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Building, Nurturing, & Sustaining a Culture of Organizational Trust

Developing an organization where trust is a fundamental part of the bedrock isn’t something that anyone in their right mind would balk at. I mean, it kind of goes without saying, right? A healthy organization is one where trust is the very lifeblood.

Consequently, there’s not a single business owner who would intentionally seek to create a business that would even be considered close to the opposite, especially when they first start out.

Yet, over a period of time (depending on how quickly the erosion may occur) we begin the see the wheels of these organizations come off — and it can all begin to point back to the bedrock. This is what I mean specifically when I talk about “organizational debt” and the consequences of allowing accrual to happen for too long.

Unfortunately, for many leaders, it catches them completely off-guard: “What happened? Where did it all go wrong? Who’s to blame? Is there blame to give? How do we stop it from ever happening?

At this point it may be too hard to recover, or at least without significant reconstructive surgery or an entire reboot, and no one wants that.

The disappointment leaves us feeling alone, isolated, abandoned.

We all know what it likes to be disappointed by the people that we love and respect, the people that are closest to us. Heck, it may have happened this past week as someone personal (or professional) totally let you down.

Herein lies the framework upon which true organizational trust sits upon — the key is first understanding this very critical and fundamental principle is the reality that people will disappoint and the gap of expectations that we all may have:

Occasionally, there are gaps between what we expect people to do and what they actually do.

Read that over a few times and tell me that you can’t think of 1,000 examples of this in your own life. These experiences might include colleagues, friends, parents, business parters, your girlfriend / boyfriend, your spouse or partner, your boss. The list goes on-and-on, right?

These gaps have the propensity to show up at any moment (and typically at the “wrong” time). In fact, you might be battling with some of them at this very moment. You are faced with making some critical (and emotional) decisions about what you want to do with your time, your effort, your relationships, your career, and perhaps even your life as a whole. It sounds melodramatic but we know that it’s not — it’s real life.

Part of your decision-making process has been related to these gaps, the expectations that you had for others that have not yet (or were never?) met. These gaps have created a rift that you are not entirely sure is solvable, a chasm that you’re not entirely sure you can navigate and cross.

But here lies an unbelievable opportunity:

We get to choose what goes in those gaps.

We have the opportunity and responsibility to choose what goes in those gaps. We can either:

  1. Choose to believe the best.
  2. Choose to believe the worst.

Obviously, the first of those things is easier said than done. Choosing to believe the best about people is tough. Sometimes, it feels dangerous. Sometimes it feels unfair.

Choosing to believe the best about someone requires sacrifice and is not often returned “in kind” which can, unfortunately, lead to even more heartbreak and sadness.

But there’s always hope.

Real friendship is risky — it always will be.

Like most things in life there is always an upside, if we have the courage to look for it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Think, for a moment, about the best friends that you have and the reasons that you became great friends with them.

Let’s take it to another level, shall we? Think upon the person that you decided to partner with for that really cool startup idea. Think about the person that you decided to marry.

You opted to believe the best about who they were and your expectations about them. You did, in fact, sacrifice a lot so that those relationships could flourish and thrive. You decided (you intentionally made a decision) to trust them. You chose to believe the best instead of defaulting towards the worst.

But then things suddenly changed, things shifted, the ground that you felt was so rock-solid now feels like quicksand and in the worst of times you may even feel like you’ve made a terrible decision about them.

Here’s the opportunity! You and I get to choose what goes in that gap, remember? We have the power to choose.

But it’s so hard (I know, I know)! “You don’t know what they’ve done to me!” Yes, yes, I get it. I know. “They said they would but they didn’t!” Yup, been there, experienced that. “It hurts, I should have known better!” I guess, but could you have really known better? Are you clairvoyant?

There are two elements to this new equation that must be sussed out and those two parts are as follows:

  1. What I see (them do, act, behave).
  2. Who I am (and my responsibility).

What you see (or think you see) now is different than what you expected you would see when you first started. The way that person handle decisions, or the way they interact with you or your clients or customers or partners. Perhaps it’s the way they handle money or accounting and financial matters. Perhaps it’s the way they spend their time (or what you believe them to be doing with their time which might be contrary to what you see).

In essence, you have begun to doubt the integrity of that person, you begin to doubt what you perceive to be true and all of these things that you observe have caused you to question the person’s sincerity, which, consequently, has created a significant gap in your expectation(s). You are flirting with the idea that they may not be trustworthy; you are might even have already landed there.

But just as important is the fact that you also have an vital and critical part to play in the dynamic. Who you are as a person has created a bias (neither good nor bad, mind you, but a real bias and perspective) which has and will continue to influence your thoughts around these matters.

So you have to consider your own point of view and ask yourself the hard questions surrounding the context of some of the gaps that you may be seeing or experiencing. These aren’t comfortable questions, mind you, but they must be asked:

  1. How much of the gap has been part of your own making?
  2. Has the gap been created in conjunction with some of your own perspectives, biases, assumptions?
  3. What is your part to play?

Like any relationship, as they say, it’s a “two-way street” — pithy and perhaps trite, I know, but, it doesn’t make it any less true.

