Three Ingredients for Fostering a Culture of Trust

 

By Michael Eichenwald and Jan Stanley, LRN

At our most recent workshop on organizational culture, one participant asked about the particular challenges of establishing trust after a thorny corporate merger. Another wanted to know how mid-level executives might reassure their charges even when leaders send signals of distrust throughout the organization. Still another sought to understand how differences in ethnicity or gender influence the extent to which trust can pervade a diverse workforce.

In our work fostering ethical cultures and helping management teams architect purpose-led, values based companies, the topic of trust is always central to the dialogue. Yet the challenges of establishing a trust-based organization have never been greater. Research we conducted over the past year, across thousands of companies and a wide swath of industries, found that almost three quarters of organizations around the world have low-trust cultures.

Before discussing how to foster trust, let’s take a step back to define what trust is — and what it is not. Often, when people talk about trust, what they intend is closer to “confidence.” For example, if you order a pair of shoes online, you probably trust that they will be the right size and color, based on your order. But that trust is simply the expectation that a company or person will do what you requested. While earning another’s confidence through a proven track record is an important aspect of a high-performance culture, it differs from building an organizational culture on trust.

Trust is a profound act that occurs on a human scale. Real interpersonal trust lies in the act of making oneself vulnerable by putting your welfare in the hands of another, by trusting that person to deliver on something important to you. It is this openness to vulnerability that makes the act of trusting one another so deeply challenging.

In a culture of trust, people actually embrace the need to extend trust to one another. The expectation becomes one where all extend trust and trust is extended back in return, and through that dynamic each has an opportunity to make her own contribution and do his part in pursuit of a shared purpose. Such a culture super-charges an organization’s ability to take on hard challenges and thrive in good times and rough. And such behavior is the key to building healthy and agile cultures.

Can trust be designed into your organization?

There are no shortcuts to change culture. Nonetheless, through our work with organizations around the world, we have identified three areas where, through focused and deliberate effort, leaders can begin to infuse their organizations with a culture of trust. “Culture” refers to how things really work around an organization — the norms, traditions, habits and mindsets. Culture is created through the actions of those who lead and work within it. Culture is shaped by how we show up for work, how we engage our greatest challenges, and how we execute and follow through on all the small tasks at hand. To build a culture of trust, our experience suggests, we must target three critical areas: how we behave; how we relate and how we pursue. Click here to learn more on these three ingredients for fostering a culture of trust.