Building the High-Trust Driven Organisation

There is a strong connection between a high-trust culture and business success. In fact, the connection is so strong that strategy-minded leaders, who care deeply about the financial well-being of their business, should make building a high-trust culture a top priority.

The disruptive world that we all now operate within is a crucible within which resilient leadership is now forced to redefine. Acting without perfect information, often with only a few hours or days to spare, CEOs need to guide their organisations through the daily myriad of decisions and challenges, with significant implications for their company’s whole system; employees, customers, clients, financial partners, suppliers, investors, and other stakeholders, as well as for society as a whole.

Considering the fact that all entities are primarily made up of people, it is important for individuals in any organisation, nation or global community to trust each other and themselves to get the work done.

Indeed, not only is trust between people necessary for the success of any endeavour, but it is also essential for any entity to even exist.

Trust starts with transparency: telling what you know and admitting what you don’t. Trust is also a function of relationships: some level of ‘knowing’ each other among you and your employees, your customers, and your ecosystem. And it also depends on experience: Do you reliably do what you say?

In times of growing uncertainty, trust is increasingly built by demonstrating an ability to address unanticipated situations and a steady commitment to address the needs of all stakeholders in the best way possible.

Transformation and Change

The converse in high-trust cultures is equally true. When the trust goes up in an organisation, the speed will go up and costs will come down. Your ability to collaborate goes up, as does your ability to attract, retain and engage people. When trust goes up, you’ll see people sharing information, not being afraid to make mistakes, more creativity, higher accountability and greater energy and satisfaction. When you move the needle on trust, you move all kinds of other needles with it.

As businesses and governments transform to meet new challenges, it’s essential to embed trust intelligence into the core of their operations.

I wrote a blog in January 2022, ‘Leadership needs to lead with Trust Intelligence (TI)‘ which defines why the five Intelligences; IQ, EI, SI, DI and WI.

As humans we need a balance of skill, competence, morality and ethic behaviours to be truly effective in this new world, however, all these intelligences need to be within the TI umbrella to truly be effective.

Moral and ethical leadership is the key to a successful business, yet it’s clear from the news lately that the leaders of some of our most influential governments and corporations are making morally questionable decisions. These decisions will lose the trust of society, customers and employees.

Trust is the foundation of high-functioning relationships and can only be achieved by meaningful dialogue. It is clear that this is not happening. Instead, we’re using electronic communication, where it should never be used.

Enterprises powered by trust will be able to deliver on all three transformation drivers: people, technology and innovation. They’ll be able to leapfrog their competitors. To shape new markets. To lead to better futures.

It’s hard to quantify exactly how important trust is for a business. For business owners, a lack of trust is your biggest expense. It may take years for a manager or an executive to develop the trust of his or her employees, but only moments to lose. Without trust, transactions cannot occur, influence is destroyed, leaders can lose teams and salespeople can lose sales. The list goes on.

Trust and relationships, much more than money, are the currency of business.

Trust is the natural result of thousands of tiny actions, words, thoughts, and intentions. Trust does not happen all at once; gaining trust takes work. It might take years of calling on a certain client to break through and fully gain their comfort and trust. Yet in spite of the importance of trust in the business world today, few leaders have given it the focus and nurturing it deserves.

Building, maintaining, and sustaining trust is essential, and it is one of the central tenets of Human Resource Management (HRM) theory to actualize such organizations that have a high trust intelligence within them.

This means that HR professionals have the new task of building trust, and more importantly, maintaining and sustaining it so that organisations continue to thrive and differentiate in the new competitive marketplace.

While many factors determine whether a particular organisation is a high-trust or low-trust environment, the key aspect is the organisational culture which needs to encourage trust between the employees and the organisational stakeholders and within the employees.

Organisational Culture is the codified and implicit set of rules or codes of conduct by which organisations operate and hence, the way in which organizational culture is defined, maintained, and upheld is indeed important for organizations to function.

The importance of every organization and HR Function requires clear instructions from Boards, Senior Management and Executive leadership to codify policies and rules or codes of conduct that determine how employees must behave and act in their interactions with each other and with the larger organisational ecosystem.

This is contingent upon the HR function to first assist the stakeholders in defining the rules, and then ensuring that such rules are consistently maintained and enforced, and perhaps, the most important aspect here is that such codes of conduct must be upheld meaning that during times of crisis, the HR function must indeed “co-create” or must back up words with action and execution.

A key challenge for any HR professional is to ensure that cultural factors and socio-cultural influences do not come in the way of actualizing a high-trust organisation.

Authentic cultures are not formed by values posted on the wall; they are the result of leaders being purposefully committed to living those values and willing to personally change in order to model the behaviours and actions that maintain integrity.

When values are real, employees and customers know the enterprise is authentic and true to its culture. Especially in a crisis, comparing actions to values is a litmus test of a company’s authenticity.

Culture, we know, is the core of resilience, but it alone is not enough. Other work by our company has shown that organisations that accelerate performance during good times and bad are able to mobilise, execute, and transform with agility.

Today, a company’s foresight, ability to learn, and adaptability will set it apart.

Companies strong in these areas have leaders who are future-focused, demonstrate a growth mindset, are able to pivot quickly in times of rapid disruption, and maintain resilience to navigate their organisations.

Trust is the Glue

Trust is at the foundation of healthy relationships. At its core, trust is the willingness of one party to be vulnerable to the actions of another. It is an expectation that two parties will act in a way that is mutually beneficial. For these reasons, trust is a key element of effective communication, teamwork, employee commitment and productivity. It leads to stronger working relationships and a healthier organisational culture.

