Creating a High Trust Culture: Who is Responsible?

Right now, organizational trust is being stretched to its limits, perhaps even more so than following the 2008 financial crisis. In addition to the massive disruptions across all societal institutions caused by the current pandemic, this crisis has brought even more attention to the critical importance of organizational trust as reported by SmartBrief here and here.

Everything we knew about the benefits of high trust in the past has been amplified. Often, it takes a crisis to remind us what happens when trust is ignored or taken for granted.

Who should own Organizational Trust?

Recently, seven members of our Trust Alliance met for our weekly Lunch & Learn to explore the topic of “How to Move from a Low to High Trust Culture.” I was joined by Lea Brovedani, Stephen M.R. Covey, Charles Feltman, Sean Flaherty, Natalie Doyle-Oldfield and Olivia Mathijsen, who shared their perspectives from the US, Canada and Europe.

During the hour we asked ourselves four questions, one being “Who is responsible for a high trust culture? Before we share our answers, please review the chart below.

Similarly, I was asked to lend my trust expertise at a webinar hosted by Navex Global, during which several polls were taken. Four hundred twenty respondents selected who they thought had primary responsibility for organizational trust. Most respondents ranked the C-Suite as the “bearer of the trust torch,” followed by employees and the CEO.

Only a handful of respondents felt that the board of directors, HR, compliance or legal should own organizational trust. Comprised primarily of compliance, legal and HR professionals, was this webinar audience right or wrong in their choice?

According to the trust experts who joined our weekly discussion, the answer is “both.”

who is responsible for high trust culture

Who then IS responsible?

The answer is simply, “everyone who is employed by the organization.”

To help organizations ensure this notion takes hold, consider the following:

  1. Trust is fostered by leadership and created by people.
  2. Hiring practices MUST include a trust component that has its own independent value.
  3. Trust must start at the very top (Board, Chair, CEO) and flow downwards.
  4. Middle management can attempt to foster trust, but it will not be as effective as a top-down imperative, unless it becomes contagious!

Low Trust indicators

Look inside your own organization. Count how many of the following signs are present that indicate a low trust culture:

  • Low energy, low productivity and burnout
  • High employee turnover and excessive use of sick days
  • Difficulty recruiting new employees
  • Too many rules, regulations and no fun
  • Low innovation
  • No sharing of information and resistance to ideas
  • Lack of respect and passive/aggressive behavior
  • Resignation and its cousin cynicism
  • Finger-pointing, water cooler talk and lots of judgement
  • Cordial hypocrisy

High Trust indicators

Now consider some of the indicators of a high trust culture and count how many are present in your organization:

  • High energy, motivation and engagement
  • Easy to hire and onboard new employees
  • Fun and laughter
  • High confidence, creativity and risk taking
  • Thriving innovation and productivity
  • Team alignment, sharing of information and credit, and quick forgiveness
  • Accountability and transparency are the norm
  • Willingness to be vulnerable and open, speak freely, and to listen
  • Positive team-building behaviors including gratitude, empathy and candor
  • A strong sense of “community” and shared values

Which type of organization would you rather lead or work for: one with a high trust culture, or one where trust is lacking? My guess is the former.

Converting from Low to High Trust

My final question to our lunch group was, “How do leaders convert from low to high trust organizations?” Here are a few recommendations:

  1. First, if leadership does not view low trust as a substantial risk, they should reconsider. The level of trust directly impacts every critical component of a business from innovation to customer loyalty to employee retention and recruitment.
  2. The tangible benefits of high trust are numerous and growing. In other words, there is a currency and value to trust.
  3. Leaders must acknowledge that trust is low, want to build trust, and instill it throughout the organization. Words are ineffective. Actions are what matter.
  4. A common language of trust and a framework must be developed based on the behaviors that foster trust. (There are several great frameworks we can refer. As a starting place, here’s our framework at Trust Across America.)
  5. An assessment must be administered to determine the current level of organizational trust and which behaviors are causing trust disruptions.
  6. Leaders must budget for and follow an intentional trust-building strategy that is built from the inside out with an end goal in mind.
  7. Just like any other, trust is a competency. It can be learned and mastered through daily practice.

Everything we knew about the benefits of high trust in the past has been amplified. Often, it takes a crisis to remind us what happens when trust is ignored or taken for granted.

In most organizations, acknowledging low trust for the high risk it presents remains the greatest challenge. If leaders choose to ignore trust, it will not improve, even when the right tools are readily available.

The Impact of Trust on Corporate Culture

In a recent conversation with the CEO of a public company, one of my colleagues inquired about the role trust plays in his organization. His response mirrored those of his peers over the past ten years when we first started asking this question.

“Trust is very high as evidenced by our quarterly earnings.”

This CEO’s perspective on the impact of trust on corporate culture would make Milton Friedman theorists proud, as it focused solely on his shareholders, to the exclusion of all other stakeholders. For those unfamiliar with Friedman’s theory, it was simply that “the sole responsibility of business is to increase profits.”

