Trust: The Foundation for Peak Organization Performance

I would like to address the important topic of Trust between leaders and their employees. My goal is to make the case for why the element of Trust is so important in organizations and to offer some initial suggestions on actions you can take to foster it.

I believe that Trust is probably the most important topic associated with the success or failure of any organization. Organization research confirms this, and if you have had any experience in dealing with the relational challenges of developing and promoting productivity in organizations, you have found that Trust or lack of Trust is at the core of every hindrance. John Whitney, a professor at Columbia Business School shared that Trust is the one thing that affects everything. Therefore, in organizations it is the most important strategic lever we can focus on. Steven Covey in his book ‘The Speed of Trust’ says it this way, “Trust is the one thing that changes everything.”

Because loyalty is an outcome of Trust, research also confirms the following:

  • Employees are more loyal and have greater career longevity in high Trust organizations
  • Customers remain customers in high Trust organizations
  • There are longer partnerships between suppliers and distributors with organizations that have high Trust
  • Investors maintain their investments longer with high Trust organizations

Other business-relevant things that are prevalent in high Trust organizations include:

  • Higher Value
  • Higher Business Growth
  • Greater Innovation
  • More Collaboration
  • Stronger Partnering
  • Better Execution

So, I hope this information helps to make my case for why Trust is so important to nurture, grow and protect in organizations, especially in business organizations that have the goal of productivity, growth and profit. You as a leader have the responsibility to leverage this awesome resource to improve business performance and improve business results, but more importantly to foster a ‘secure’ nurturing environment, where employees have the best opportunity to fully engage, thrive and contribute their best. I bring your attention to the word ‘secure,’ because security is the most important outcome of improving Trust in your relationship with your employees, due to the value this outcome represents to the human psyche.

Security or being safe is a forerunner in the needs of humans both physically and psychologically. Maslow in his well-known ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html defines safety and security as the highest need we have next to our basic needs of air, food, shelter, etc. Consider this simple situation and how most humans would respond to it in order to gain some insight into how we behave when our security or safety is challenged in overall life (and think about how this also applies to the work environment):

Say you are home alone or with your family, and you are reading a book, surfing the Internet, sitting down to a meal or just enjoying a movie or TV show. Basically, you are relaxed and secure, and engaged in some activity that you enjoy. However, suddenly you hear a suspicious loud sound outside of one of the windows of your residence – a sound you are unable to identify. A sound that causes you some level of alarm and concern. To some degree, for most humans, this is the point where the need for self-preservation – or safety – comes into play.

We begin to move into action both physically and psychologically to ensure we are safe, meaning that we remove ourselves from the situation where we are subject to harm. So, what most humans will do first is stop what they were previously doing, no matter how much they were enjoying the activity, and make the mystery sound a priority in that moment. At that point, nothing else matters. The TV show or movie is paused, the meal is left on the table, the book is put down, Internet powered down, etc. Why? Because the sound is an unknown, and at that point, our human psyche begins to operate to self-preserve or to ensure our safety. (Notice that for most of us in this situation, our first thought is not that the unknown sound represents something good! We are somewhat psychologically predisposed to assume it is a bad thing, or something that can cause us harm, until we can determine otherwise.)

Given that predisposition, we would begin to identify and address what might potentially threaten our safety, by looking out a window, calling the authorities…or even getting a weapon such as a gun, bat or knife! It just depends on how strongly we are unsettled by the sound. I think you see where I am going with this analogy. Bottom-line, we are distracted from the productive and rewarding activities we were engaged in, and begin to put our energy into investigating or resolving something that is causing us anxiety because of the potential we perceive for harm.

In the workplace, employees can experience psychological concerns about the security/safety of their employment, the ability to accomplish their career goals and progress, and to do the things they enjoy and are good at doing in their day-to-day work. When employees feel a threat in these areas, they behave in the same way as if the threat were physical, as in the situation described above. They can become distracted from real work and focus their attention on issues that they perceive as threats to their job and career security/safety, and they can become guarded and disengaged when they cannot trust those in their environment.

