While current business and management literature extols the virtues of building organizational cultures based on speed, empowerment, customer intimacy and trust, it seems the most critical of these is perhaps the least accessible. Without trust, speed produces more work, empowerment is regarded as a buzzword that generates more cynicism than effective action, and customers find other businesses who will consistently deliver on promises. But while much has been written about the need for, and benefits of, a trusting environment, the advice on what must be done to build trust is sparse. To do so, individuals and teams must be able to first identify, and then build upon, the levels of trust within their work environment. These competencies are fundamental to achieving dramatic improvements in ownership, communication and performance, associated with an environment of strategic commitment.
As a starting point, we must recognize that trust, like beauty, means different things to different people. For example, someone might say, “I don’t trust her because she is never on time.” And yet someone else might say of that same punctuality- challenged individual, “I trust her completely—she always achieves her target.” In another instance, lack of trust might be attributed not to any specific behaviour, but to a kind of gut feeling: “I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something about the guy that makes me suspicious.” This less- grounded assessment of trust, while not uncommon and not necessarily invalid, makes the building of trust a decidedly elusive undertaking.
Further complicating the issue are situations where our trust of another is based on third- party opinions, the validity of which may be suspect. If the intent is to build an environment where one can authentically say of their leaders and co-workers “I trust them,” and the co-workers and leaders can say the same in turn, we must first establish a common understanding of what is meant by the term.
Trust can mean being honest, dependable, exercising judgement and generating partnership.
Being honest (authenticity, forthrightness, veracity and sincerity)
By being honest entails being forthright and authentic. It is telling the plain and simple truth, without deception or distortion. If you ask: “Were you at the 2:00 p.m. budget meeting yesterday?” trust will quickly be destroyed if the answer does not match what actually took place. If someone says he will endorse your capital spending proposal and then fails to do so, trust is eroded.
We are making a distinction here between speaking honestly and saying everything on your mind. An honest answer may sometimes be: “I’m not comfortable discussing that at work,” or “I will have to check with so and so before I give you that information,” or “I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to tell you my opinion on the new system until we discuss it in the meeting tomorrow.” Being honest, but discriminating, builds trust by creating safety.
Being authentic on the other hand means being clear and transparent about what is driving your behaviour, decisions and actions and the intentions you are advancing.
Someone can be honest in the sense of accurately reporting facts and events, but what is driving him to report on those specific events? If, for example, one team member states that another member’s performance has declined three months running, the accuracy of the statement is readily determined.
What is not as obvious is the agenda he is advancing by making the statement. If he is speaking in support of being a high- performing, all for-one- and- one- for- all team, trust expands.
If he is attempting to subvert the credibility of another and advance his own position, trust deteriorates. Authenticity also includes the dimension of believing that people mean what they are saying, specifically regarding their intent to fulfil the promises they are making.
With organizational politics alive and well within most companies, distrust as a function of perceived deception is a common and quite destructive phenomenon.
Being dependable (reliability, consistency, follow- through)
By being dependable, we mean several things. Does the person consistently deliver on his commitments? Does he reliably manage his time, resources, and those around him in a manner that allows him to meet his commitments? Does he report back about commitments he makes without being reminded? Or is he full of excuses, reasons, rationalizations, and justifications for slipped deadlines and results that fall short, time after time? No one meets all his or her commitments 100 per cent of the time.
Mistakes happen, balls get dropped and priorities change. But trust is built when people consistently fulfil commitments while managing the unexpected in ways that allow them to be assessed as dependable, reliable, and consistent.
For example, finding out at 8:30 a.m. Monday morning that the person who promised you information for your 9:00 a.m. meeting now cannot deliver produces lack of trust in this person’s future promises. If, on the other hand, he had informed you of his inability to deliver by the previous Wednesday, other arrangements could have been made.
Effective promise management leads to an increased level of trust, whereas consistently revoked, delayed, or unfulfilled promises inevitably reduce the degree to which someone can be counted on. Consistency is vital as well.
Exercising judgment (ability, capability, capacity, decision making and wisdom)
Is the person able to deliver on the promises he makes? Does the person have the wherewithal to fulfil whatever it is he is committing to? Or is he over his head? Does the person make wise choices? While someone may be sincere about his promise to double sales within the region over the next budgeting period, lack of experience in a new market or with a new product portfolio makes it highly unlikely that it can be done.
Furthermore, making commitments that stretch too far from previously demonstrated skills and abilities undermines the degree to which a person is trusted. Conversely, a healthy dose of reality about one’s own abilities can help elicit support from others toward the achievement of even bold or audacious goals.
Generating partnership (mutual support, shared values and concerns, collaboration and alliance building)
Independent of any formal or legal agreements (none of which seem to have any direct bearing on trust anyhow), when we talk about generating partnership, we mean creating relationships between individuals and groups in which all parties have a sense that their future is connected.
This may include a sense of looking out for the well- being and concerns of others, or demonstrating an interest in the areas that matter to others.
A more esoteric dimension, this ability to generate partnership takes trust to a much higher level than the other three components. For example, when someone feels a strong sense of partnership with another, she is much more able to forgive missed commitments and breakdowns.
Dealt with from inside the context of partnership, missed commitments can in fact be opportunities to strengthen and deepen the level of trust.
Instead of finding fault and assessing blame, the parties can enter a dialogue to look for a mutually beneficial solution. The other dimension of partnership is having a sense of shared values.
Will the person make choices over time that are based on commonly held values and principles, whether or not they have been made explicit? The highest levels of trust are reached between people who operate based on commonly shared convictions, rather than finely crafted, detailed prescriptions and procedures.
Dr. Kellen Kiambati holds a PhD in business administration with a focus on strategic management from JKUAT and an MBA from KEMU. She is a certified business associate (CBPA) and a member of the Institute of Human Resource Management of Kenya. She is also the author of business Research Methods and can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org