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Trust Me, I’m a Manager

Junger Geschäftsmann verkauft Autos

Trust is a bit like air: You don’t particularly notice it when it’s there, but you really notice when it isn’t.

As Stephen M.R. Covey pointed out in his ground-breaking book “The Speed of Trust”, anyone who flew shortly after 911 will be very familiar with the impact of a low-trust environment  – with the increased numbers of security people, technologies and processes to manage, everything about air travel slowed down, and the costs went up. Things have of course improved since then, mostly with the development of new technologies and more efficient systems, but it can still take a very long time to get through security checks and on to a plane. Trust remains very low for that particular consumer experience, and it pretty much sucks.

Contrast that with a high-trust environment like an Apple Store, where you can walk in, scan an item with an app on your phone, pay for it on the phone, and walk out with the product under your arm – all in matter of seconds and without ever interacting with a member of staff. The first few times you do it, it actually feels like stealing! It’s genuinely hard to make the mental adjustment because we’re so used to being treated like we’re untrustworthy in so many aspects of our life.

“There are very few, if any, relationships as empowering as a coaching relationship, and that is all built on a foundation of trust.”

Empowered by Trust

When you compare those two examples – air travel and shopping – there’s another important dimension to consider along with speed and cost – the way we feel as consumers of the experience. To feel trusted as a consumer invites trust in return – which translates into brand loyalty and all the benefits that come with it. We have a choice about where we purchase our electronics products, and many choose Apple because of how it makes them feel. We don’t have much of a choice about the security aspects of our air-travel experience, but if we did, I’m sure we’d all choose the one that didn’t require us to wait in line for an hour before being required to get (practically) naked, scanned, prodded and poked, just to get to airside.

The impact of trust in other situations and environments can be less obvious, but every bit as impactful.

In coaching for example, Trust is an essential ingredient to the co-created client / coach relationship. In fact, the first four of the 11 International Coach Federation (ICF) competencies relate directly to trust (and you could argue that all 11 do to some extent), covering ethics, contractual arrangements, establishing trust and intimacy, and being fully present to the relationship and the needs of the client. Trust in that context is essential, because without it coaching cannot effectively happen. With it, the client and coach will create a safe and courageous space in which the client is willing to explore the full range of their potential, and to share their inner most fears and doubts without judgement or expectation. There are very few, if any, relationships as empowering as a coaching relationship, and that is all built on a foundation of trust.

“All relationships exist on a foundation of trust at some level”

What is Trust, anyway?

At its most basic level, Trust is a belief: We believe in the ability or reliability of something or someone. Forming that belief allows us to depend on an external agent for something we value. If that external agent is another person, and they happen to believe the same thing about us that we believe about them, then we’re in a trusting relationship. And that’s when the magic happens.

You can see the benefits of trust from an evolutionary perspective – because it enables co-operation and collaboration. All relationships exist on a foundation of trust at some level, and it can be extended beyond pairs to groups, enabling packs of animals or tribes of humans to co-exist with all the advantages that the increased numbers confer. Groups can do things that simply aren’t possible for individuals, and all of humanity’s greatest achievements have depended on the power of groups, which means we’re here because of trust.

“Trust might be one of the most significant factors in the success of a company”

The Business of Trust

An organization, just like any other group of humans trying to achieve something together, is founded on trust. The amount of trust will vary significantly, but it has to be there at some level or nothing is possible. Zero trust means there is nothing you or I could do that would make me believe that you will do the thing I need or want. Zero trust in an airport means no-one gets on the plane. Zero trust in a shop means no-one buys anything. Zero trust in an organization means nothing gets done.

So trust has to exist for an organization to function, and where it is low, it is often compensated for by insurance policies and procedures in the form of security checks, contracts, laws, rules or some other way to hold people to account when they fall short of what is expected or required. Even street gangs and organized crime have some basic level of trust built in (and they use the threat of violence to cover the shortfall).

