Trust is a hardwired precondition for any healthy relationship(s), so its increasing use as a metric for business health is understandable, especially in organisations where higher numbers of employees across multiple teams will need to work together productively and in sometimes complex ways to achieve results.

As a result, a rapidly increasing volume of professional and academic writing on the subject of trust is helping leaders begin to understand and measure levels of trust in their teams and its impact on business.

However, this may not mean that the introduction of trust-based business outcome measures will automatically lead to the positive cultural habits and enhanced performance and interpersonal relationships we are starting to associate with better business outcomes.

The paradox of trust

Trust is a psychological contract before it is an employment contract. According to Institute of Learning & Management (ILM) research, it also appears to be a ‘zero sum game’, with surveys showing that trust is either ‘very high’ or ‘very low’ in organisations and very few responses occupying the neutral middle ground. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this echoes the more familiar phrase “you either trust someone, or you don’t”.

The paradox of trust seems to be that despite our instinctive and universal familiarity with the concept as part of our social fabric and the human condition, conversations about trust can be black and white and rarely involve the nuance and openness required to break down barriers and deepen relationships in an authentic way.

Consider when was the last time you told someone you trust them? And when was the last time someone told you they trust you? How did it feel? And why was this conversation taking place? If your answer is “can’t remember”, it felt “awkward”, “patronising” or “heavy” and the conversation was related to a deadline or some kind of dressing down, you’re unlikely to be alone. Far from authentic and necessary conversations about relationship trust being the norm – for example, about why it may be missing or how to improve it – these conversations do not appear to come naturally or easily to people at all, often remaining transactional (task trust) and an indicator, paradoxically, of some kind of unspoken interpersonal dysfunction.

For this reason, establishing the boundaries and comfort zone where trust can be raised outside staff surveys, discussed and developed in a way that feels natural and healthy, should be an aspiration that human resource and organisational leaders seek to prioritise, to improve business life and performance alongside improvement programmes that include trust measures.

Why Leaders Should Prioritise Trust in 2023

The overriding impression from research on trust and leadership is that our ability to trust and be trusted (our ‘trustworthiness’) can be the difference between living in harmony with others, sharing a sense of collective purpose and commitment, with confidence that our environment is supportive, protected and thriving; as opposed to living in isolation, suspicious of others, with no sense of community or common purpose and a sense of fear and/ or frustration that our environment presents only threats, rejection and failure.

Leaders play a pivotal role in role-modelling trustworthiness and creating the positive conditions for trust that can help their business thrive. This is especially the case in a post-pandemic economic and social world, where division and uncertainty are widespread and workplaces are experiencing disruption to social interaction norms due to rapid, forced changes to workplace culture and practice, such as our current prevalence for home working and remote meetings.

Real gaps have opened up in the stories people create and tell themselves about each other. In a social interaction vacuum, confirmation bias and isolation can mean that stories and perceptions, that may not be real, take on a life of their own. Left unattended, this can increase the level of conflict between individuals that threatens the social fabric in and between teams.

Acknowledging these challenges, both to yourself and your colleagues, in a way that is open, authentic and credible is a great first step in building and earning trust and demonstrating some of the fundamental characteristics of trustworthy leadership.

How you move everyone away from the dysfunction of conversations about trust and into an organisational culture where trust can be raised, discussed and developed in a way that feels natural, business critical and results oriented should be your next priority.

How Leaders Can Build Trust

Acknowledging that the business of trust may be harder to unravel than the science and any outcome measures might suggest does not mean that organisations need to be left at the mercy of human evolution. Familiarising staff and leaders with the literature on organisational trust and broader organisational trust-based outcomes is, of course, an essential foundation.

For those wanting to take a step further towards dismantling and resetting their trust-based outcome measures, here are a few leadership actions you can take now, to help boost your initiatives around trust in a way that is considered, strategic and targeted:

  • Invest time, energy and available resource into (re)building relationships from the ground up – recognising that surveys, measures and unguided conversations about trust may not achieve the results you want, in the timeframes you are hoping.
  • Establish what type of organisational ecosystem of trust best describes your organisation and be mindful of both its opportunities and risks – Trust is based on 4 characteristics (ability, benevolence, integrity, predictability) and the evidence suggests that businesses tend to have a dominant preference, cultivating trust according to a style that maps to their industry sector and business type.
  • Use data as a source for appreciative inquiry – this will help focus OD efforts and investment on areas of greatest need and/ or return. For example, ILM research shows that:
  • ‘Frontline’ managers are the least trusting of all management levels and also often interact most frequently with customers and the majority of employees and teams.
  • There is a positive link between levels of internal trust (staff) and external trust (e.g., customers, media, brand reputation), suggesting that investment in the former is likely to generate a double benefit.
  • The larger an organization, the lower the levels of trust which is likely to correlate with the fact that trust is built on strong, close interpersonal relationships and that the two top fundamental drivers for trust are openness and communication.

Conversations cost nothing and it’s always good to hear from people – contact me to find out more and book an initial 30-minute call.

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