving away;
4. Encouraging them to envision an alternate reality, including win-win specific descriptions of outcomes and results, including emotional and political states; clarifying benefits-—making clear what's at stake; being tangible about future states;
5. Inviting them to commit to actionable next steps that imply significant commitment and movement on the part of each party.

As Green points out "The order in which these sentences occur in a conversation has as much impact as the sentences themselves. That is, you could do a wonderful job on framing the issue or on the commitment to action-—but if you do them before you do listening, then the trust process breaks down, or freezes. "

Sidebar: On Green's website there's a "Trust Quotient Quiz" that invites you to see how trustworthy you are which is irresistible but also I thought would be very easy to trick into saying one is completely trustworthy – the irony of this being that if you're going to trick a trust quotient quiz then maybe you're not trustworthy.

As I mull over how to advise on the issue of whether or not to devolve accountability, and how to go about it I'd be interested to hear your tips for building trust in your organization and whether you think trust is necessary for high organizational performance?

PS – just after I'd written and posted this I found that on the same day the NY Times had an article Trust: Ill-Advised in a Digital Age. It's a good read on trusting (or not) technologies.