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Six Steps to Creating a High-Trust Culture

The bigger an organisation becomes the more likely it is to fracture into fiefdoms and turf wars.  An important challenge for leaders is to create a strong, shared culture where people are unified, to avoid a political and potentially adverse environment.

Yet, healthy and highly functional cultures can be achieved, even in extremely large, fast-growing organisations with a global presence.  Firms such as Facebook, Google, Apple, Zappos and Atlassian have all had tremendous workforce growth over the years and have still managed to amplify and fine-tune their starting cultures into cohesive, high-performing workplaces.

So what makes them so special?

The secret is their ability to engender high levels of trust throughout their organisation.  According to research by Interaction Associates, high trust companies are more than 2.5 times likely to be high performing organisations in revenue growth than low-trust organisations.

While data from Great Places to Work Institute has found that high trust companies have half the employee turnover of low trust companies and the best corporate cultures.

Six Steps to Creating a High-Trust Culture

Creating a high-trust environment does not happen by chance.  Here are six steps that highlight best practices from organisations all around the world.

1. Be Intentional about Trust

Growing a high-trust culture is more than just throwing in the word “trust” into your corporate values or mission statement and hoping it will stick.  Trust means different things to different people.  When I ask a group of executives what they believe trust means, I often receive responses ranging from “personal freedom”, “right intent”, “personal safety” right through to “a bubble or an environment that employees don’t want to break.”

Improving trust means being more intentional about it and knowing what it means and doesn’t mean for your organisation.

In organisations where trust is high, people are talking about it.   They have a trust framework that forms a common language on the dimensions of trust.  This helps individuals and teams understand, discuss and practise trust with one another.  It means employees have the language to call people out on behaviours that are destroying trust.  For example: “Hey, John, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but I noticed this morning that you turned up late to our meeting this morning.  When that happens, you’re breaking a commitment and it makes the others on the team feel that they can’t trust you because it makes you appear unreliable.  What can we do to help you get to the next meeting on time?”  

Organisations that have high-trust environments ensure that people feel safe to have open, candid conversations about topics that are often taboo in most organisations. In a low trust organisation, a subordinate would never even consider challenging their boss on their controlling behaviour for fear of losing their job.  In a high-trust company, that sort of candour is not only encouraged, but it’s expected (and if that comment was too much for you, you might want to stop reading now).

2. Align Interests

People feel greater trust and empathy toward people who are similar to themselves and are part of the same social circles.  A clear sense of purpose, values and mission connect everyone together through being able to collectively see the meaning of their work.  It’s how you get a diverse group of people aligned.

The central pillar for building trust is a corporate purpose that’s defined by a genuine commitment to the social good.  Purpose is what a company stands for and creates value for employees, customers and society.

A social purpose provides employees with the context they need to understand how their work makes a difference to the world.  It lets everyone know how much the organisation cares, which in turn makes them less likely to believe the organisation just exists to make money. It makes sense because we’re more likely to trust a company if we can see visible proof they’re making a difference and that they care about people.  Focusing on purpose rather than profits is what builds business confidence and therefore, trust.

“It’s been a process over time of building a culture where people think about the mission in the same way that I do.  That’s allowed us to take on more and more products and things that we can try to solve for the world.”  Mark Zuckerberg

Without this, you get execution difficulty, with employees operating on false assumptions and applying valuable energy in the wrong direction.  It also means an organisation that is likely to splinter into self-interested groups.

It’s very common for large organisations to have trust issues between departments and divisions.  For example; marketing and manufacturing (marketing wants new features, while manufacturing wants to reduce costs) are often at odds or say, the rail and road divisions who start to become fiercely competitive.  Where trust often breaks down between departments is where the complexity of misaligned interests are not acknowledged.

Departmental leaders need to work together to ensure that both leaders and groups understand each other’s perspectives, as well as the greater purpose of the organisation, in order to integrate and align interests.  At the same time, they need to demonstrate that they care that the other department is successful, rather than displaying self-interested and competitive behaviours.  The CEO must also drive the need for the organisation to move beyond narrow self-interests and commit to common goals.  

3. Trustworthy Leaders

In a high-trust collective, you will find leaders who are trustworthy and who have a concept of what it means to act with trust.  They also expect this behaviour from others, ensuring that trust cascades throughout the organisation.  Over time, it eventually becomes embedded within the company.

Trust in leadership is one of the most important factors that employees rate when it comes to satisfaction with their job.  After all, we are more likely to follow someone who we know will do the right thing by us.

A study by Edelman indicates that trust is hard-won.  Among the other notable findings, trust decreases down an organisation’s hierarchy as employees say they trust peers more than CEOs when it comes to company information.  The bigger an organisation gets, the more critical it is for each employee to trust their boss.