That’s how the analogy relates to developing and nurturing Trust in the workplace. Our employees will behave in a similar way when they don’t feel safe in the workplace as to when they are unable to develop a high level of Trust in their co-workers or – especially – in their leaders.

Just think about experiences you’ve had when your ability to trust your leader or a co-worker came into question. I would assume we’ve all experienced situations where we felt distrust in the workplace, and began to put our thoughts and efforts into guarding ourselves.

It might help at this point for me to share a definition of Trust that I have used over the years: Trust is the ‘state of readiness for unguarded interactions with someone or something.’

When we don’t feel that, our thoughts and efforts are less productive and effective, and it results in loss to the business. Conversely, in high Trust work environments, this loss is kept to a minimum, which means the business benefits with a higher level of productivity, effectiveness and growth.

Bottom line: when employees can’t trust their leaders or co-workers, they can begin to feel at risk, insecure/unsafe, and can become very guarded in an attempt to psychologically protect themselves and their best interests within their work environment. This results in a lower level of work productivity, and a tangible, sizeable loss to the business. It is therefore the responsibility of leaders to foster a trusting work environment so that this loss is kept to a minimum. Now, I’d like to provide you with some initial steps to consider in order to improve Trust in your organization.

There are many actions we can discuss to strengthen Trust in your organization or on your team. However, let’s start with an area that’s an essential building block of Trust – simply doing what you say you’re going to do.

Trust is about employees feeling secure, and from my experience and study, security comes from employees believing and having confidence in what their leaders say. Susan Brandt in her book ‘Manager as an Initiator of Trust’ says it this way: “Being perceived as trustworthy involves behavioral consistency and integrity. Integrity centers around telling the truth and keeping promises.” To be trusted as a leader you must deliver on what you say, by keeping your word to maintain integrity with your employees. Over the years, there are three principles I have attempted to follow myself, and have encouraged other leaders to do the same:

  1. Do what you say you’re going to do
  2. If you are not going to do it, then don’t say it
  3. If you say you’re going to do something and can’t, renegotiate

As you can see, this list is not rocket science, and I’m sure it is consistent with the values that most of you already have in place as leaders – but I have found it to be a good reminder. #1 reminds us to only commit to doing what we’re confident we can accomplish with the resources we have at hand, or the personal capability to do or influence. #2 reinforces #1 by forcing us to be honest with ourselves and others about what we’re not willing or capable of doing. Finally, because nobody is perfect, and sometimes things don’t go as confidently planned, #3 allows us to maintain our integrity by informing others upfront when a commitment cannot be met, and to renegotiate other options. Actually, I have found that in some situations #3 can be a big Trust builder especially for those who value not being surprised and/or having the opportunity to plan for other contingencies.

I’d encourage you to take action immediately to refresh your resolve to follow these principles intensely going forward. The other thing I would encourage you to do is take a bold step with your own boss, direct reports, or team members to revisit and clear up recent instances where the perception was that you didn’t follow through on one or all of the above. Again, this would be a bold step, but will go a long way in reinforcing or offering proof of your trustworthiness.

Stand up and Lead! – Dr. Tim

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About the Author Dr. Timothy M. Williams Sr

Dr. Williams is the founder of the Org-Transformation Group. The Org-Transformation Group has a mission to provide organization consulting services to assist businesses with overcoming the challenges and hindrances to optimum organization performance. The Group provides business leaders the knowledge, methods, and tools necessary to transform their organizations to peak performance. Dr. Williams’ career has spanned over three-decades encompassing various roles in Engineering, Manufacturing, and Human Resources with the Procter & Gamble Company and more recently serving as Global HR Director for Kodak’s Print Systems Division. These roles have allowed Dr. Williams to served and support multiple diverse organizations in the U.S. and abroad. His unique blend of engineering, manufacturing operations, and HR capabilities gives him a level of expertise in management, leadership, and organization development that is rarely found. This skill set allows him to provide organization consulting and coaching founded in extensive practical hands-on knowledge.   Dr. Williams has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, an MBA, and a Doctorate in Organizational Psychology. You can get in touch by email at Orgtransformgrp@gmail.com.