Delta Partners Management Consultants
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Do You Trust Me?

Debra Sunohara

I think we may safely trust a good deal more than we do.
        - Henry David Thoreau

When an organization is secretive, tightly controlled, does not delegate authority, and sharply segregates management and management decisions from employees and lower level managers, it’s not a stretch to recognise that management does not trust its "underlings" to behave as reasonable, responsible people. 

Employees who routinely work in an environment of distrust often self-limit the scope of their responsibilities.  They direct their energies toward taking what they can out of the situation; these are not what you would call engaged employees.  "They don’t trust or respect us.  Why should we trust or respect them?” 

Trust breeds trust, distrust breeds distrust.

If you want to begin building trust, you must exhibit trust through leadership and culture change.  Trust in the work place is not achieved by announcing “From now on, we are going to trust employees and support people who take risks.” 

This will only result in a wait-and-see attitude. 

Pick your cliché:

  • Actions speak louder than words.
  • If you’re going to talk the talk, you better walk the walk.
  • Between saying and doing, many a pair of shoes is worn out.

Clichés become cliché because they contain some kernel of truth.

Senior leaders have a terrible time appreciating the level of scepticism, cynicism and pessimism that the rank-and-file hold any time a sweeping message of change is pronounced from the mountaintop.  Why is this?

Because the proof is in the pudding.Rock climbers-280x429

The Absence of Light

When thinking about trust, it may be practical to view it as an extreme point on a continuum where distrust is at the other extreme.

Trust should be seen as a positive force and distrust as a negative force. 

The middle of the continuum is then not just an equilibrium point, but also the point where the ice begins to melt, the ball begins to roll, and a positive relationship begins to form.

You can also think of distrust as the absence of trust, just as a physicist would see cold as the absence of heat, and darkness as the absence of light.

Absolute Zero

A physicist will explain that the less heat there is, the slower the molecules in that environment will move.  The result is less activity, until the point where absolute zero is reached and the molecules stop moving entirely.

Similarly, the less trust in an organization, the less productive work goes on.

In order to enable team building, collaboration, innovation and positive risk-taking, trust must be established both in the horizontal (team) and the vertical (management hierarchy).

What is the "trust" level existing in your workplace?

We have found that many large bureaucracies have considerable work to do to repair (create?) a level of trust within their organization.  The cutbacks stemming from budget constraints that we have recently seen - and that we may be seeing more of - often completely destroy existing psychological contracts with employees.

Measuring Trust

How do we measure trust? The same way we measure anything else - we ask questions.

Here are a few questions that can help you measure the climate of trust in your organization:

  1. Is what I did yesterday moving the organization forward or keeping it in place?  Was trust involved?   
  2. What got in the way of doing my job?  Was trust involved?
  3. How much time did I (we) spend covering myself (ourselves) today?  Was trust involved?
  4. What did I do today that could signal to the other person or group that I didn't trust him or her?
  5. What specific things did another person or group do that indicated that they don't trust me or the group I belong to?
  6. What got me upset, annoyed, or irritated today?  Did the issue involve trust?
  7. What specific things could I (or my group) do to enhance the level of trust in the organization?

When you reflect on your answers to the questions like this, you can uncover a number of issues involving trust. 

For instance, "Did I write that memo for the file to a) refresh my memory at a later date, b) to communicate information to those who may follow me on this project, or c) to justify my decision in case someone checks up on me?" 

Or, in another case, "Did I ask someone to report back to me on something at the end of the day because a) I wanted to clear my mind of that subject when the project was over, or b) because I wanted to make sure that he or she was working on it today?"

Creating Trust

Do you have stack of policy manuals? It may well be time to evaluate the ratio between the gross weight of your policies and procedures and of the degree of distrust between your management and employees.

Mr. Shakespeare tells us that, “There's no trust, no faith, no honesty in men; all perjured, all forsworn, all naught, all dissemblers.”

So how do you improve trust?

Sometimes it's simply a quick matter of approaching a co-worker and apologizing for your actions.  Other times it will require a long and sustained war of attrition on the attitudes and actions that created the existing environment.

The short answer is that there is no short answer.  However, Stephen M. R. Covey has also written a great book on the subject, The Speed of Trust. We already have our copy; you should get yours (read our take on his take).


So, how do you build trust in your organization? What advice would you share?