High trust organisations get this right even across different time zones and boundaries through high-trust leaders who are in sync with the CEO message.

Scott Dobroski, who is involved in the latest Glassdoor 2016 Highest Rated CEOs says “When we look at what their employees have to say, we see that they don’t mention one-on-one or a lot of face time with the CEO, but we see employees talking favorably that these CEOs have found a way to consistently communicate with all employees, including letting them know where the company stands, why their work matters and what’s coming up next for the business.”

Essentially, leadership and team members create a space where everyone can speak up and contribute, while leadership provides guidance.  Employees are more likely to trust leaders that remind them how their work positively impacts business and motivates them by discussing what’s on the horizon.  

Trusted leaders are critical to organisational success.  With global competition and rapidly changing markets, there is greater situational risk and uncertainty for most people and organisations today.  When circumstances are predictable, the question of trust is not an issue.  However, throw in some unpredictability and higher stakes and all of a sudden the issue of trust becomes apparent.

When there is uncertainty, it really is a test of leadership.  After all, almost anyone can lead when times are good.  Steering an organisation that is losing money and where redundancies have become commonplace involves skillful communication that doesn’t distract remaining employees or make them more fearful.  

When employees are faced with an organisation that is struggling to perform, but they’re sticking around in the hope that things will turn around (or get a big payout), their main hope is that those in power will make fair decisions.  Leaders who have proven themselves to be high in trust in the past ensure that they have built sufficient trust capital to provide employees with the confidence they need to trust their leader to make the right decisions.

4. Accountable Teams

In low trust environments, leaders pit employees against each other under the false belief that competitive pressures will lift performance.  Unfortunately, all it does is create an environment where people are out for themselves; hoarding information and not supporting others.  When individual quotas are not met, employees are publicly shamed and slammed to the ground.   

In contrast, trusted leaders share and manage risk throughout a workforce.  They focus on long-term impact, rather than short-term business performance.  Instead of individual sales quotas, teams work together as a group to seize market opportunities.  This ensures people collaborate, innovate, share information and co-operate to bring in new business together.  Rather than become distracted by the need to protect themselves and their own self-promoting agenda.

A leader’s ability to make the team accountable for success or failure, rather than individual success, increases trust and a sense of unity.  

5. Strategically Build Trust in Communication

In an uncertain and risky situation, high-trust leaders have the communication skills to ensure that they can reduce any anxiety and fear with employees so that they can operate effectively.  

This means communication and lots of it.  Often, leaders fear that telling people too much or sharing information when things are unknown will only scare people. Unfortunately, research shows that when employees believe they are being kept in the dark, they do what they can to investigate what is going on.  A study by Geckboard found over half of employees resort to their own detective work lowering productivity and morale.

Instead, high-trust leaders aim to always be honest, transparent, explain the reasons behind decisions, align everyone to the purpose and allow others to freely question them on the situation and provide feedback.

6. Care about Employee’s Personal Goals

Each individual differs in their propensity to trust others.  Research has found that our psychological makeup influences how likely we are to trust our organisation and our boss.  Sophisticated managers understand that not everyone is the same and takes the time to understand each team member in terms of their dreams, fears, values, challenges and goals.  Then, through establishing common ground they align the individual’s self-interests to the broader goal of the organisation and team.

This might seem like a lot of work.  And it is.  But it is less work, long term.  When a leader can show that they put the interests and well-being of their employees above their own, they become a trusted leader who is followed in a heartbeat, during bad and good times.

High-trust leaders distribute power to competent people and encourage them to do the same.  Empowering employees by delegating them more tasks because you believe they are ready to progress, increases trust and improves productivity.   The result is an organisation where power and influence flow to where it is most effective rather than always migrating back to the corner office.

“If you have a workforce that enjoys each other, they trust each other, they trust management, they’re proud of where they work – then they’re going to deliver a good product.  You can lecture and train, but unless they really believe in who they work for and are proud of who they work for, and trust each other and trust management, you won’t get that.”

Jeff Smisek CEO, United Airlines

Building a Long-Lasting, Trusting Organisation

Humans are biologically programmed to want to work with others and be part of a group.  Leaders who can leverage this deep need for group identity and provide a safe workplace where everyone is free to be themselves, can speak up about anything and know that they are valued create wonderful environments that literally change the world.

Creating bonds of trust occurs through careful recruitment and selection of employees, high-quality inductions, employee training, trust leadership training and a CEO who ensures the purpose, values and right trust behaviours cascade throughout the organisation.  The result is coworkers who understand that while change may bring uncertainties, they are comforted by a strong support system with fellow employees, who are all working in concert towards a common goal.


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