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How Management Can Build Trust in the Organization

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A leader’s ability to build trust in relationships, teams, and throughout the organization has a profound impact on the company. In its 2016 global CEO survey, PWC reported that 55% of CEOs think that a lack of trust is a threat to their organization’s growth. The intuition of these CEOs is not misplaced.

Paul Zak, the American neuroeconomist, has studied the impact of trust in organizations. He and his team found that compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report:

  • 74% less stress
  • 106% more energy at work
  • 50% higher productivity
  • 13% fewer sick days
  • 76% more engagement
  • 29% more satisfaction with their lives
  • 40% less burnout

Further, his team found that people working in high-trust companies enjoyed their jobs 60% more, were 70% more aligned with their companies’ purpose, felt 66% closer to their colleagues, and felt a 41% greater sense of accomplishment as well.

Those numbers put into perspective the necessity of trust in the workplace. With this organizational imperative being so evident, one would think it would be a focus area for leadership. Yet 58% of managers do not receive any management training. Interestingly, this is the exact same percentage that people trust strangers more than their own boss! It’s no wonder Maritz’s research shows only 11% of employees strongly agreed that managers show consistency between their words and actions.

With 65% of people claiming they would rather see their boss fired over getting a pay raise, the way we are working together is not working. There is a better way.  Whether you believe leaders are born or made, either can be developed. The first step in becoming a trusted leader is understanding what trust is and the behaviors to build, nurture, and rebuild it. Interacting with the concept of trust requires an activity where vulnerability exists. Rather than using a “trust fall,” a team-building exercise in which a person deliberately allows themselves to fall and trusts the members of a group (spotters) to catch them, we use a game that mimics the environment of many of our workplaces.

We break groups of leaders into teams, giving each group the opportunity to work together or compete. The game is set up so that if both groups decide to work together, they both earn the maximum amount of points available. If one group decides to attack instead, they can gain points over the other. However, if both groups attack simultaneously, both groups lose points.

The game is essentially a version of mutually assured destruction (MAD), the name given to the Cold War nuclear stalemate between the USA and the USSR.

So, what happens in the game?

After using this activity with tens of thousands of leaders through our leadership development curriculum, approximately 80% of groups choose to attack the other team even though the game is set up so that an attack provides no mathematical advantage. The groups that attack the most? College students, recent graduates, and sales teams. Driving this behavior is a perceived need to win. But deeper analysis shows it is less about winning and more about ensuring the other side loses.

The commonality among the groups is the relative competitive nature of their environment. College students compete to get into the best universities and then compete to be top of their class. Salespeople can often be in the same competitive environment at work that fights against collaboration and behaviors that build trust.

This is not to say that competition and trust cannot co-exist. What the game illuminates for leaders, both senior and newly promoted, is that they can unknowingly exhibit behaviors that erode trust in their relationships, the teams they lead, and the organizations they steward.

In the game, participants don’t typically realize that the way they’re playing is deliberately making one team lose, rather than collaborating so everyone gets a point.

One behavior that increases trust is openness and transparency of both thoughts and actions. Shedding light on other areas where trust exists and does not exist can help a leader diagnose where they are showing up in a trusting manner and places where they are not.

Use the diagnostic tool below to take the first step in building trust – listen to where it lives, where it needs nurturing, and where it needs to be rebuilt

Trust is LimitedTrust is Built
Fear of challenging organizational policyPeople "speak truth to power"
A paycheck is the only thanks people getRecognition is abundant
There is little or no risk takingInitiative is recognized and rewarded
Approval is required for all decisionsPeople are accountable for their decisions
Compliance is mandatedExcellence is inspired
Only formal leaders are listened toLeadership is a behavior, not just a position
Leaders use the pronoun "I"Leaders use "we"
People are copied on emails for protectionCommunication is purposeful
People are nervous when a leader is nearPeople go about their business
People do not say "I don't know"People feel safe to ask for help
People who are struggling are avoidedPeople who are struggling get help
Feedback is left unsaidFeedback is part of normal discourse

This is also a great activity to do either in open discussion with the team (if the leader believes there is enough existing trust to do so) or permit the team member to provide the feedback anonymously, discussing afterward.

The trust game we put leaders into reveals potential blind spots, those areas where behaviors could have unintended and, perhaps, unknown consequences. Getting feedback from the people you lead on your ability to build trust is an important first step. Ask for it, then listen.

Meet the Author

Matt Whiat


As a co-founding partner of Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute, Matt Whiat draws on his previous 20 years of leadership experience as a former US Air Force Officer, helping organizations create cultures where people feel valued.

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