Trust: the missing ingredient

Jun 18 2007 by Sally Bibb Print This Article

If trust could be bottled and sold it would make millions. Trust is a vital ingredient of any personal or business relationship. So why is it that companies rarely address it as an issue or actively try to build it?

Writing values statements doesn't count. Trust is signalled by actions not words. In fact the more you talk about it and try to convince people that it is important, the more suspicious they are likely to become. People who trust and are trusted do not talk about it, they just are it.

It is not that the people who are running companies don't know the importance of trust. But they fall into one of two camps: those that live their lives as trusting and trustworthy people because trust is one of their values, and those who realise that trust is important, decide that they need to increase it, write it down in a value statement and expect that the answer is to run workshops and training sessions.

Focusing on values is a laudable thing to do. But what tends to happen is that senior managers discuss what they think their values should be. They would be better off figuring out what their values actually are.

Trust clearly requires people to be authentic. If you are being authentic you can only reflect what your values are. Values are difficult if not impossible to change. They are formed during childhood and people pretty much hold those same values all of their lives. Because of that you can aspire to certain other values but it is unlikely you will achieve that aspiration.

The top teams of companies for whom trust is genuinely important are onto a winner. Trust is the cornerstone of all organisational activities involving people: recruitment, talent management, performance management, customer relationships, sales, mergers and acquisitions, etc etc.

One way to think about the importance of trust is to examine what happens when it does not exist. Imagine an intimate relationship where you do not trust the other person. You feel on guard, wary that the person is going to let you down in some way. It is difficult to relax; you feel vulnerable, careful about what you do and don't do.

Consider the opposite. What about being in a personal relationship where you trust someone who does not trust you? It can be frustrating; you constantly feel that you have to prove yourself to that person. You start to feel let down and disillusioned; no matter what you do you cannot create the trusting relationship you want. Eventually your feelings turn to bitterness, anger, rejection and either withdrawal or the ending of the relationship.

Now consider those scenarios in the context of an organisation. What happens when we do not trust others in our place of work? The experience can be stressful because we have to watch what we say and do. We expend considerable energy managing how we are perceived, making sure we make alliances with the 'right' people and are seen to distance ourselves from the 'wrong' ones.

This situation is not just about captaincy and doing the right thing. At its extreme it is about self preservation and not doing the wrong thing. The effects for the organisation can range from missed opportunities, unfulfilled potential, damaged relationships with employees and customers, lost business, failed partnerships and worse, the collapse of companies.

So why, if it is such an important issue do organisations rarely address it explicitly? If it is so important why do we have such a laissez-faire attitude to it? There are several reasons:

It takes investment. Trust goes to the heart of our relationships with others. We know whom we do and do not trust. If we became consciously aware of it, we would realise that when we first meet people we are checking out whether we can trust them. It can take a great deal of time and many actions to create trust, but a short time and only one action to lose it.

It is fragile. Trust is easier to destroy than create. This could partly be explained by the fact that events and actions that destroy trust are more noticeable and obvious than those needed to establish trust. Negative, trust-destroying stories are perhaps more common in the media and around office water-coolers than positive stories of trust being created.

The slate is never wiped clean. We tend to let our current experiences be tainted by what has happened in the past. If, over time, we have had a series of bosses who we trust, we are predisposed to assume that we can trust the next one. If the opposite is true, we are tempted to transfer our negative experience onto a new boss who might in fact be extremely trustworthy.

It is not simple. Advances in science and technology far outstrip the advances in the field of human relations. Left-brain logic still dominates. Trust is a complex human issue that can be difficult to understand and develop. In the absence of simple, easy answers, we stick to issues that we can more easily understand.

Maintaining trust in the complexities of organisational life is about staying in touch with the basics: the simple truths about people. We want to find meaning in our relationships, we want understanding and empathy, and we want to feel psychologically secure. Organisations would do well to take note of this as it applies not only to employees but to customers and stakeholders too.

So where do you start?

We tend to trust people if they do what they say they are going to do, if they practise what they preach and if they tell the truth. These are a good starting point but they are not enough to create durable, positive, trust-based relationships in organisations. As well as having leaders with personal integrity there are some other important elements:

Authentic communication. People need to feel that they are being told the truth, even if they do not like what they hear; it is crucial to have transparency at all levels up and down the organisation. Telling the truth, admitting mistakes and giving honest feedback are all important.

Competence. The organisation needs people who are skilled and competent at what they do. This gives people faith in and respect for each other's abilities.

Supporting processes. If the processes in an organisation are based on the assumption that people cannot be trusted (for example checking time sheets and monitoring emails), trust will be undermined.

Boundaries. Controlling people destroys trust, but clearly within organisations there has to be an agreement about what people will achieve and how they will do it. A framework of agreed goals allows people freedom within that boundary.

Contact. Personal contact is important because people need to get to know and understand each other to build and maintain trust.

Positive intent. Human beings intuitively sense the inauthentic. We know when someone's intention is questionable. For trust to exist it is important that the intent is positive, even if a person does something that undermines trust in some way.

Forgiveness. If people are to trust each other then the organisation has to forgive genuine mistakes, otherwise over time the effect will be that people will not risk doing anything new or different Ė and the organisation will suffer as a result.

Trust is not something that just happens or does not happen. It requires conscious commitment and ongoing attention. It is dynamic: it can be lost and it can be increased. Things regularly happen to compromise trust so it cannot be taken for granted.

It is not a mystical property that we have no control over. If we want it, we have to decide to give it and to commit to it. The benefits of trust are many. If it is missing, quite simply, it is a major competitive disadvantage.


About The Author

Sally Bibb
Sally Bibb

Sally Bibb is a writer and organisational change consultant. She has specialized in organization and executive development for 15 years and has a Masters Degree in Organisational Change.