How to Increase Trust in Organizations

Increasing Trust Within Your OrganizationI was grocery shopping Saturday. It was 2PM, 96 degrees out – pretty hot for New Jersey – and I was in the checkout line. The cashier had started sliding my purchases through the register, when suddenly I noticed a bag left over from the customer before me. She had left and gone to her car.

The woman doing the bagging noticed it at the same time. She grabbed the lady’s bag and dashed out into the heat. She was making pretty good time for a woman in her 60s, and we all could see her out the window as she finally caught up, handed over the bag, and started back.

Then the cashier suddenly exclaimed, “Omigosh, she left two other bags as well!” Looking quickly at me and the woman behind me in line, she said, “Will you two please excuse me for just a minute? I’ll be right back.” And she too took off after the forgetful lady, with two bags in tow. She was in her 20s, and made very good time.

It occurred to me I could slide a few groceries over the line and into my bag and escape without paying. (I don’t do such things, but the idea did show up in my mind). Then the elderly woman behind me in line said, “You know, I don’t mind one little bit waiting for someone who’s doing a good deed like that.”  Neither did I, I said, neither did I.

When the cashier and the bagging lady came back, we both complimented them, and they blushed a bit and said thank you. (I sent a complimentary email to ShopRite’s HQ later that night with the store number, employee name and cash register number, all of which were on the receipt).

So my question is: how do you get employees to behave like that? I mean generously, based on principle, willing to take certain risks, confident to act in the moment. How do you keep from getting sullen employees who talk about “career-limiting moves,” who won’t lift a hand or take a risk to help another?

How Do You Induce Values-based Behavior in an Organization?

Earlier that same day, I had the opportunity to briefly visit a Sears store, a Macy’s store, and a Bed Bath and Beyond unit. Sears was awful – employees keeping their distance from customers, 100 feet away, pretending not to notice. Macy’s was a little better, but still sullen, under-staffed, and radiating not-helpfulness.

BB&B was a huge contrast. Several employees, busy doing other things, asked me if they could help. I asked two for help, and they both went out of their way to do so.

How does this happen?

The standard answer in most businesses, I’m afraid, is to focus on the wrong things: typically  incentives, communications, and procedures.

The more I see of business, the more convinced I become that the single most powerful way to create values-based behavior is none of the above – it is to do it yourself, and to talk about it with others.

The Usual Suspects

Incentives appeal to the individual’s rational economic or ego-satisfying needs. Fine and dandy, but if you’re trying to incent selfless behavior, the concept of rewards is just a tad self-contradictory.

There is probably (I’m guessing) more money spent on communications than on any other “solution” to issues of trust, ethical behavior, and customer-focus. Companies love to pronounce their values to their customers, and reinforce them internally in posters, newsletters, and blogs. The problem is, impersonal companies communicating about personal relationships is some kind of category mistake.

And procedures? The whole point of values-based behavior is that the employee extrapolates from principles in the moment. Rehearsing and drilling doesn’t help extrapolate values, it replaces that process with rote memory.

Role Modeling

Think of how we learn from our parents. Think of the sports or public figures we admire (there are still a few). In all cases, we are influenced by what they do – not by what they say they will do, or did do, or wish they’d done.

When it comes to values, I suspect BB&B has leaders in their operations organization who both walk the talk, and talk it too. People who lead by example, and who are convinced that values like customer assistance are valid only if kept sharpened by use.

I suspect Angie the cashier at ShopRite was hired partly because she exhibited values. I suspect that the folks managing her store make a point of being helpful and customer-focused, and engage customers about values like that. I suspect it didn’t occur to her that she shouldn’t take the risk of leaving her cash drawer and my groceries unattended – because her leadership would have trusted their customers and done the same thing – and she knew it.

We have overdone the behavioral, incentives-based, needs-maximizing best practices model of human resources. We have under-estimated the human power of changing humans. After all, the business of relating to other people is personal.

6 replies
  1. BarbaraKimmel
    BarbaraKimmel says:

    Charlie- our local Shop Rite recently underwent a management “face lift” of sorts. Literally overnight, the store went from disconnected to total consumer focus. I’m talking free cups of ice water when entering the store, to a survey taker at the end of every aisle asking about customer experience. It lasted about a week. It must have been an experiment 🙂

    It really doesn’t take much to improve customer experience. But management has to “own” the process. It must become part of the culture, and not just a “one time” event.

    Barbara Kimmel, Executive Director
    Trust Across America – Trust Around the World

  2. Rich Sternhell
    Rich Sternhell says:

    Charlie, I hate to sound trite, but it really is about culture and values. There are a variety of good practices out there that are followed to varying degrees, but there are two elements that seem to matter most of all: 1) Do the employees feel valued by the company and do they value their employer in return? 2) Are there disincentives in place for helping the customer (e.g. breaking procedure)? Yes, management has to set the example and walk the walk, but employees have to be willing to follow.

  3. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    Rich, I don’t think it’s trite at all to say it’s culture and values, though that still begs a few questions. I think Barbara’s example is a great one.

    A store gets religion and does a crash customer-friendly week, with free ice-water and how’m-I-doin’ surveys. At the end of the week, it’s business as usual. Surprise, surprise, nothing stuck.

    You say “employees have to be willing to follow.” True true, but it’s my sense that generally good leadership co-opts bad follower-ship. And it’s the contrast between personally and visibly living that culture and those values, vs. the transparent fakery of another program, that I’m suggesting makes for that kind of leadership.


  4. Stanley
    Stanley says:

    This is such a good story. It could have had another endiing when the cashier or bagging lady could just say….’ooh such a forgetful customer, nevermind we could leave it here and see if she can comes back to collect’, and that would have made a huge difference in outcomes for the organisation.

  5. John
    John says:


    I agree with Rich culture is the magic sauce. The question is how do you develop one. I think there are four components:
    1. Orientation (Think bootcamp)
    2. Training
    3. Drill/Practice/Role models
    4. Recognition

    When the cashier and bagger get recognized at the store meeting others will see what is important. For leaders we need to be conscious of the culture we want to develop. We will get a culture and one built with intention I believe will be more effective.

    Take good care,


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] than working out what you’re going to say next. But here’s some hope for us all … this article about increasing trust. Nice and simple, the essence is – behave with integrity. Be the person you like to think you […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *