5 Misconceptions about Organisational Trust

5 Misconceptions about Organisational Trust

Trust might be a small word, but it’s a huge, complicated topic.  Everyone thinks they know about trust – after all, we make the decision to trust someone almost daily.  But it’s this past experience that stops us from really learning more about trust and doing a better job at it.

When we make a decision to trust, we do so from so many different personal biases, situations, interactions and perspectives.  To understand trust better, we need to break it down into the three different trust judgements we make daily but confuse as being the same.  These are whether we trust or distrust:

1. People (personal) (eg: neighbours, workmates, shop attendants),

2. Groups (eg: sports teams, our graduate class) or even

3. Organisations (impersonal) (eg: media, Government, churches, countries, employer).

Trust is required to enhance performance in all of our dealings with others.  What we often don’t realise is why we decide to trust certain groups or people and not others.   Our trust decisions are difficult for us to explain rationally.

The reason for this is that the part of the brain that processes emotions, including trust and loyalty, has no capacity for language.  It only understands emotions.  This means that when we trust someone using this part of our brain, we do so by how they make us feel based on our old patterns, habits and biases. 

A further problem is that the word trust is thrown around so much we merge all the different types of groups and individuals together believing that they all deserve the same type of trust decision.  We have confused trusting politicians, as the same as whether we trust our partner to be faithful to us or whether we trust the media to tell us the truth. These are totally different relationships in totally divergent contexts.  Yet, we all lump them together expecting they deserve the same type of judgement.  Without deeply appreciating or understanding what trust really means we mistrust trust.  It’s become a fluffy, over-used term that means so much but on its own provides us with so little information.

In turn, we find it difficult to accurately make the right decision to trust others.  This creates enormous problems for us in life.  We either trust those we shouldn’t or we decide not to trust those who have the most to offer us.  If we trust too many of the wrong people who betray us, we lose our faith in humanity.

Little wonder then when I talk to leaders about trust there are so many different opinions and beliefs, many of which are quite frankly lop-sided and the basis for all the issues they are facing.  That’s why in a workplace context, trust can be a taboo subject that often goes ignored or shoved into the “too hard” basket because it stirs up too much negative emotion.  

Let’s get really clear and discuss trust purely from an organisational perspective and clear up five common trust misconceptions that have muddied the waters for far too long in building trust in the workplace.

1. “You’ve got to Earn Trust”

Partly to blame for the mistrust of trust is this common misperception that has done more harm to building trust than Nigerian love scammers and investment bankers put together.  Whenever a leader tells me that trust must be earned I withhold my sigh of frustration and a little piece of me dies inside.

We often don’t realise that trust is measured in both directions.  While we’re sizing other people up as to how trustworthy they are, they’re also assessing whether we can be trusted.  Thanks to our biological wiring we spend more time protecting ourselves from others than actually considering what signals we’re sending out about our own trustworthiness.

The reality is we only trust people who trust us.  We don’t trust people who don’t trust us.  If you want to ensure those around you don’t trust you, start by distrusting them.  Withhold information, spread nasty gossip and exclude them from important discussions.  

In a corporate environment where leaders don’t want to talk about trust, it’s because some leaders are too afraid to even assess themselves.  It’s pretty rare for any person to admit they can’t be trusted.  For some leaders, their leadership style is to automatically believe they are trusted (and others can’t be).  But the world has changed and leaders can no longer assume that their position of power automatically provides trust legitimacy.  

It is true that trusting others does make us vulnerable to loss.  It is also true that in a workplace environment people have to demonstrate they are capable in their jobs and can do work on time and at standard.  In certain situations, it is healthy and even advisable to distrust those who have a history of being deceitful.  

But if you want to act like a responsible leader, who cares about their people, be the bigger person and extend trust out first in all your workplace relationships.  Sure you might get a staff member who takes advantage of you and phones in sick when they’re playing video games at home all day.  But isn’t it better to risk that and realise that person isn’t a good fit rather than to be the authoritarian, micromanaging boss who breeds trust (and fear) inadvertently?  If you start with expecting people to demonstrate they can be trusted, you’re starting the wrong way.

Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Low trust people trust tend not to trust others creating a cycle of distrust that impacts everyone around them.  It also becomes part of their experience creating a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy.  If this phrase is one you live by I challenge you to shift this belief.

Ask yourself; is this really true?  Have you been in a situation where a boss trusted you straight away?  How did it make you feel?  Arguing the counter case weakens the hold this outdated belief that’s a relic of an industrial age where people were mere tools toiling in factories.  Start trusting others in a safe, small way and see what happens.

2. Trust is Created through Customer Transactions

Often, CEOs, executives, and boards believe it is critical to create trust during the transaction process with customers, in order to boost sales.   Care and attention are given to improving how the company delivers on their brand promise and customer experience.

Yet, creating trust with customers is just one part of the equation. The perception of a high trust organisation or brand also depends upon ethical business practices, how well the organisation plays the good corporate citizen role and most importantly, how it treats employees.

According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, in Australia how employees are treated is a powerful indication of whether the public perceives an organisation can be trusted. Respondents gave the statement the highest importance (64%) out of a range of trustworthy factors (interestingly, offering high-quality products and services came in second at 59%). Yet, actual performance by Australian companies for both factors was a low 33% – a massive gap of 31% and 26% respectively.

Business leaders think of trust in terms of transactional benefits, yet customers and employees see trust in terms of the emotional benefits – how the company behaves and treats those around them, as well as how the products make them feel.  This makes sense when you consider that we judge trust based on our emotions, rather than cold, hard facts.

The profound disconnect in the language and thinking means that business leaders are “talking past” their employees and customers.  While this occurs, trust levels will remain stuck and lasting change out of reach.  High trust opens doors into new markets and improves value creation, but it only begins when the business has changed its behaviours to become more trustworthy.  In other words, an “inside-out” approach trust to building trust.

