Trust : Executives Must Acknowledge the Importance of Trust

Trust Building Is Not a Passive Activity


Stephen M. Dent, founding partner of the consulting firm Partnership Continuum, Inc., is an award-winning organizational consultant working with such clients as USWEST, Inc. Northwest Airlines, AT&T, GE Capital Services, the U.S. Postal Service, NASA, Bank of America and Exult.  He lives in Minneapolis MN.  


e-mail or phone (1) 612 375 0323

Sometimes when I'm talking to executives about trust, I get the feeling I'm talking to a brick wall. Many executives give lip service to the importance of trust, but fail to see a connection between their own behavior and the amount of trust people have in their organization.


The inability of corporate executives to build trust has a more far-reaching impact than just on their immediate employees. The stock market slide of 2002 was, to a large degree, due to the lack of investor confidence in accounting and financial reporting practices. Investors didn't "trust the numbers" being produced by CFOs, whom they felt were misrepresenting the economic health of their companies.


But not "trusting the numbers" really means not trusting the people behind the numbers. This mistrust of business leaders translates directly to investor reluctance, which then denies businesses access to the capital they need to grow, which then hurts their employees and the overall economy. It's a vicious cycle in which everyone loses.


Trust Building Is Not a Passive Activity


There is a direct correlation between how employees view their company and how customers and stockholders view it. Once leadership has lost the confidence of their employees, that negative energy has a measurable impact on the messages employees -- and especially front-line employees -- deliver to customers, the community at large, and stockholders.


Executives must take an active role in leading the discussion about trust in their organizations. This is not something to be left to Human Resources or Public Relations. And it has to be more than platitudes on a wall.


Trust is a large word that encompasses many emotions and has many definitions. Leaders first have to know what their employees mean when they talk about trust. Are they referring to the executive's ability to manage the business, or their ability to be candid about the state of the company? While related, these questions stem from two very different aspects of trust.


Task and Relational Elements of Trust


Like the Partnership Continuum Partnering Model™, building trust has two components: task and relationship.

The task component of trust is about believing that others will do what is expected of them. When we question whether someone can complete a project on time or has the skills to reach a goal, this reveals concerns about the task component of trust.


We have identified five competencies that help to build task-related trust. They are: commitment to agreements; competency in skills; consistency in output; making contributions; and the willingness to collaborate on projects.


The relational component of trust is about believing that others want a safe and supportive relationship with you. When we don't believe someone will be candid with us or show compassion towards us, this reveals a weakness in the relational component of trust.


The five elements of trust for the relational component are: commitment to the partnership; the ability to be candid; a willingness to communicate; showing compassion; and demonstrating personal credibility and integrity.


Understanding the aforementioned components of trust will help you create a foundation for discussing what trust means to your organization.


Establishing a First Line of Defense


Defining trust is always the first step. Once you've defined what trust means to your organization, you can go about establishing a first line of defense against mistrust.


First, identify specific behaviors that either support or diminish trust in the company. For example, in the task area of trust you might determine that completing projects on time is a trust-building behavior. While this seems obvious, many people do not make the connection that delivering projects late destroys trust between people. In fact, in some businesses, project deadlines are falsely inflated to compensate for late deliverables. This is not only costly, but can also hurt your business's reputation.


In the relationship area of trust, you might find that candid communication is vital. For example, you might discover that you build trust every time you don't put spin on bad news. People typically see through spin anyway, which puts a double hit on your credibility. Just look at how comedians make their careers out of spoofing politicians. No one wants to be seen as a joke.


Make Trust an Important Organizational Measurement


The good news is that you can measure trust just like you measure product quality or customer service excellence. There is an old saying: People do what they are measured to do. It's true! If you don't measure trust, you risk sending the message that trust is not important to you.


Trust is simple to measure -- just ask. An anonymous survey will reveal whether trust is being built or destroyed in your organization. Communicate the survey results to your organization and track them regularly. When you see the amount of trust backsliding, ask why. Also check yourself to make sure you really want to hear the truth. This might be a good time to review your Ability to Self-Disclose and Feedback skills, the first of the Six Partnering Attributes™.


When done properly, a trust indicator can let you know in advance if something is weakening trust in your business. The sooner you know, the quicker you can address it.


This is a small investment in maintaining morale, keeping information lines open and maintaining your good reputation. You'll see the benefits in employee productivity, customer satisfaction, and yes, stockholder confidence. How much is that worth to you?

Copyright 2003 by Stephen M. Dent. All rights reserved.

Partnership Continuum, Inc.

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