Trust Makes Culture Change Ready

Stephen M. R. Covey

What is the level of trust in your culture? What do employees think of senior management?

Research says that only 49% of employees trust senior management. The scores for CEO’s are even more dismal; 28% of surveyed employees felt the CEO was a credible source of information.

Trust promotes creativity, conflict management, empowerment, teamwork, and leadership during times of uncertainty and change.  A culture of trust is a valuable asset for any organization that nurtures and develops it. Amy Lyman’s work on the 100 Best Companies to work for concludes, “Companies whose employees praise the high levels of trust in their workplace are, in fact, among the highest performers, beating the average annualized returns of the S&P 500 by a factor of three.”

As a core enabler of a high-performance organizational culture, the absence or presence of trust can be either an accelerator or barrier of organizational strategy and performance. As Stephen M.R. Covey writes in his book “Speed of Trust”, when the level of trust in an organization goes down the speed of change goes down with it and the costs of the change go up.

Before you start that transformational change, ask yourself if your organization is ready for change. Will your organization’s culture, and more importantly, its level of trust support the change you wish to implement?

What is Trust?

Here are three unique qualities about trust; it’s a process, a choice and something that is uniquely human:

  • Process – trust is a learned skill. It involves an ongoing process of relationship building, communication, and action. For example, doing what you say you will do builds trust. Building trust is a process that layers on level after level of deeper trust. When actions do not match words and trust is breached, this is also a process that works in the reverse.
  • Choice – people decide whether or not to extend trust. Trust evolves incrementally over time, is based on sound judgment, and is not without limits and conditions. Those who choose to trust understand that there is the possibility of a breach of trust, and weigh risks and benefits before proceeding.
  • Uniquely Human – while you may consider your car to be reliable transportation, you don’t “trust your car.” Trust is about keeping your word, honoring your commitments and involves a decision, action, and a response. Trust is something that is unique to human beings.

The Process of Trust Building

Relationships are complex and so is the trust building process. Trust comes from who you are, what you say, and how you behave.

Think of trust like a bank account. You extend trust credits proportional to the risk you are willing to take with someone. When that person honors the trust you’ve granted, then he or she gets a deposit in the trust account. When the person says or does something that busts your trust, then you deduct from their trust account.

Components of the trust building process:

  • Code of Honor – the basics like showing respect, telling the truth, and keeping your word are foundational to the process of trust. If you are consistent in keeping the code then you build trust over time.
  • Extend Trust – go first and give trust. Not a blind trust but rather a trust with clear expectations and strong accountability built into the process.
  • Be Open – People who communicate only when they need something or when it’s in their best interest to tell you, limit trust. Those who share information appropriately increase trust. Tell people what they need to know not everything you know. Use judgment to balance between protecting confidential information and sharing needed knowledge. Information that adds to overload or isn’t pertinent diminishes trust.

Trust accounts can become overdrawn and create situations where it’s foolish to extend trust because there is no more trust to give. Be intentional about building trust and recognize that it’s a process. That’s why they say, “trust must be earned.”

To build organizational trust, employees need connection to their work, to what’s going on in the organization, and to the leader. Here are three ways to build that connection:

  1. Help employees understand how they fit in and how their contributions make a difference.
  2. Improve the flow and frequency of communications. Employees often feel they are out of the loop and they are not involved in decisions that impact them.
  3. Close the gap between senior leaders and employees. Leaders need to take time to develop authentic relationships with employees by connecting to their daily reality.

What destroys, breaks or busts trust and how do you repair broken trust? Trust busters are behaviors that destroy trust, sabotage relationships and reduce the balance in the “trust account.” There are two key categories of trust busters.

Expectations that are broken or miscommunicated
Broken expectations occur when you give your word that you will do something and you don’t do it. Broken expectations result in broken trust. Organizations break trust with employees when the employees have expectations of lifetime employment or stable work and layoffs occur. Leaders break trust when they commit to one course of action and take a seemingly different path.

Unfairness – whether it’s real or perceived
The human brain is always evaluating for fairness. Unfairness is a brain threat that creates an instant and automatic negative response. Perceived unfairness creates an environment in which neither trust nor collaboration can flourish.

When undergoing change, there is a significant risk of these trust busters. Too often, communication is emphasized during change as an antidote to trust busting. Leaders believe that if they “communicate better” they would overcome all the trust busters. The problem arises when actions don’t align with the words of the communication or the leader just presents rather than having a conversation.

Beware of trust busters and be prepared to address them or you risk raising the cost of your change and increasing the time it takes to get the change completed successfully.

Tell us about the trust busters you have seen in your organization and what steps can be taken to repair the broken trust?

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Vice President, Brighton Leadership Group

Scott Beilke is Vice President at Brighton Leadership Group, a consultancy that helps leaders create flourishing workplaces by developing constructive cultures of speed and agility, creating healthy environments that attract and retain top talent and growing authentic leaders whose people power extraordinary performance. He is a strategic advisor to executive teams and boards of large, mid-market and emerging organizations throughout the world. He is a contributing author to the 2014 book - Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed, and a founding faculty member of CultureUniversity.com.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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  • arekexcelsior

    This confirms some of the data in the experimental literature as well. For example:http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.466.4801&rep=rep1&type=pdf found that trust is crucial for employees to want to take risks (which is quite logical when you think about the payoff matrix for an employee at a company where she’ll be hung out to dry if she fails versus one where initiatives will be backed up and managers will take accountability for the actions and initiatives of subordinates).

  • Tim Kuppler

    Thank you for sharing the study. Very interesting. I believe a characteristics of an effective culture is that team members “act on what they know” with less fear, hesitation or concern. They do what’s “right” without concern about being “hung out to dry” as you reference.