Because of the inherent vulnerability involved in trusting relationships, it is widely understood that trust must be earned. This is true whether it is between two colleagues, a manager and an employee, or even between an employee and the organisation at large. In some instances, it can be hard to build and sustain because individuals may not be aware of the unintentional ways that they have broken the trust of their colleagues.

Once Trust is Broken

A lack of trust in the workplace is the virus that can create a diseased workplace culture. It often begins with leadership and spreads throughout the team, leading to a cycle of unhealthy responses that affect engagement and productivity.

As a leader, if you don’t trust your team, you’re likely either micromanage or withhold information and work on initiatives on your own or with a select group of people. This can create a vicious cycle, as your team may respond by pulling back even further, so you’ve created a perfect storm in this self-fulfilling prophecy of distrust.

Trust helps to make challenging conversations easier – this has been written in my new book “The Trust Paradigm” : making teams more integrated and employees more engaged. Exploring ways in which trust can be built can help individuals and companies create stronger relationships and healthier cultures.

Mark Herbert, my Co-author of ‘The Trust Paradigm‘, states:

“It is my belief that an important part of empathy is the ability to trust and be trusted. When your employees feel that you care, then you have earned their trust. If they trust you, they will take more risks with you and be more open with you. People will talk openly with you only when they trust you. As trust builds, there will be more sharing of information, feelings, and thoughts. The more you share, the easier it is to relate to one another. Building trust is something that takes time and effort. It involves both you and the other person in the relationship. The level of trust is what makes each relationship unique.”

From swift decisions to shutter offices, institute work-from-home policies, and scale the technological tools to stay connected to customers and stakeholders, agile leaders have assessed the risk and pivoted quickly.

They must also reassess the medium and long term, building on past crisis interventions and associated learnings to evolve operations and innovate to meet changing needs, all while staying true to their culture.

To explain, trust is as much a function of personality as it is about the societal culture from which people come.

Many sociologists have pointed out, most Western nations are implicitly high-trust ones, and while developing countries do have high-trust cultures, it is often the case that due to the diversity of such cultures, there are challenges arising from cultural norms as far as building and maintaining trust is concerned.

Clarity of thinking, communication, and decision-making will be at a premium.

Those CEOs who can best exhibit this clarity, and lead from the heart and the head, will inspire their organisations to persevere through this crisis, positioning their brand to emerge in a better place, prepared for whatever may come.

Crises like these, with deep challenges to be navigated, will also lead to opportunities for learning and deepening trust with all stakeholders, while equipping organisations for a step change that creates more value not just for shareholders, but for society as a whole.

From time to time, we lose our bearings as individuals, especially when facing overwhelming challenges, as we are today faced with a changing global environment; it is in these moments that we lean into our core, our character and personal values, to find strength and focus on what really matters.

Leaders facing the unprecedented times and circumstances of the moment are also looking to their organisation’s core, its communal culture and values, to inspire resilience, unleash agility, and help employees to thrive, not simply survive.

It’s also important to recognise and address the emotions of all stakeholders.

This is not just about charts and numbers. Narratives can be powerful ways to acknowledge the fears that naturally surface in times of crisis, while at the same time framing the opportunity that can be achieved if stakeholders come together and commit to overcoming the challenges that stand in the way.

A recent survey carried out by DataPad for and on behalf of International Business and Executive Management asked employees questions on ‘trust and respect’ in relation to their executive leadership, heads of department and their immediate line managers.

The closer the manager’s role was to the respondent, the more likely it was for the employee to answer positively. Immediate managers were trusted ‘a lot’ by 48% of those who responded and ‘a little’ by 36%. Sixteen percent of immediate managers are not trusted at all.

Working with CEOs over the years, I have found that thriving cultures are those that are purpose-driven and characterised by vitality and a growth mindset.

Organisations where leaders are purposeful and intentional and open to personal change, and where every employee has a voice and is actively engaged in living the organisation’s values, are those with thriving cultures.

Many organisations entered into this crisis with such a culture. Others were struggling. But, like the process of glass blowing, in which beautiful structures are created by manipulating molten glass in a hot furnace, we have observed healthy and resilient cultures emerge from the fires of crisis.

At their core, organisations are shadows of their leaders. Leaders who greet crisis with perspective and compassion, confront the current reality with optimism for the future, demonstrate personal resilience, and inspire that resilience among their employees are those who will make the difference.

In final summary, indeed, the necessity of maintaining trust is complemented by the behaviour of leadership during any business or economic cycle, when it becomes necessary to return to “First Principles” or the Raison D’etre of

Existence which when translated into plain English means the core of what it means to work for such organisations.

In the same manner in which government, business and personal crises threaten the character of individuals and how they respond is indicative of their personality, organizational impact is the core trust or the glue that binds the organisation, and hence, how the leadership responds determines whether the Trust intelligence has broken down or is very much in existence.

Leaders serve as role models for their followers and demonstrate the behavioural boundaries set within an organisation. The appropriate and desired behaviour is enhanced through the culture and socialisation process of the newcomers.

To conclude, leaders need to help bridge the trust gap, we recognise that organisations need to work with each other and with wider society to identify practicable, actionable steps that businesses can take to shape a new relationship with wider society: a new ‘settlement’ based on mutual understanding and a shared recognition of the positive role that business plays in people’s lives.

To create such a settlement, businesses need to see themselves as part of a diverse, interconnected, and interdependent ecosystem one that involves government, regulators, individual citizens, and more.

Trust within and across this ecosystem is key to its long-term sustainability and survival. That’s why trust needs to be restored to the heart of the business world.

As Stephen M.R. Covey once said:

“Contrary to what most people believe, trust is not some soft, illusive quality that you either have or you don’t; rather, trust is a pragmatic, tangible, actionable asset that you can create.”

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