I got a comment from John J. Davis ? In his prior role as an Area Business Director, I came into an environment where there was very little trust and confidence in the leadership team. I discovered that promises were made to people and were never full-filled. The way that I was able to combat all of this negativity is by listening and sharing all the information that I could. I realize that this sounds very simple, but the majority of people want to feel a sense of belonging. As humans, this is what drives us…we want to belong. If no one ever listens to us or shares information with us, we do not feel as though we belong to that group. The work place is no different.

But you can not just listen with no follow-up actions. The people that are closest to the action, that are dealing with the customer on a daily basis, have some of the best ideas of how to make their job better. As leaders, we just need to keep our mouth shut and listen. The cultural change that came about on my team did not happen overnight. And there was not one major project/event that I was able to do to accomplish the change that transpired. It was seeking little wins along the way that added up to creating a positive and productive work environment.

As far as sharing information, it is not just about the financial state of your team. Although this is important, it is also explaining why changes to the business need to be made in order to improve a financial or non-financial metric. People respond to change when they understand why they need to do something. Once you have your teams understanding (and hopefully buy-in) then they are able to put all they have into the new process or procedure.

Trust goes hand-in-hand with a sense of belonging to the organization

By Alcide DeGagn on 2011/06/15

Thanks for your thoughtful comment John. I particularly like your suggestion of follow up with actions with people dealing with the customer on a daily basis. In our practice, this why we believe that both leadership and employee engagement is critical to high performance.

By Alcide DeGagn on 2011/06/15

Trust in an organization is a very strange thing. Certainly sharing information and people (especially management) doing what they say they will, are key. Also key is always telling the truth or saying frankly that you can not answer that question. All managers will experience times when there is information they cannot share, for privacy reasons, for legal reasons and for fiduciary reasons, for example.

But I have seen occasions where employees in an enlightened organization, who have only experienced good times, become very mistrustful when bad times arise. Even if management follows everything suggested in Alcide’s post and my first paragraph, employees grow increasingly distrustful as bad things happen(e.g. layoffs, downsizing, challenging strategic shifts).

Entitled employees can come to believe they are entitled to a good work experience, and when that disappears, they may blame management and cease to trust them. They begin to withhold information management needs and in some cases refuse to work to their potential because they are dispirited and mistrustful.

Trust can leech out of the organization in such times. Inspiring staff to work for the good of all in hard times can be imperilled when this happens. Usually there are a few ringleaders promulgating scenarios about what is ‘really happening’ and what is ‘going to happen’.

It’s a major management challenge when an organization becomes to go sideways in this way.

By Ellen Godfrey on 2011/07/13

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience, Ellen. Although maintaining trust levels and employee engagement in “tough times” is indeed a major management challenge, I think that employees’ reactions to the conditions during those times are not only what is to be expected but also perfectly natural. Do you have any recommendations for management faced with this very challenge?

By Debra on 2011/07/15

I have two suggestions that I have seen work. One is based on an optimistic view of human nature. The other on the research of sociologists who study the behaviour of people in groups.

The first idea is for managers to reinvigorate morale by setting a challenging but exciting goal and inspiring staff to work towards it. This gives people something to want to come into work for, and also, the opportunity to feel like a success rather than the to experience the sense of failure that tends to pervade an organization in tough times. People are happy to share in the pleasure of being part of a success, but people tend to feel personally responsible for the problems of an organization that is struggling, and they resent that because they feel it isn’t fair.

The other method works really well, but sounds very cynical. That is to identify an enemy that the group can coalesce around, and strive to beat. In private business this is a competitor who will ‘eat our lunch’ if we don’t beat him.

In public organizations it is very hard to find an enemy, but there is usually one out there, whom everyone has to come together to disarm, or to prevent from harming our ‘in group.’

Studies how nothing galvanizes a group or reinvigorates morale more than the fight against a common enemy.

But key to both these strategies are two essential elements:
1) share information, and, even more important
2) tell the truth

The truth about the organizations situation must be presented in an empowering way, that allows employees to see it as an opportunity, and to understand that the pain they are experiencing is a necessary step to an outcome that will either be better, or must be endured for the greater good. If managers cannot think of way to truly improve the situation at a time of cutbacks or reorg, they will not succeed.

In my experience,  I have seen great managers come up with truly innovative new ways of doing business that turn tough times into the ‘best of times’. They identify a new way of doing things, turn it into a project everyone can get behind, tell the truth about the obstacles and the difficulties on the road to success, identify the ‘old way’ as the enemy to be defeated, and then work with their people to move forward.

By Ellen Godfrey on 2011/07/15

Thank you so much for sharing these two strategies, Ellen.

By Debra on 2011/07/18

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