Somewhere above street gangs are companies, and the extent to which they have built a culture of trust will very much determine how effective or efficient they are. Indeed, trust might be one of the most significant factors in the success of a company. Keep in mind that low trust means high cost and low speed. That can show up in any number of different ways. For example:

  • The finance department doesn’t trust employees not to fiddle their expenses, so requires receipts and documentation to support every transaction, taking the employee’s time and effort away from the actual work they’re supposed to be doing
  • Employees are required to be in the office for eight hours every day because the company doesn’t trust them when it can’t see them, preventing flexibility in how, when and where they do their best work
  • A sales team doesn’t trust the quality of a new product so will not sell it to their existing customers in case it impacts the cross / up sell of other products or services, stifling innovation and preventing company growth

Any of those sound familiar? We’ve all worked for (or work for?) companies that display some or all of these issues. How does that make you feel as an employee? Does it inspire loyalty? Probably not. In fact, studies show that there is a strong correlation between trust and employee engagement. So building trust should be central to any company culture if the company wants the best from its employees. For more on engagement, check out this post.

“Trust your employees more than you’re comfortable with, then double it. And that probably still won’t be enough”

The Custodians of Culture

Culture is the sum of all behaviors within an organization. So while every employee in a company will contribute to the culture at some level, there is one group of employees that have a disproportionate influence: Managers.

At the very top, the leadership team from the CEO on down will help to define the kind of culture the company aspires to, but once any company grows much beyond the founders, it is the managers that get to translate that aspiration into reality. Managers are essentially the custodians of the culture: They will have a significant influence over cultural factors like building trust, and even in a relatively low-trust environment will often have some discretion over, for example, how rigorously certain policies are enforced, and whether they follow the spirit or the letter of those policies within their part of the organization. Those choices can often help to shape the culture within their teams which is why you can see significant variations in cultural dimensions like trust across different parts of a large organization.

With the case made for seeking to increase trust in any organization as a way to reduce costs, increase speed and efficiency, increase employee engagement and build customer loyalty, let’s now explore a few ways in which a manager can increase trust in their teams:

  1. Demonstrate respect for all, without bias: Diversity and inclusion are powerful ways for a manager to demonstrate that they trust everyone equally, even (and especially) when those people don’t look or sound like them.
  2. Be open and transparent: Managers that share as much information as they can, and don’t keep secrets that don’t need to be kept, promote the flow of information across their organizations – and information is the lifeblood of any organization.
  3. Set the minimum viable guide-rails: Rules may be required, but just enough to allow people to work within them with flexibility and creativity. Don’t limit your people by your own imagination. Give them a safe space to deliver their best work, unencumbered by bureaucracy.
  4. Don’t legislate for the lowest common denominator: Don’t allow the exceptions to drive the norm and assume that, just because one person tries to cheat the system, everyone will. Have ways to deal with the exceptions, and defend the freedoms of everyone else like your success depended on it (it does).
  5. Model fairness and consistency: Trust requires setting clear boundaries – you don’t establish trust by letting negative behavior slide or playing favorites. You just need to be clear where the boundaries are and then be consistent in all cases in how they’re enforced.
  6. Honor commitments: Say what you’re going to do, then do it. Every time.
  7. Own your mistakes: Nobody is perfect, and failure is an essential part of growth for individuals and organizations. So celebrate your own failures and those of others in a way that promotes learning and growth in everyone.
  8. Listen first to understand: Assume your employees are smarter than you (if you’re doing a good job hiring then they will be) and therefore listen to what they’re telling you, and assume you can always learn something from them.
  9. Trust first: There is no greater way to promote trust than to extend it. Trust your employees more than you’re comfortable with, then double it. And that probably still won’t be enough.
  10. First, trust yourself: If you don’t trust yourself you can’t trust others. Work on that part of yourself every single day. If you can’t see the very best of yourself, work with a coach or someone who can – it will be transformative for you and your organization.

That may not be everything you can do, but it would be a pretty good start.


Become Trust-Aware

Just like any aspect of personal change management, awareness is the first step to unlocking potential. So whether you’re a manager, or just a human being, look for situations where you’re finding it hard to extend trust to others, or are made to feel untrustworthy yourself. We all have blind spots and unconscious biases that influence our ability to extend trust, and sometimes those factors can make it hard for us to receive trust too.

Of course, there will always be environments designed for low trust, so look out for them and consider whether the lack of trust is warranted. If not, maybe it’s time to look for an alternative way to get what you need?

Trust me, you’ll be amazed at how transformational all this can be.

What now?

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