When the elephant in the room is trust

A situation presented itself today which was personally frustrating, but as a contributing writer to our blog, professionally inspiring.

I serve on a non-profit board where the other members and I are not all close friends, but we genuinely like and respect one another, have fairly pleasant interactions and in the end, succeed in our purpose. But in terms of operating efficiency, we’re a mess. People skip meetings, overcommit and most frustratingly, behave in ways that undermine our trust in one another. Despite having clear roles, bylaws, to-do lists and deadlines we just cannot seem to work better together, as an effective team.

The situation today was of little consequence, but what happens because we lack trust is that we get frustrated. We blame. We are reluctant to assist. We do not hold ourselves accountable because we feel others do not do the same and lastly, we do not do our best by our organization. This is the most regrettable symptom of our bad behavior, that the organization, its mission and members suffer because of a lack of trust among a few individuals.

But even though our trust issue is completely obvious, the remedy is puzzling. How can trust be rebuilt? Or established in the first place? Do you really need a strong foundation of team or organizational trust to achieve goals? Or can you get by without it? How should we look at trust today in 2019? If a lack of trust can be so corrosive in a small group like our board, what can it do to large organizations that employ hundreds or thousands of people?

A snapshot of organizational trust today

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, a study conducted by Edelman Intelligence focusing on principles of trust in business, NGOs, media and government in 25 countries, an interesting shift has happened in the past year. The Great Recession, immigration fears and economic displacement have caused trust in societal entities to deteriorate over the past two decades. Powerful leaders in both public and private sectors have fallen from grace and social media has pushed our past trusts in traditionally powerful, elite figures down to our peers and subject matter experts. We are now more apt to trust those around us, rather than those above us. As Edelman Intelligence states, “we are seeing a further reordering of trust to more local sources, with “My Employer” emerging as the most trusted entity, because the relationships that are closest to us feel more controllable.”

This was evidenced in the 2019 Barometer results with 75% of people reporting that they trust “My Employer” to do what is right in comparison with NGOs (57%), business (56%) and media (47%).

In this moment, leaders have an opportunity to capitalize on this shift, deepen or repair current levels of trust and make necessary changes to build more trusting, stable and financially successful businesses.

The case for trust

It’s no secret that trust equals profitability. A 2016 HBR article notes research by The Great Place to Work Institute and Fortune, who partner on the “100 Best Companies to Work For.” Their research shows that “trust between managers and employees is the primary defining characteristic of the very best workplaces.” By the “best companies”, they mean that these companies beat “the average annualized returns of the S&P by a factor of three.”

The article’s co-author, Stephen M. R. Covey, shared his perspective on trust and it’s effect on business results: “Your ability to build trust has a profound effect on business results because trust affects two measurable outcomes: speed and cost. When trust goes down (in a relationship, on a team, in an organization, or with a partner or customer), speed goes down and cost goes up.” Covey refers to this as the “low-trust tax” and the opposite is also true: if trust increases, so does speed while cost decreases.

ArchPoint Consulting’s Erwin Zijlstra, former Director of Corporate Communications for T-Mobile Nederland, agrees with the trust tax concept. “Trust equals speed. You get problems and challenges more quickly on the table. When trust is present, you don’t have to impose a large set of controls and checks because individuals and groups act and decide only in the best interest of the company.”

For leaders managing large organizations, that’s the stuff dreams are made of.

“If we surround ourselves with people we trust, we have a safe environment in which to flourish and give our best. We need it as teams and people each bring their unique skills, talents and personality to the table. Trust allows each member to leverage their strengths and share their weaknesses making for a stronger, more well-rounded team,” offers ArchPoint Consultant Iain Douglas, former CMO of Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits. “Trust allows us to open ourselves up and be vulnerable. With teams, it allows members to express themselves both logically and emotionally and allows people the latitude to not know all the answers. This opens the door to meaningful learning and asking insightful and productive questions.” Trust is critical within teams and with direct reports, particularly in companies as it is foundational for sound and ethical behavior.

“Trust is the foundation of our relationships, and it requires empathy and integrity. Empathy says ‘I understand you,’ and integrity says ‘I do what say I’m going to do.’ If we can get there, we can build on trust.”

