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Four Principles of Organizational Trust: How to Make Your Company Trustworthy

Here’s a “Golden Oldie” post from 2011. Has anything changed in the passage of five years?

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iStock_000018524776XSmallTrust, in case you hadn’t noticed, has gotten “hot” lately. But much of it sounds very vague—soft, fluffy, nice-to-have, the buzzword du jour.

I’d like to do my part to make it real.

To me, that means breaking it down and making it sound; tapping into the strategy and mysticism, but also staying grounded in the tactical and the practical.

So let’s review some context; then talk about four specific operating principles a business can hone in on to improve its trustworthiness.

Putting Trust into a Workable Context

I’ve suggested elsewhere that “trust” is too vague a term to work with. To do something practical, we need first to identify the trust realm: are we talking about personal trust, or business/organizational trust, or social/institutional trust?

The next question is about the trust role: are we working on being more trusting? Or more trustworthy? They are not the same thing.  And “trust” is the result of them both interacting.

Building a Trustworthy Business

In the realm “personal” and the role “trustworthy,” we can point to personal beliefs and behaviors as indicated in the Trust Quotient. But in business, trustworthiness is built through a set of daily operating principles. Trustworthiness is built from habitually behaving in accordance with a set of commonly shared beliefs about how to do business.

I suggest they can be boiled down to four.

The Four Trust Principles

1. A focus on the Other (client, customer, internal co-worker, boss, partner, subordinate) for the Other’s sake, not just as a means to one’s own ends.  We often hear “client-focus,” or “customer-centric.” But these are terms all-too-often framed in terms of economic benefit to the person trying to be trusted.

2. A collaborative approach to relationships.  Collaboration here means a willingness to work together, creating both joint goals and joint approaches to getting there.

3. A medium to long term relationship perspective, not a short-term transactional focus. Focus on relationships nurtures transactions; but focus on transactions chokes off relationships. The most profitable relationships for both parties are those where multiple transactions over time are assumed in the approach to each transaction.

4. A habit of being transparent in all one’s dealings.  Transparency has the great virtue of helping recall who said what to whom. It also increases credibility, and lowers self-orientation, by its willingness to keep no secrets.

Executing on the Trust Principles

What are the tools an organization has at its disposal to make itself more trustworthy? Any good change management consultant can rattle off the usual suspects, but for trustworthiness, the emphasis has to shift somewhat.

The usual change mantra includes a heavy dose of behaviors, metrics and incentives. Some of that works here, but only to a point.

For example, Principle 1, focus on the Other, is contradicted by too much extrinsic incentive aimed at leveraging self-interest–it undercuts focus on the Other.  And Principle 3, relationship over transaction, forces metrics and rewards to a far longer timeframe than most change efforts employ.

Another great shibboleth of change is that it must be led from the CEO’s office. But with trust, it ain’t necessarily so.  Trustworthiness is a great candidate for infectious disease change strategies; guerrilla trust strategies can work at the individual level, and individual players can lead. Behavior in accord with these principles cannot be coerced; the flipside is, it can be unilaterally engaged in.

The most powerful tools to create a trustworthy organization are things like language, recognition, story-telling, simply paying attention to the arenas where the principles apply—and the will to apply them.  Role-modeling helps; some skill-building helps.  But most of all, it is the willingness to notice the pervasive opportunities to work in accordance with this simple set of four principles.

Trustworthiness breeds trusting (the reverse is true too); the combination is what leads to trust. Which, by the way, is quite measurable in its impact on the bottom line.

The Twelve Steps of Business Relationships

Rarely will you see someone fail in business who has thoroughly followed these simple suggestions. Those who do fail are typically people who are incapable of being honest – with their colleagues, their customers and their partners.

Other problems may temporarily deflect you, but the ability to be rigorously honest will prove immeasurably beneficial in all your business relationships.

Twelve Steps of Business Relationships

Step 1. Accept that you have no power over people, that all your attempts at control have failed. Trying to get other people to do what you want them to do is doomed to failure, no matter how good your intentions, how right your cause, or how much benefit it would bring the other.

People just wanna be free. Go with it.

Step 2. Recognize that by yourself, you can’t succeed. Your success will inevitably be tied up in the success of other people. Not only are you not driving the bus, you are just another passenger.

Step 3. Resolve that you’re going to stop trying to drive the bus, that you’ll start doing things to help other people, that you’ll focus on getting the group to succeed. When things don’t go your way, remember “your way” is what got you into this mess. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

Step 4. Make a list of all the stupid, controlling, selfish things you do to others. Be specific about whom you do them to, and what harm it does to them. Stop at ten people.

Now add to the list a few good things you do. You are, after all, worthwhile.

Step 5. Go share your list with someone you trust. Listen to what they have to say about it and learn from what they have to say. Don’t waste time arguing with them.

Step 6. Get yourself ready to stop behaving in those old ways. Think about it for a while. Make a list of the new things you’ll do. Envision yourself responding in new ways; rehearse new “lines.”

Hint: your list should probably include listening. Also, listening.

Step 7. Pick a time of your own choosing to begin the change. It could be right now, it could be next week, but not next summer. Write that date in your calendar. When it comes, step out of your old ways and start working the new.

Step 8. Think about the customers, co-workers, peers and partners you might have tried to control and what you did to them. Think of what you might have done better and plan to do better next time.

Step 9. Go back to the customers, co-workers and partners you’ve tried to control, and tell them you realize what you have done. Acknowledge your responsibility in those situations, and tell them specifically how you plan to behave differently in future.

Hint: Don’t do this if it causes upset or harm to the other person. And don’t confuse this with trying to get them to forgive you – see Step 1, above.

Step 10. At each day’s end, do a mental run-through of how you did in your new approach. Note where you fell short and what you could have done better.

Then let it go and get a good night’s sleep.

Step 11. Create a little mantra for yourself, to remind you that your job is to help others, not yourself. Get out of the instance, secure in the idea that better relationships will float all transaction boats.

Step 12. Having recognized how to apply these principles to your business affairs, give it a shot at home and in the rest of your life.  You saw that one coming, right?