3. “Telling people to trust us will improve trust”

Leaders tell me that they can fix their team trust issues by sitting everyone down to talk about it.  But guess what?  If you’ve got trust problems, no-one is going to have the confidence to stand up to you and tell you publicly how they feel.  They will need to feel psychologically safe first.

Humans are designed to avoid conflict. Employees fear speaking up about issues in case it makes them look stupid, unpopular or they will get hauled over the coals for making an unpleasant (even if true) comment.  One of the most common dysfunctions with teams are people feeling uncomfortable about raising issues.

A leader demanding people trust them or speak their mind rarely works if there has been no past proof that the environment is safe.  Likewise,  you can’t demand someone’s trust, you’ve got to show people over a period of time, through your actions that you can be trusted.  It’s an old leadership paradigm to believe that you can simply demand trust.

Even if you can talk about it, an organisation’s trust issues are often hidden from view.  After all, fish don’t know they are swimming in water.  It often takes an outsider, who is not submerged in the emotional depths of the situation, to uncover and fix the issues in a fast and strategic manner that avoids getting bogged down in all the superfluous baggage. 

4. “Tell the truth and be consistent”

One of the issues with trust is that most people don’t understand it comprehensively.  Trust may be a universal subject, but it means different things to different people.  In a workplace environment, trust boils down to people being able to rely on each other consistently.    But it’s the behaviours that drive this that are different for everyone.

For many leaders, they believe trust is as simple as “my word is my bond, tell the truth and be consistent.”  The reality is every individual trusts differently.  Some people might require more time spent having someone explain the situational risks and how that is being addressed, while others might need to see evidence that people care about them and that they are appreciated.  Savvy business leaders get that they need to spend time building trust specific to each individual. A one size fits all approach doesn’t work.

In organisations where trust is high, people are talking about it.  They have a trust framework that forms a common language on the 11 dimensions of trust. This helps individuals and teams understand, discuss and practise trust with one another.  It means employees have the language to call people out on behaviours that are destroying trust, opening up communication.

5.”Trust is too hard to fix”

As mentioned previously, trust is an emotional issue that often remains hidden because people find it hard to talk about and identify.  Trust problems often go undiagnosed. wrongly approached or ignored because:

  1. It gets confused with other common workplace issues that are essentially symptoms of trust issues (eg: employee engagement, communication and resistance to change).
  2. It is not in the sphere of leadership capabilities or even in their language to address.  Often leaders, waste time and headspace focusing on the wrong trust elements or not even fixing trust at all.  
  3. Trust is assumed – Most leaders don’t even consider it a problem presuming people trust them and so don’t even realise how big the issue is (that’s why using this quick and easy assessment tool is pure gold for company leaders).
  4. There is no road map – Leaders might want to improve trust but most don’t have the faintest idea on how to approach it and give up thinking it’s all to hard.  You’ve all heard the saying “How do you eat an elephant?”  One bite at a time.  Building a high-trust culture within your organisation is a journey that needs the full commitment of executives. It’s not a “once and done” process.  Setting a 1-2 year timeline to improve trust is a realistic goal.  It has to be slowly improved over time with the right priorities and tasks assigned.  It’s only difficult if you don’t have the right blueprint to follow, the Fast Trust Company system is one example of how to build trust.
  5. It’s all about corporate values – Focusing solely on improving your corporate values and throwing trust in there, isn’t enough either.  While it is true the vision, purpose and values all need to be aligned to a greater social purpose, focusing on these alone is just a band-aid approach.  They need to lived and breathed within all layers of the organisation.

Typically, companies repair trust by treating symptoms, rather than the systemic underlying causes. The most famous corporate scandals of our time involved organisations that superficially fixed trust symptoms. Both Enron and Lehman Brothers had codes of conduct and ethics training, yet failed to act in a trustworthy manner across the board.  Fixing trust in organizations is doomed to fail when a poorly constructed one-off program is put together.

Trust Inside-Out

In today’s fast-paced business world, the more trust you have across your organisation or teams, the faster you can operate.

Economically, high trust increases value. Imperative Research found that companies that are high in trust have 2.5 times the revenue generation of low trust organisations. While Great Places to Work Institute together with Fortune magazine discovered that high trust companies beat the average annualised returns of the American S&P 500 by a factor of three.

It all starts with leaders who are trustworthy and have a clear and consistent concept of what it means to act with trust.  A good place to start is for the executive team to sit down and discuss the benefits of trust.  Then, leaders need to commit to learning about the elements of organisational trustworthiness, in order to better understand how to improve reliance on others and embed elements of trustworthiness into the architecture of the organisation.  It’s only once trust has been systemised throughout the whole organisation  – into organisational systems, leadership capabilities and team performance, that trust can truly flourish.

All around the world people are suffering from trust deficit syndrome.  This presents organisations with a unique opportunity to being the most trusted brand or company during a time of low trust in the world.  This only occurs when leaders have a better understanding of trust dynamics in their business and avoid getting distracted by outdated misperceptions that do more harm than good.

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Marie-Claire Ross is the Founder and Chief Corporate Catalyst at Trustologie. She is a workplace sociologist, author, speaker and consultant focused on helping leaders put the right processes in place to accelerate trust during change and growth. She does this through strategic diagnostics, roundtables, workshops, coaching and consulting. Marie-Claire is also the author of the number three ranked book on Amazon, Transform your Safety Communication. She has been interviewed on “Technology Behind Business” for Sky Business News and regularly contributes articles to FM Magazine and LogiSYM on company culture. She is also a Graduate of the Company Director’s Course and is on the SME Committee for the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

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