Trust, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Senior managers examine the trustworthiness of frontline employees, and frontline employees scrutinize the trustworthiness of senior managers and organizational practices.
Trust can be viewed as interpersonal trustworthiness generated by the total workforce or evidenced in organizational policies, practices and top management “walking their talk.” The focus on top management has become more acute as the failures of Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, Lehman Brothers, AIG and Wachovia highlight poor decision making and goal setting. At the same time, executive pay has exploded.
A new study conducted by the Institute for Corporate Productivity indicates that senior management’s practices are the more critical element to building a high-trust environment. Of course, no discussion about organizational trust would be complete without considering the power of company’s culture. Management consultant Peter Drucker captioned the power of culture when he said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Trust integrates many activities including transparency, engagement, employee relations, recruitment and retention, career opportunity, discretionary effort and security, to name a few. Because trust integrates so many of crucial aspects, it is not surprising its impact is seen as significant in this survey, particularly by high-performing organizations. Apparently, those organizations concurred with poet Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation that “our distrust is very expensive.”
What did the survey reveal as the major barriers to building trust? Most were located at the organizational level. Failure to deal with low-performing workers was the barrier most cited, closely followed by “history of management not walking the talk.” The third most-cited barrier was a “sense of individual powerlessness about creating change.” These barriers must be addressed by top management.
Comments about removing the Teflon coating from management, starting to hold management accountable and overreliance on a hierarchical structure indicate a frustration that trust is not fully understood and approached in a systematic manner. The frustration reflected in this survey indicates that trust stems from senior management more than individuals on the frontline.
Since so many of the noted barriers involved organizational practice, the nebulous “them” who set the policies and practices must be held accountable for trust in their organizations. Whether this breakdown in accountability stemmed from lack of awareness, ownership or action, concerted attention by senior management is key.
Top management cannot order or mandate trust into existence. However, jettisoning a reactive Band-Aid approach to problem solving; demystifying decisions and the decision-making process; reducing fear while increasing transparency; and taking a hands-on approach rather than proceeding on autopilot are measures executives can take to enhance credibility and organizational trust.
Building organizational trust is a process that must be taken in three sequential steps:
1. Create an equitable or “fair” work environment with policies and practices based on performance, rather than politics.
2. Ensure that management follows through on any program or plan that it launches. Failure to follow up only creates an atmosphere in which the workforce waits for the winds to change.
3. Develop a vision for the future that is challenging, reasonable and beneficial to all stakeholders.
One reason the reported activities weigh heavily on organizational trust might be the response from those sent to trust training programs in a low-trust culture. The message that may register from a training participant is that the organization’s actions are not in alignment with its practices. When there is a disconnect between what is said and what is done, most of the time, people rely on actions more than words, intentions or goals.
While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, beauty also has a well-known formula that is true across cultures and time: symmetry. Symmetry also underpins trust — the symmetry between what the organization says it practices, what actually happens and what it contributes to the vision. When those are aligned, a high-trust culture flourishes, and individual trustworthiness becomes the standard for conduct. These findings can serve as guideposts for building transparency and systems that are viewed as effective, equitable and productive.