Building Trust in Organizations

The issue of trust in the workplace can make or break an organization’s culture.  There is nothing more stressful and damaging than working in a ministry or organization when there is little to no trust between management and other employees.  No trust means a hostile, toxic work environment where productivity is severely limited.  No trust also means an environment where people are not living up to the standards of Christ-like attitudes and interactions.

Trust is difficult to define and measure in organizations, however it is crucial to develop and encourage it.  BCWI spends a large amount of time discussing trust with our clients, as it is largely the leadership’s job to build or repair trust in their organization.

What is Organizational Trust?
The working definition we use at BCWI when discussing trust with our clients comes from the International Association of Business Communicators.  “The organization’s willingness, based upon its culture and communication behaviors in relationships and transactions, to be open and honest, based on belief that another individual, group, or organization is also competent, open and honest, concerned, reliable, and identified with common goals, norms and values.”  We like this definition (despite its length) because it reflects the communal aspect of trust: a culture of competence, honesty and reliability along with good communication and common vision.

In his excellent book The Speed of Trust, Stephen MR Covey describes trust in basic terms: “Simply put, trust means confidence.  The opposite of trust –distrust – is suspicion.  When you trust people, you have confidence in them –in their integrity and their abilities.  When you distrust people, you are suspicious of them –of their integrity, their agenda, their capabilities, or their track record.  It’s that simple” (5).  Trust is a feeling one person has for another person’s capability and reliability supported by their past actions.

The main type of trust relationship that we deal with at BCWI is the relationship between the leadership of an organization and the employees.

Why is Trust Important for Organizations?

Covey creates a very compelling image when discussing the importance of trust in organizations.  He puts trust into a very simple formula:

↑ Trust = ↑ Speed ↓ Cost

Increased trust among coworkers produces increased speed of efficiency and a decrease in cost because they are able to get more things done.

The inverse is also true:

↓ Trust = ↓ Speed ↑ Cost

An environment with little or no trust among coworkers leads to a decrease in speed of efficiency and an increase cost because less gets done.  A recent example comes from one organization that has significant trust issues.  During their leadership team meetings, progress and change has been slow because one team member has accused another of skewing results to make their department look better.  Now the leadership team has to focus their attention on proving they haven’t done something wrong to a hostile department head, instead of working to improve their organization and serving their ministry recipients.  This never would have happened in an environment based on trust and hampers productivity significantly.

How Can an Organization Build a Trusting Environment?
In order to be a successful organization, they must build an environment of trust.  At BCWI, we have found the steps outlined in Robert Shaw’s book Trust in the Balance to be most effective.  He describes three key elements to creating trust.

1.   Achieving Results.  In order to earn organizational trust, the leadership needs to fulfill their obligations and commitments.  Promises and good intentions are not enough; trust requires competent performance that fulfills expectations.  I have a friend who is a great example for this.  He lives far enough away from me that it takes an effort to meet.  Every time we talk on the phone, he expresses an intention to come out and see me.  After four plans made and then postponed, I don’t trust him to actually do what he says.  The intention is there, I know he wants to come, but I can’t trust him to actually get from his door to mine.  His track record is tarnished.

The same is true for organizations: the track record of achieving results and following through is crucial.  Another company we work with has trouble with this.  In their core values, they have stated that they value and intentionally cultivate diversity.  However, they just let their international recruiter go with no plans to replace him.  Their actions don’t fulfill the commitment stated as their core values.  This has certainly negatively impacted their culture of trust.

Covey gives three ideas on how to improve results and develop trust through actions.  First, he recommends that the leadership shifts the focus from ‘doing activities’ to ‘achieving results.’  The language people use should not be “I called the customer” but “I made the sale.”  Allow employees to come up with creative solutions to achieve results.  Whether the results are good or bad or unintended, always take responsibility (121).

Secondly, expect to win.  Then the self fulfilling prophesy will work in your favor.  “The principle is simply this:  We tend to get what we expect – both from ourselves and from others.  When we expect more, we tend to get more; when we expect less, we tend to get less” (122).

Thirdly, develop the strength and the stamina to finish strong.  It will say plenty of things about your character, especially in an age where quitting is a strong tendency.  Even if something looks like its heading south, or in a direction you did not intend, stick with it to the end and see it through (123).

2.    Integrity.  At first blush, achieving results and integrity look to be the same.  Both are about lining up actions with words, but integrity encompasses and surpasses achieving results.  The key to integrity is consistent honesty in actions regarding everything a person or organization does.  Integrity is characteristic, one that inspires trust.

At Compassion Canada, Barry Slavenwhite has very intentionally created a culture of integrity.  Al Lopus interviews him in one of the BCWI Positive Core podcasts about his methods for creating trust in his organization.  Barry describes how he created a vision for what the company’s culture would look like, and then enforced it relentlessly.  He demonstrated trustworthiness and demanded it in his employees.  Part of creating a culture of trust is its attitude towards mistakes.  Barry talks about how he encourages employees to take initiative and recognizes that sometimes ideas flop.  However, in Compassion Canada people aren’t afraid to make or take responsibility for their mistakes.  Mistakes are crucial to growth, Barry can point to progress his ministry made because of what they learned from their mistakes.

Another key to integrity is transparency in communication.  At BCWI, we toot the Communication Horn repeatedly because it is so essential to the health and vitality to an organization.  A great example of transparent communication is Howard Publishing.  John Howard, Executive VP, describes how he communicates with employees.  He keeps employees informed right away, as soon as there is a whiff of something coming down the pipeline employees know about it.  Employees know that they can always come to him with questions and get a straight answer.  He encourages different departments to report to each other at monthly staff meetings.  He also keeps the communication going both ways: collecting feedback at monthly meeting and having department heads collected suggestions and ideas from their people.  All of this communication allows employees the freedom to voice their opinions and see their ideas being acted upon.  This creates a strong sense of trust in the organization and allows them to increase their productivity.

3.    Demonstrating Concern.  Employees are not mindless automatons.  They need to develop positive relationships with their coworkers and superiors.  Employees must have faith that the people they trust are taking their best interests to heart.  Leaders especially need to express care and concern for each individual employee, for the interdependent work group or department, and for the organization as a whole.  Leadership has a large responsibility to make sure everyone feels genuinely cared for.

There are two great examples of staff care.  The first comes again from Compassion Canada.  Barry Slavenwhite meets with each member of the leadership team one-on-one once a month.  Over coffee or lunch they talk about their personal lives, intentionally developing relationship.  Then they move on to business, providing stronger accountability.  Often staff do not see their leaders on a regular basis.  As a result it is easy for staff to feel their leaders do not care about them individually.  Personal touch in individual and small group settings is important for trust to thrive throughout an organization.

The second example is from a ministry called Joni and Friends, serving disabled people around the work.  Doug Mazza, president of the ministry, hand writes notes of thanks, congratulations and birthday cards.  He wants every employee to feel like they are treated with the dignity of people who are made in the image of God.  To listen to more about Doug and other outstanding leader’s methods for demonstrating concern, click here.

In order to create trust in an organization, all three of these categories must be developed and cultivated with intentionality and determination.  Let us be clear: creating a culture of trust does not mean that conflict will not happen.  There will be conflict, but it will be done in a healthy way that will not tear down what has been built and it will not become a personal attack.  Healthy trusting environments have conflict and encourage different opinions to help develop more effective ideas.  This will create higher levels of productivity and do wonderful things for your company.