Telling quite a different “trust” story is the online employee reviews from that same company:

Upper management gets a pass as the underlings get the scrutiny.

Management and HR gossip about employees.

They instructed me to do things that were not inline with the company handbook. When I would point out the discrepancies they would refer to it as a corporate typo.

Coworkers were rude and made lewd comments towards the women. They say there is zero tolerance policy for harassment but when a team leader or supervisor is the one doing the harassing it is completely acceptable with the HR department.

This is a great place to work if you enjoy being miserable and underpaid.

The business case for Trust

Speaking in 2016 at an annual conference of the Arthur W. Page Society, Paul Polman, CEO at Unilever noted that without trust in companies, there can be no genuine prosperity. Seventy-five percent of U.S. graduates, he said, do not want to work for big companies anymore. 

In today’s rapidly changing business environment, building a trust-based culture should be a top priority of both the Board of Directors and CEO. Why?

Our FACTS® Framework calculates the trustworthiness of US based public companies and we have issued an annual report of our findings since 2012. On average, the “Top 10” most trustworthy public companies have outperformed the S&P 500 by over 30% annually. 

The business case for creating a trustworthy culture continues to be made, yet, it is rarely acknowledged let alone implemented. It requires not only leadership acknowledgement but also the acceptance and application of the essential principles upon which a foundation of trust can be built.

Time-tested Principles

In the summer of 2017, Trust Across America-Trust Around the World’s global Trust Alliance began to develop a set of universal trust-building Principles that could be applied in any organization of any size.

Tap Into Trust downloadBeginning with almost ninety ideas, and over the course of a year, members weighed-in on the most essential elements and honed the ideas to twelve final Principles that form the acronym, “TAP INTO TRUST.”

TAP (Trust Alliance Principles) was published in April 2018 and is currently available as a free PDF download in 15 languages. As of August 2018, our movement has attracted over 21,200 global professionals.

Tap Into Trust

Can these Principles impact workplace culture?

Absolutely. Let’s start with the first principle of TRUTH. In a high trust culture, employees are not afraid to speak the truth. In fact, they receive positive feedback from leadership for doing so, regardless of the “issue.” This builds two-way trust (and confidence) in both leadership and among team members, as personal and/or professional gains take a back seat.

We surveyed our TAP steering committee for further input on the impact of TAP on culture:

Alain Bolea, a management and leadership advisor, had this to say about TALENT:

What is Talent? Too often, it gets boiled down to skills. And yes, skills are a given. Yet, for an organization to experience ongoing success, it takes more than skills. It requires highly coordinated action which requires a culture of trust — a culture of trust capable of delivering the superior returns on equity well documented by the FACTS® Framework.

How does talent show up in a culture of trust? In organizational life, stressful times are an opportunity to gauge the mettle of its people. In difficult moments, talent shows when an individual displays moral character by addressing the higher good rather than a personal agenda; when that individual finds the right word, the right question, the right idea, the right action that embodies the shared values of the organization and inspires others to a solution. Two organizations may have the same skill set, but talent will distinguish the vibrant one from the ho-hum one.

And three of our members chose to comment on the impact of RESPECT on culture, each providing a slightly different but important perspective:

“When RESPECT is the minimum standard, organizations make it clear that they encourage positive interactions with colleagues, customers and partners. Managing for ‘respectful interactions only’ helps build a positive workplace with better leadership, stronger relationships, improved communication and increased productivity. Employees are better able to thrive in respectful workplace cultures, and for that reason they will tend to seek them out when making career moves.” ~Linda Fisher-Thornton

Mutual respect is an aspect of trust that greatly enhances a positive workplace culture. Respecting alternative opinions can positively impact one’s company culture as much as discouraging questioning can negatively impact it. A common negative feedback item in leadership development workshops entails publicly embarrassing those who offer a discrepant view. A culture where people respect one another not only drives out fear but it also allows everyone a greater chance to thrive. ~Holly Latty-Mann

In these turbulent economic, social and political times, organizations need to be flexible and adaptive to survive and thrive. Certainly, change stresses relationships in any organization, but those that build a culture of trust will find that change produces renewed engagement. Respect is key to this kind of culture. Especially in uncertain times, the knowledge and ideas from every level of the organization provide the basis for positive innovation. These organizations can leverage the engagement of their people to see more opportunities and adapt plans to changing circumstances. ~Bart Alexander

When culture and purpose unite

And getting back to Paul Polman, what has he done differently at Unilever that most leaders have yet to do? Very simply, he has evolved the company into one with a culture of PURPOSE.

According to Unilever’s website:

Our Corporate Purpose states that to succeed requires “the highest standards of corporate behavior towards everyone we work with, the communities we touch, and the environment on which we have an impact.”

