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The Importance of Trust

| October 3, 2017

by Jim Bruce

Last week, during the closing session’s CIO Panel at one of the MOR Leaders Programs, every CIO on the panel commented on the importance of trust.  Earlier in the session in a similar vein, I had noted that followers want leaders who are credible, trustworthy, leaders who do what they say they will do.  Max De Pree, the former CEO of Herman Miller Inc., wrote in his book Leadership Jazz: “Followers cannot afford leaders who make casual promises; someone may take them seriously!” 
In a similar vein, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, in their book Credibility, noted: “When a leader makes promises, people instinctively do a credit check.  The last time this person made such a promise, was he being honest about it?”  In other words, did he or she deliver on the promise?
And, in his book, Soup – a Recipe to Create a Culture of Greatness, Jon Gordon, discusses how trust is one of the essential ingredients necessary to build a great team.  He notes there that without trust, you cannot have engaged relationships and without engaged relationships you won’t be a successful leader, manager, team member, teacher, coach, or …
Simply stated, followers expect their leaders to be open, honest, ethical, and worthy of trust.  And, leaders expect the same from their followers.  Trust is a two-way street.
So, how is trust described and how do you go about creating and maintaining a trusting environment?  The online Oxford Living Dictionaries define trust as a “Firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.” 
The essay “What Is Trust?,” cited below, tells us that “Trust is primarily a positive emotion.  It makes people confidently rely on the integrity, or ability of people and organizations. …  The mind triggers the trust emotion after complex rational and empathic evaluation.  The emotion overcomes doubts and fears …  While it largely lubricates the wheels of society, trust may often be misplaced, or violated.  Easily destroyed, only sincere care and redoubled effort can rebuild trust.”
Why is it important for people to trust each other?  Paul Zak’s research provides six answers to this question:  Staff are more productive, have more energy, collaborate better with colleagues, stay with their employers longer, suffer less chronic stress, and are happier with their lives.  The overall result is stronger staff performance.  Zak summarized his research by noting that happiness and joy “on the job comes from doing purpose-driven work with a trusted team.”
Now that we understand what trust is as well as its importance, Zak’s research, along with Jon Gordon’s work, and essays found on the MindTools website provide us with valuable guides for building a culture of trust in my organization:
1.  Lead by example.  If you want to build trust, show that you trust others.  This means trusting your team, your colleagues, and your boss.  Always remember that others are always watching you and taking their cues from you.
2.  Intentionally build relationships.  When people intentionally build social ties at work, their performance improves.  Google found that managers who “express interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being” outperform others in the quality and quantity of their work.  When people care about each other they perform better.  This means you get to know others personally.  You see each other first as people and find ways to share personal stories and bond while not invading privacy.
3.  Share information broadly.  Say what you are going to do and then do it.  Frequent, honest, open communication builds trust.  Poor communication is one of the key reasons that relationships fall apart.  Uncertainty about an organization’s direction leads to stress that undermines teamwork.  Without open communication with all around you, you cannot build trust.  You have to talk with each other in an honest, meaningful way.  Be honest.  Always tell the truth.  Never lie even if the news is not good.  Be transparent, authentic, and willing to share.
4.  Give people discretion in how they do their work.  Enable job crafting.  Whenever possible, allow staff to manage others and execute projects their own way.  Being trusted to figure things out is a great motivator.  When people choose which projects, they’ll work on they focus their energies on what they care about most.  The result is more highly motivated staff.
5.  Facilitate whole-person growth.  In high-trust workplaces people develop both personally and professionally.  Managers and staff often meet more frequently to focus on professional and personal growth.  Part of growing is the willingness to show vulnerability with no one taking on the role of being a “know-it-all.”  Jim Whitehurst, CEO of the software company RedHat has said:  “I found that being very open about the things I did not know actually … helped me build credibility.”  Asking for help taps into the natural human impulse to cooperate with others.  
6.  Don’t place blame.  When people work together, honest mistakes and disappointments happen and it’s easy then to assess blame.  When fingers get pointed an unpleasant atmosphere develops and morale is lowered and trust under minded.  Take the alternative approach and think about the mistake in a constructive way repairing the damage and moving forward.  Discourage cliques as they isolate others, thereby undermining trust between team’s members.  Deal with breaks in the trust between team members directly.  Don’t let them fester as they will worsen and damage the entire team.
If you choose to work on building personal trust and/or the trust of your staff, this week’s Tuesday Reading gives you at least six places to start.  Select a starting point, say, for example, you personally showing more trust.  Treat it as a practice to extend more trust to team members or colleagues at least two times each day until it becomes a habit.  And, to keep you honest with yourself, put the practice at the top of your calendar to remind you each morning, and at the end of the day note who you showed trust to in a “Trust” journal.  And, when you become good at extending trust, pick another element of this longer list and begin to work on that.
Trusting and being trusted are key elements of being a great leader.  It’s something that each of us can profit from working on.  Make it a great week.  .  .     jim

Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Max DePree, Leadership Jazz, Dell Bools, 1992.
James Kouzes and Barry Posner, Credibility – How Leaders Gain and Lose It and Why People Demand It, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011.
Paul Zak, The Neuroscience of Trust, Harvard Business Review, January-February 2017 Issue.
What Is Trust, Effective Mind Control, January 2014.
Jon Gordon, Soup – A Recipe to Create a Culture of Greatness, John Wiley & Sons, 2010.
MindTools, Building Trust Inside Your Team.