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.

About the Author

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Barbara Kimmel

Barbara Brooks Kimmel is the founder of Trust Across America-Trust Around the World, whose mission is to help organizations build trust. Now in its 11th year, the program has developed two proprietary trust-evaluation tools. She also runs the world’s largest global Trust Alliance and is the editor of the award winning TRUST INC. book series.  Kimmel is a former consultant to McKinsey who has worked across industries and with many Fortune 500 CEOs. She holds a bachelor's in international affairs from Lafayette College and an MBA in marketing from Baruch.