A Matter of Trust

By Merrick Rosenberg

Billy Joel once wrote, “It’s always been a matter of trust.” In organizations, people often talk about trust. It’s high. It’s low. It’s non-existent. So if people talk about trust, it must be easy to define. Right?

Before you read on, take a moment to come up with a definition of trust…

Go on, I’ll wait for you…

It’s not easy, is it?

Trust is like quality, we know it when we see it. Nevertheless, trust plays a critical role in organizational effectiveness. Without trust, open and honest communication will not exist. And without open and honest communication, teamwork is not present. Without teamwork, well, you get the picture.

Trust is also important between a manager and his or her staff. Direct reports will not be candid with managers that they do not trust. And Jack Welch, in his recent book, Winning, declared that the lack of candor was the single biggest problem in corporations. Further, time and again, studies find that people don’t quit companies…they quit their manager. How long would you want to report to a manager that you don’t trust?

Conway Tway defined trust as, “The state of readiness for unguarded interaction between someone and something.” This unguarded readiness is key to leadership effectiveness and team success. Trust requires taking a risk. Jack R. Gibb got it right when he said, “Trust is the result of a risk successfully survived.”

The impact of trust:

  • Leaders empower people who they trust… They micromanage those that they don’t.
  • Individuals share information with people they trust… They keep information from those who they don’t.
  • Departments help other departments to be successful when there is a foundation of trust… Organizations fragment into silos when trust is low.
  • Organizations have higher levels of engagement and retention when trust is high… Organizations have higher levels of stress and turnover when trust is low.

The list could go on and on, but the bottom line is, trust is the foundation of individual and organizational success.

Built It or Break It

Every interaction we have either builds trust with someone or diminishes it. Some people implicitly trust others until trust is broken. They might say, “I’ll trust him until he gives me a reason not to.” For others, trust develops slowly over time. You might hear them say, “I’ll trust you once you’ve earned it.”

Each person’s individual approach to trusting others depends upon their “state of readiness for unguarded interaction,” which in part, is determined by their past experiences. If your previous boss treated you unfairly, you might be hesitant to trust that your new boss has your best interests at heart.

Trust is also based on the premise that we are constantly predicting future behavior based upon past experiences. For example, if you have demonstrated a lack of follow-through in the past, your coworkers are likely to predict that you will lack follow-through in the future.

On the other hand, each time that you follow through on commitments, they add a credit to the metaphoric, “Trust Piggy Bank.” When you don’t meet your commitments, they take a credit away. The more credits you have, the more leeway is available to you and you will be afforded the benefit of the doubt. The lower your trust account gets, the more your actions serve to reinforce the perception that you cannot be trusted. When the account stays low for a long time, relatively fixed perceptions are formed.

While trust can be challenging to build, it is quite easy to break. Here are ten sure-fire ways to break trust:

  • Talk about people behind their backs.
  • Don’t do what you say you’re going to do.
  • Put someone on the spot in a meeting.
  • Take credit for work that others contributed to.
  • Disclose personal or confidential information.
  • Share information with the team after it has already become public knowledge.
  • Exhibit favoritism.
  • Act only in your self-interest with no regard for team goals.
  • Micromanage the people around you.
  • Act in an unethical way.

Have faith. There are several key ways to building trust and they include:

  • Be open. The people around you are more likely to be open with you if you are open with them. Sharing your feelings and concerns makes you human and creates a connection. This connection builds the relationship and strengthens trust.
  • Be reliable. Do what you say your going to do, when you say your going to do it. Trust requires dependability.
  • Be honest. Demonstrate truthfulness in all of your interactions, even if you are “stretching the truth” to help others. People will feel that if you lie for them, you will lie to them.
  • Exhibit integrity. Walk-the-talk and hold true to your values. Don’t compromise your beliefs or people will lose faith in you.
  • Maintain confidentiality. People are open with others when they feel that information can be shared in confidence. Trust requires that people can rely on you to protect what they have candidly shared with you.
  • Be fair. People won’t like every decision you make, but they must perceive that you acted objectively and fairly.

Looking Ahead

As Billy Joel said, “It’s always been a matter of trust.” And it always will be. So make sure that all of your behaviors add to the Trust Piggy Bank that your coworkers are keeping for you. Building a strong foundation of trust will lead to long-lasting relationships and personal and professional success.