Cultures of Trust: More than Expectations and Accountability

Trust.  As we all know, it’s built through sustained effort.  It’s often lost at the drop of a hat.  One of the cornerstones of any relationship, without trust, foundations (personal or professional) totter and crumble.

So what is it that organizations engendering a culture of trust have that others lack?  Dorie Clark, in her recent HBR article, stated that organizations need a “shared expectation that deadlines and agreements will be kept, and having a central authority…that backs those guarantees.”

She’s partly there with this assessment, and yet, what is missing is an articulated reflection on the psychological foundations of trust.  It’s more than simply holding others accountable for “share expectations.”  What we’re really talking about is the emotional commitment developed as a demonstrated result of mutual accountability.  It’s not simply relying on something, in the way we trust computers to accurately produce a given calculation based on input received.  Within relationships, deeper connections are necessary, neural connections that drive emotional responses and subsequent choice.

When we examine cultures of trust, however, we similarly need to elevate our notions of trust beyond the individual level.  Culture itself involves the collective sense of security (or lack thereof) that builds expectations of appropriate and inappropriate interactions.  When aspects of physical and emotional safety exist within organizational walls, trust begins to be intertwined in the fabric of all relationships.  Leaders are selected and promoted who exhibit trustworthy traits.  Teams collaborate openly and without fear of failure, credit, or blame.  Individuals become bastions of knowledge and experiential sharing.

Distrustful organizational cultures breed the opposite, however.  Individuals are unintentionally incentivize to horde information, for knowledge is power.  Teams compete with each other for recognition, resources, and priority.  And leaders resort to carrot-and-stick, transactional approaches for rewarding or punishing behaviors.

Organizations without cultures of trust also typically seek solutions through initiatives and programs.  Engagement efforts.  Team building exercises.  Cultural sensitivity training.  Unfortunately, these rarely do more than further build the sense of collective frustration.

Instead, organizations should focus on a values-driven strategy for injecting trust.  Once articulated, values should drive hiring and promotion practices (of leaders AND of employees).  They should educate every operational strategy and decision.  And they must  be championed from the highest levels of the organization.  Only when all leaders in an organization fully embrace values-based leadership can trust, and the emotional commitment levels within any company, begin to form.  It’s a long journey, but one well worth undertaking in any organization.

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