by Graham Field
When we ask organisations about the challenges they face, one recurring theme is trust – how organisations gain, and can easily lose, the trust of their people, and from a leadership perspective, the importance of developing trust.
Trust has been seen as important as far back as Aristotle, who noted that trust (or ethos as he called it) was built upon three perceived factors: intelligence, character and goodwill. These factors were also commented on in a dissertation by Dr Duane Tway (A Construct of Trust – 1993) who similarly suggested that trust was a construct of three parts: the capacity for trusting, the perception of competence and the perception of intentions.
What makes trust important in running a 21st century business?
If you, like many of the HR community we collaborate with, have wondered whether trust is alive and well in your organisation, first of all take a step back and consider how important a role trust should be playing.
As an example, let’s look at the current UK climate of trust with regards our own country’s’ leaders – the politicians.
Like leaders anywhere, this group of people should be role models for ‘the way we do things around here’, but in the back of many people’s minds there has always been a question of how much these leaders are there for their people, or how much they are in it for themselves. ‘Catching them in’ and spotting when they are fulfilling their leadership potential often goes unnoticed, but ‘catching them out’ is quickly picked up, reported and commented on. And in one fell swoop trust gets damaged, role models are lost and leadership is no longer respected.
How many times does this happen in organisations?
If trust is so easy to damage, what makes it important for us in running modern businesses? We believe, as have many others before us, that trust is the bedrock for any organisation structure. It’s part of what makes your business what it is and forms the basis for organisational culture.
As such, trust is important for:
- Building high performing teams – trust needs to exist for true co-operation and developing great teamwork amongst team members
- Developing strong relationships – the kind where we can depend on our people doing things reliably and in a timely fashion
- Effective communication – people need to believe what they hear and read within organisations; the absence of trust generally means communication could be seen as little more than ‘propaganda’
- Creativity and risk taking – people need to believe that they have the freedom to be creative and take risk in order to seize opportunities
- Embedding change and managing change effectively – in a trusting environment people will believe that change is ‘for the best’ and will support it accordingly
How can we build trust?
We can still use Aristotle’s three factors as a guide:
- Intelligence: In today’s organisations we can translate intelligence for knowledge and skills – how skilled are your supervisors, managers and leaders? And possibly more importantly, how is their skill perceived by their people? This aspect of trust is the easiest to develop, and for us is part of strengthening your teams. What might a skills audit of your leaders highlight as development needs, which could be impacting on how people trust them?
- Character: Reliability and honesty are key components here. Recruitment interviews, references and ongoing performance reviews ascertain the character of the people leading our organisations, but the true test of reliability and honesty will come from an ‘all staff’ approach. When was the last time you fully reviewed your leaders adopting a 360 degree approach – and if you haven’t so far, what could be the benefits of doing this?
- Goodwill: The intentions of leaders, as perceived by their people. Unfortunately there’s no easy approach for this – goodwill develops over time, but if intelligence and character are supportive of trust, goodwill will follow. How do leaders develop, and maintain, goodwill in your organisation?
More recently, the arena of trust seems to have been dominated by Stephen M R Covey and his book, The Speed of Trust. A valuable addition to any library, this book clearly highlights ‘five waves of trust’ and thirteen ‘trust behaviours’.
What can we learn from ‘The Speed of Trust’?
Many of the above ideas are echoed in Covey’s work. He emphasises the importance of trust as an aspect of leadership (even going so far as to say inspiring trust is the ‘number one job of any leader’) and suggests that trust is part competence and part character.
Building on this is the suggestion that trust affects the speed of activity and cost within an organisation: where trust is prevalent speed goes up and cost goes down (and vice versa) and that when trust is built between individuals, it builds across a team/department/organisation.
Within all of this, there are ‘five waves’ of trust:
- Self-trust – with the underlying principle of credibility. This can be developed through personal integrity, intent, capabilities and results.
- Relationship-trust – with thirteen underlying behaviours covering how we speak honestly, demonstrate respect, create transparency, right any wrongs, show loyalty, deliver results, continuously improve, confront reality, clarify expectations, practise accountability, listen before speaking, keep to our commitments and extend trust to others who have earned it and are still earning it.
- Organisational-trust – that is aligned trust inside your organisation, This is part of your company culture and Covey believes it is established through systems and structures which support the culture you want to have.
- Market-trust – trust generated by reputation. We all know the importance of our external reputation and how this affects our overall performance, but the implication here is that the way we treat external contacts, whether customers or suppliers, is vital.
- Societal-trust – trust generated by contribution, often referred to as corporate social responsibility. Rather than a box-ticking exercise of having a charity of the year or doing a day’s work in a community garden, this is about making a genuine positive contribution to your community in the long term.
What loses trust – and how do we restore it?
Trust, once built, can be lost. Common causes of lost trust are:
- Internally – miscommunication, withholding information, acting against agreed values, mis-handling change, being self-serving and ‘looking after number one’.
- Externally – poor service, not doing what you say you will do, squeezing suppliers in times when record profits are being made and damaging local communities and/or the environment.
However, even lost trust can be regained if we act quickly to restore that which we have lost, exceed expectations in correcting our mistakes, be honest about why things have gone wrong and not only repair the damage now, but ensure it will never happen again and accept full responsibility.
Finally remember that trust is a relationship built over a period of time, as author Marsha Sinetar said: “Trust is not a matter of technique, but of character; we are trusted because of our way of being, not because of our polished exterior or our expertly crafted communications.”