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Creating a culture of trust in an organization

Posted by Patrick Manyanza on Oct 15 2015

Trust is an intangible value that may or may not exist in an organization. It is really hard to measure it on a chart but when an organization has it, things are great and when it doesn't exist things often seem difficult to move. When trust is lost in an organization, it is almost impossible to get it back. Essentially trust is important because in any organization there will always be a gap between what's expected of a person and what actually gets done, or a gap between what's promised and what gets fulfilled. The key thing is that, what leaders put in that gap sets the premise for the kind of culture their organizations exhibit. There really isn't any way to avoid the gaps but leaders have to know that a great deal of the organizational culture, hinges on what they place in that gap. Therefore, if they are willing to be proactive and intentional about placing trust in that gap, then over time an organizational culture of trust will emerge.

An example of a gap is when for instance a person promises that he will show up at a scheduled meeting at 9am but then he shows up 15 minutes late. The leader can place trust by believing that the person had a legitimate reason for being late or he can place suspicion that the person isn't as attentive or doesn't value the leader. What the leader places in the gap will affect how the leader interacts and relates to that individual. Everyday these gaps exist and leaders invariably choose to plug them. What they plug them with determines whether or not they create a culture of trust. Although a good leader should choose to place trust in that gap, a prerequisite to trust is relationship clarity. It has to be clear what the relationship is about and for a work relationship it is essential that everybody in the organization know exactly what's expected of them in terms of results and clear performance indicators since this is the core of work relationships.

Because we are all human beings and we may not always control our environment, a leader should always encourage his people to be intentional towards placing trust in the gaps. For some people this may come naturally but for others it may not. Trust also comes from the perspective of love. Leaders must love the people they lead otherwise it will be impossible to influence them. The leader has great power in building a culture that gives people the benefit of the doubt or a culture whereby people expect the worst out of each other. People often have the tendency to fill the gap with suspicion due to human nature. The author Patrick Lencioni talks about this nature in his book The Advantage whereby he describes a concept called, "the fundamental attribution error". He says that, we tend to attribute other peoples negative or frustrating behaviors to their character and personality, however we tend to attribute our own negative or frustrating behaviors to environmental factors that have nothing to do with who we are. So a big part of building a culture around trust lies in being intentional about giving others the same benefit of the doubt that we give ourselves.

As an organization, it is important to raise awareness so as to surface this idea and then decide to place trust in the gaps. The thing to understand here is that, it does the organization no good to place suspicion in the gaps but it does the organization a lot of good even if it may be wrong at times to continually place trust in the gaps. Now on the other hand, when trust is being placed in the same continuous recurring gap with a particular person, then a polite conversation should be initiated to better understand the cause of the recurring gaps. In other words, if the performance indicators continually point to ineffective performance, then it's time to have a conversation. Again Lencioni says that, "when there is trust in an organization, then conflict or confrontation becomes nothing more than the pursuit of truth in an attempt to find the best possible answer". Therefore, when a leader has that gap conversation with his subordinate, he should go into it with an attitude that says, "I trust you and I would like to give you an opportunity to fill that gap".

Trust is a two way street such that if a leader is going to assume the best about a person, then that person needs to do their best and become trustworthy. The point here is that a trustworthy person is not a person who is perfect and that never creates a gap but rather a trustworthy person is a person who takes ownership of the gap once they have created it. So for instance, if they know they are going to be late to show up for a meeting or if they are going to be late with a project, they let the leader know ahead of time. In other words, because of the trust the leader has placed on his people, his people will begin to do everything in their power to prevent the leader from noticing that a gap exists. When a leader creates a culture of trust, then people are not afraid to surface the errors that they have made, and they are free to talk about them and promptly address them. On the contrary in a culture of suspicion, people will not freely talk about their mistakes and will always attempt to hide them. An atmosphere of distrust or suspicion can be likened to a ticking time bomb that will cause an organizational mess. This is because a suspicious leader or manager goes around looking for gaps or intentionally tries to catch his people doing something wrong and this creates an uncomfortable environment for everyone who works in that organization. Unfortunately there are many organizations whereby people do not feel safe to surface their mistakes but this has a lot to do with a leadership problem than a follower problem.

When a leader's trust is broken, an important key to understand here is that, leaders should not respond to individual failure by setting up companywide policies, because other employees will feel that they are losing their autonomy based on another person's mistakes. There are definitely times to introduce new policies but depending on the failure, leaders should always attempt to first address that individual and coach them back up to the level they need to be versus punishing the whole organization. A culture of trust is built inchmeal but it is much more valuable to an organization, than one whereby everything is covered by a specific policy.

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