Doing so requires leadership that is committed to a shared vision transcending beyond the walls of the company itself. When culture and purpose unite, attracting and keeping talented employees is just one of the many positive outcomes. Building trust-based principles into the DNA of an organization elevates security among employees. They spend less time looking over their shoulders and more time engaging, innovating, collaborating and working for the “greater good.” Efficiency increases as decisions are made faster and turnover decreases.

In today’s team-driven business world, building a culture based on trust is one of the most important responsibilities of leaders in all types of organizations, and it’s no longer “just about profits.” While companies may go to great lengths to establish a culture that encourages trust, it falls upon individual leaders to follow through with those intentions and deliver that level of trust to both their internal and external stakeholders.

How have you encouraged trust in your organization? Are there opportunities to facilitate more awareness about trust? I invite your thoughts and comments.

Trust: Going Beyond Compliance and Ethics

Trust: Going Beyond Compliance and Ethics

“Every enterprise requires commitment to common goals and shared values. Without such commitment there is no enterprise; there is only a mob. The enterprise must have simple, clear, and unifying objectives. The mission of the organization has to be clear enough and big enough to provide common vision. The goals that embody it have to be clear, public, and constantly reaffirmed. Management’s first job is to think through, set, and exemplify those objectives, values, and goals.”
-Peter Drucker

What happens when a group of open-minded trust, ethics and compliance experts meet for lunch to discuss the intersection of the three disciplines and their respective roles in organizations?

One of the tasks at hand was to create a visual representation of the functional interaction between compliance, ethics and trust in an organization.


What does this mean?

Compliance: While organizations require compliance as a minimum “rule setting/obeying standard,” compliance does not necessarily have an ethics OR a trust mandate. Compliance is merely the starting point, not the end. In fact, it can be trust’s worst enemy when it is assumed that compliance encompasses trust and ethics. Compliance is regulated while ethics and trust are voluntary. In most companies, this distinction is not made and the C&E Officer is usually an attorney who simply enforces the “laws.” He or she may have no understanding of ethics, let alone trust.

Ethics: The “character” component of trust is ethics, and unlike compliance, it is a personal choice. It’s the individual and organizational value system that must be debated, decided and set in place by the Board of Directors, not the CEO.  A Chief Ethics Officer, not a C&E Officer, is the distiller of these values. He or she need not be an attorney. So what role does trust play? Unfortunately, both individuals and organizations can be “ethical” without being trustworthy because there are two more attributes that must be present for trust to flourish.

Trust: In order for an individual or organization to be trustworthy it must, at a minimum exhibit not only character (ethics) but competence and consistency in all internal and external relationships. “High trust” companies understand the distinction between compliance, ethics and trust. Going beyond compliance and ethics by adding the trust component results in:

  • Less need/emphasis on compliance and it’s oppressive laws and regulations
  • Greater employee satisfaction and lower turnover
  • Faster decision-making and innovation
  • Less risk and fewer crises
  • Better relationships not only with customers but all stakeholders
  • A happier workplace
  • Higher profitability

A trust-based leader is one who commits to trust as a business strategy incorporating and then regularly communicating the values and culture, and mandating and ensuring that those values are meeting the long-term needs of all internal and external stakeholders- shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers, community, etc.

There are certain prerequisites that must be met in order to make this commitment:

  • The Board of Directors first, then the CEO & the entire C-Suite must acknowledge and embrace the importance of building trust. The business case has been made but the vast majority of organizations are still ignoring it.
  • Building trust is a long-term strategy that may have a short-term negative impact on earnings.
  • Trust, as a business strategy requires a certain mindset and “type” of CEO, and a Board that supports this, not only through “talk” but also through action.
  • And perhaps most important, building trust cannot be delegated since most organizations have yet to “evolve” to the point of appointing a Chief Trust Officer (CTrO).

To foster trust, the trust-based leader must then:

  1. Lose the crisis mindset and the “win at all costs” mentality; and refocus from shareholders to stakeholders
  2. Break down silos by placing “trust” in the center of the business strategy
  3. Hire according to the organization’s culture and values, and fire for the same reasons
  4. Explore the myriad of tools available to build organizational trust
  5. Follow the “Golden Rule” by treating others the way you want to be treated. Become accessible and show some vulnerability.
  6. Be transparent and always tell the truth even if it may hurt the organization in the short-term
  7. Place trust “front and center” in every internal and external conversation. Set 2 or 3 annual trust goals and communicate how you are working to achieve them.
  8. Consider hiring a Chief Trust Officer to sit in the office next to yours
  9. Display excellence always. Nothing speaks “trust” and ethics louder than character, competence and consistency, sprinkled with a bit of generosity!
  10. Sit back and watch your profits soar.

There is simply no point in talking about trust if it is not followed by action.

How do you handle trust in your organization or business affairs? What can you add to enrich this discussion? I look forward to hearing your thoughts so please share them on social media.