– Richard Spoon, ArchPoint Consulting President

The ultimate trust – from clients, customers and consumers

Without trust from clients, customers and consumers, most of the world’s commercial entities (including ArchPoint) would not exist. The level of trust required at the point of purchase decreases as the price of the good or service being offered decreases however, every purchase decision we make, no matter how small, exhibits some level of trust. A fair amount of trust must exist in buying a new car or choosing a doctor to perform surgery obviously, but even choosing between a Big Mac and a Whopper exhibits a small amount of trust – in the entity serving the meal, the quality of ingredients, the assurance that you are receiving value for your money or trust in your future enjoyment of the meal. In every market and industry, options for products and services are endless. The financial viability of organizations today depends greatly on trust from those who choose to spend their money and time with us over another alternative.

“Trust with clients and customers is not dissimilar to trust with teams and direct reports,” says Iain. “Trust is arguably the product we provide. Clients must trust we can do what we say we can do and then consistently prove it every day. The long-term advantage of trust is in creating raving fans, both with a client directly and as referrals out of those relationships.”

The Edelman Trust Barometer findings provide some history for the state of consumer trust today. The 2018 Hubspot Research Trust Survey reported that:

  • 81% trust friends and family’s advice before trusting the advice from a business.
  • 55% do not trust companies they buy from as much as they did in the past.
  • 65% do not trust press releases published by businesses.
  • 69% do not trust advertisements.
  • 71% do not trust sponsored advertisements on social media platforms.

These findings mirror those in the Edelman study, that trust today is strongest in the relationships and interactions in which we have the most control.

This is highly relevant for understanding how to deepen customer relationships and pursue growth with new customers. Organizational trust manifests itself in the level of trust customers and clients have in a brand. As Iain mentions above, creating raving fans is the key to navigating and capitalizing on the zeitgeist of trust in which we are living. We need true believers – and we need those believers to tell everyone how great we are.

Building (and re-building) trust

The good thing about building trust with both employees and clients, customers and consumers is that it typically requires the same tactics, because we’re simply dealing with people. Here’s how we build and sustain trust at ArchPoint.

  1. Do right (the first value listed in ArchPoint’s Values Statement). Act with the best interest of the client, customer, consumer or employee at heart. This seemingly simple tenant goes the furthest out of any other behavior in building and maintaining trust.
  2. Tell the truth (The second value listed in ArchPoint’s Values Statement). Be open and transparent in communications so people do not second guess or question your agenda.
  3. Agree on clear rules of engagement and boundaries. Be clear on what’s acceptable and not acceptable, and address issues when people do not hold up their side of the deal. 
  4. Set expectations. Don’t over promise and under deliver. “Have a position of value that’s honest and that you truly believe is best for the business,” shares Ayon Wen-Waldron, ArchPoint Consultant and former Executive Director of our Branding & Marketing Division. “Do thorough work, meet deadlines and remain true to your promises.” Do what you say you are going to do – and do it consistently.
  5. Be empathetic and give others space to speak. This allows us to listen below the surface and move from just logical to emotional feelings. Almost nothing creates a space for trust to foster more than asking and actively listening to their response.
  6. Allow time for trust to foster. It takes time, effort, patience and sometimes forgiveness to build and keep it.
  7. Provide value without reciprocity. Doing something without expecting an immediate return exhibits a level of commitment to a relationship. Simply demonstrating regard for the other person can help begin to develop mutual trust.

Iain shares a warning on re-building trust, “My personal examples whether in relationships, friendships, with my boss or a direct report lead me to acknowledge the significant mountain to climb to regain trust. In my experience the trust can never quite be restored to its fullest as the break of trust between people is more tangible than building trust.  It remains a factual point in time and while things may improve any future even small breaks become elevated and thus further weakens trust.”

This article is a reminder to leaders that we cannot strategic plan or process map our way out of everything. Sometimes we need to dig to the core of what makes our organization tick and address the deep, difficult issues. Doing this can be incredibly fruitful in ways we have not imagined.

Back to my personal situation presented in the beginning – the biggest takeaway for me is that for it to exist, we must want it. We must want to trust those around us. If I want it, my desire will prompt me to take steps to either build or re-establish trust in whatever relationship, group or organization I’m in. By putting protective measures in place in the form of boundaries and expectations, doing the right thing, being honest and not expecting it to happen overnight, I think our group sets ourselves up for a very different way of operating and being with one another in the future.

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