Ten Hallmarks of High Trust Organizations
The advantages of working in a high trust environment are evident to everyone from the CEO to the shop floor. Building and maintaining trust within any organization pays off with many tangible benefits.
This author has witnessed a doubling of productivity in a manufacturing unit in less than a year when the leadership changed from a command-and-control leader to one who built an environment of trust. Trust also improves loyalty and retention, as described by several CEOs of the 100 Best Places to Work in America, including Lauren Dixon (2010) of Dixon Schwabl Advertising Inc. She wrote:
At conferences I have attended and in discussions with other business leaders across the U.S., I've seen that companies that value trust have higher retention rates and greater profitability. This is in part because a lack of trust is often the first thing that comes to mind when an employee wishes to leave-even if it is not expressed in an exit interview or other circumstances. (p. 25)
Organizations that have achieved an environment of high trust enjoy a sustainable competitive advantage. This is no accident; it happens because trust enables better performance on many different dimensions. Here are ten specific examples:
1. Solving Problems
In organizations of high trust, problems are dealt with easily and efficiently. In low trust organizations, problems become huge obstacles as leaders work to unscramble the mess to find out who said what or who caused the problem to spiral out of control. Often feelings are hurt or long term damage in relationships occurs. While problems exist in any environment, they take many times longer to resolve if there is low trust.
Sometimes a lack of trust can cause small problems to bloom into first class disasters. A good example of this progression is the Challenger Disaster in 1986. The Rogers Commission (1987) found that NASA's organizational culture and decision making process were key contributing factors of the accident. Technicians, who were aware of a problem, did not feel it was safe to bring it up due to low trust levels.
2. Focused Energy
People in organizations with high trust do not need to be defensive. They focus energy on accomplishing the vision and mission of the organization. Their energy is directed toward the customer and against the competition. In low trust organizations, people waste energy due to infighting and politics. Their focus is on internal squabbles and destructive turf battles. Bad blood between people creates a litany of issues that distract supervision from the pursuit of excellence. Instead, they play referee to a bunch of adult workers who often act like children.
Trust leads to constancy of purpose as well as focus. In Managing People is Like Herding Cats (1999), Warren Bennis wrote: "A recent study showed people would rather follow individuals they can count on, even when they disagree with their viewpoint, than people they agree with but who shift positions frequently. I cannot emphasize enough the significance of constancy and focus" (p.85).
3. Efficient Communication
When trust is high, the communication process is efficient, as leaders freely share valuable insights about business conditions and strategy. In low trust organizations, rumors and gossip zap around the organization like laser beams in a hall of mirrors. Before long, leaders are blinded with problems coming from every direction. Trying to control the rumors takes energy away from the mission and strategy.
High trust organizations rely on solid, believable communication, while the atmosphere in low trust groups is usually one of damage control and minimizing employee unrest. Since people’s reality is what they believe rather than what is objectively happening, the need for damage control in low trust groups is often a huge burden. Not only is verbal communication enhanced by trust, all forms of communication including e-mail, body language, and listening are improved by trust.
In A Contrarian's Guide to Leadership, Steven B. Sample (2002) discusses the concept of artful listening which enables a leader to "...see things through the eyes of his followers while at the same time seeing things from his own perspective" (p.22). He calls this skill "seeing double." Sample stresses that artful listening is enabled by trust.
4. Retaining Customers
Workers in high trust organizations have a passion for their work that is obvious to customers. When trust is lacking, workers often display apathy toward the company that is transparent to customers. Most of us have experienced this apathy while sitting in a restaurant where the service is slow. If there is a low trust environment, we feel an uncomfortable tension that discourages our future return to that establishment. All it takes is the roll of eyes or some shoddy body language to send valuable customers looking for alternatives.
5. A “Real” Environment
People who work in high trust environments describe the atmosphere as being “real.” They are not playing games with one another in a futile attempt to outdo or embarrass the other person. Rather, they are aligned under a common goal that permeates all activities. When something is real, people know it and respond positively. When trust is high, people might not always like each other, but they have great respect for each other. That means, they work to support and reinforce the good deeds done by fellow workers rather than try to find sarcastic or belittling remarks to make about them. The reduction of infighting creates hours of extra time spent achieving business results.
6. Saving Time and Reducing Costs
High trust organizations get things done more quickly because there are fewer distractions. There is no need to double check everything because people generally do things right. In areas of low trust, there is a constant need to spin things to be acceptable and then to explain what the spin means. This takes time, which drives costs up. When trust is low, organizations pay a kind of "tax". This tax increases costs and reduces speed (Covey, 2006).
7. Perfection not Required
A culture of high trust relieves leaders from the need to be perfect. Where trust is high, people will understand the intent of a communication even if the words were phrased poorly. In low trust groups, the leader must be perfect because people are poised to spring on every misstep to prove the leader is not trustworthy. Without trust, speaking to groups of people is like walking on egg shells.
The irony is that leaders should be glad when people are vocal about apparent inconsistencies between actions and values. People will not do so unless the leader has created an environment of trust. This phenomenon was described by Noel Tichy (1997) as follows: "The truth is that the leader gets nailed to the wall for failing to live the values only if he or she has created an open and honest shop. More often, people simply become demoralized and ignore the values just as the leader does" (p. 43).
8. More Development and Growth
In low trust organizations, people stagnate because there is little emphasis placed on growth. All of the energy is spent jousting between individuals and groups. High trust groups emphasize development, so there is a constant focus on personal and organizational growth (Lawler, 2003).
9. Better Reinforcement
When trust is high, positive reinforcement works because it is sincere and well executed. In low trust organizations, reinforcement is often considered phony, manipulative, or duplicitous, which lowers morale. Without trust, attempts to improve motivation through reinforcement programs often backfire. The trick is to get people to want to do the right thing through reinforcement. Ken Blanchard (2002) wrote "Instead of building dependency on others for a reward, you want people to do the right thing because they themselves enjoy it" (p. 56).
10. A Positive Atmosphere
The atmosphere in high trust organizations is refreshing and light. People enjoy coming to work because they have fun and enjoy their coworkers. They are usually more productive than their counterparts in lower trust areas. In groups with low trust, the atmosphere is oppressive. People describe their work as a hopeless string of sapping activities foisted upon them by the clueless managers who run the place. In high trust groups, people are happier. Lauren Dixon (2011) emphasized that "Happy workers produce successful firms - not the other way around" (p. 33).
These are just ten contrasts describing the differences between high trust and low trust organizations. There are many more distinctions, some of them very subtle. No list of contrasts could be complete. Organizations where trust is low operate under such a huge disadvantage to their counterparts with high trust that basic survival becomes an issue.
Most top leaders understand all of the above. The conundrum is, they sincerely want to build an environment of high trust, and yet they consistently do things that take them in the wrong direction. Many leaders end up hiring consultants to help create a better environment within their organization. This can be helpful, but the consultant cannot resolve a problem of low trust unless the leader is willing to consider changing his or her own behaviors.
With that willing attitude, there is a real possibility that an outside coach or consultant can help the organization. The good news is that improvements in the culture can happen swiftly once a leader starts changing his or her behavior, and there are numerous ways this can be done. Leaders who are not satisfied with the level of motivation and trust within their organization should seek out a coach who can help them see through the blind spots. This action will produce rapid positive changes in any organization.
Robert Whipple MBA CPLP is the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. Contact Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org or