Developing a culture of trust is critical to the health and success of any organization and to do that you must be willing to encounter and engage with these difficult questions at all levels of the organization.

You see, a healthy work / relationship environment all the time with every single person is not realistic (although we almost naively believe it’s possible and we expect that it will happen).

The bottom-line is that trust fuels productivity, in any size organization, and a culture characterized by trust attracts trustworthy people and quickly surfaces those who are not.

Two corollary truths:

  1. You will never know who you can’t trust until you trust them.
  2. You will never know who you can trust until you trust them.

I think Jim Collins has said it best when he once said:

The moment you feel the need to tightly manage someone, you might have made a hiring mistake.

Don’t take this as gospel and I think the most important consideration is the “might have” in his statement. The point is that you don’t know until you know and to figure it out you have to encounter, ask, and investigate.

It’s your decision on how (and what) you put in that gap.

It takes real work to build a culture of trust.

Five Commitments to Close Expectation Gaps

To move forward productively there are a few commitments that individuals and the organization can commit to so that trust is maintained and that productivity remains high.

These are simple, straight-forward, and very actionable:

  1. When there is a gap between what I expected and what I experienced, I will choose to believe the best.
  2. When other people assume the worst about you, I will come to your defense.
  3. If what I experience begins to erode my trust, I will come directly to you about it.
  4. When I’m convinced I will not be able to deliver on a promise, I will inform you ahead of time.
  5. When you confront me about the gaps I’ve created, I will tell you the truth.

Take a moment to marinate on those for a bit of time — they are easy to read but difficult to digest and even more difficult to actually practice.

The best relationships that you have have these elements already embedded deeply within them — you just may never have qualified them as explicitly as I have here.

And you’ve probably been through a few of these scenarios before: You’ve been told that a friend of yours is acting “strange” (“different” or “out of line”). You defend your friend and you choose to believe the very best. But, when you begin to observe discrepancies, you went to them and asked them about it. And, your relationship was strong enough to have an honest conversation about the topic at hand.

Pretty great, right? This dynamic can and should happen at both the personal level and the professional. Heck, I’ve seen this work in most of my startups so far (and it’s really worked out well)!

Starting here is a simple framework for moving the relationship ball down the court (and making sure that the relationship stays intact so that you can improve and work on it!).

Get your team to commit to these things and now you’ll have a shared starting point.

Self-reflection? Introspection? Ugh…!

It’s always easier to focus on “fixing” other people. But, we know that’s only half of the real equation. Spending explicit time working on ourselves is not easy nor is it simple (and it’s harder to do and diagnose).

But we should make an attempt anyway, especially since we’ve just spent a lot of time working focusing on all those “other” people in our lives who need a ton of help, right? Right. Personal evaluation is critical so that resolutions can be authentic, clear, and real.

But even more so, it’s important because we simply don’t want to be victims of repeat offense, namely, we don’t want to make the same mistakes that we seem to make time and time again. If you’re anything like me then you know this far too intimately: We can’t seem to learn from our mistakes as often as we’d like!

Here are some questions that you can ask yourself at any level within the organization, from SME to senior leader:

  1. Are there people in your organization you have a difficult time trusting?
  2. Is it your issue or theirs?
  3. What can you do about your part?
  4. What do you need to address with them about their part?
  5. Who do you sense has a difficult time trusting you? Why?
  6. What can you do about it?

Here’s another principle and fact that’s tough to swallow: Trusting is risky but refusing to trust is even riskier. Trust enables an organization to move fast, stay nimble, agile, and effective.

But, if you’d rather have an organization that is anything but one that has those characteristics then you can go ahead and continue to keep everyone in your organization at arms-length and suspect.

The greatest organizations, especially in the beginning, were built on grit, hard work, and deep-seeded relationships fundamentally built on trust. That’s how startups are born and the character of each team member is the “oil” in the relationship that drives it forward to success.

Reggie McNeal once said:

Teams use trust as currency. If it is in short supply, then the team is poor. If trust abounds, the members of the team have purchase power with each other to access each other’s gifts, talents, energy, creativity, and love. The development of trust, then, becomes a significant leadership strategy.

Trust creates the “load limits” on the relational bridges among team members, staff, and pretty much any relationship. If you have a hard time accessing your team’s gifts, talents, energy, creativity, and love… you probably have a trust issue.

And so we end (and begin) with the leader. I have to begin with me, especially if you’re the startup founder or co-founder.

Time to get your junk together.

The reality is that leadership is stewardship and you, as the leader, are always accountable to it (this is one of my organization’s values!). Trust and suspicion are both telegraphed from the leader throughout an entire department or organization. A culture of trust begins with the leader.

Trust is a choice and when leaders fill the gaps with anything else other than trust they fill the organizational culture with something that ultimately erodes the organizational culture, regardless of style, method, or any top-level strategy. This is where cultural debt begins to build.

And when you can’t choose to trust you must choose to confront. Concealed suspicion poisons the entire relationship, team, and organization. It’s insidious and it can spiral completely out of control. You know this, you’ve experienced it! Mahatma Gandhi has said it well:

The moment there is suspicion about a person’s motives, everything he does becomes tainted.

And sometimes it’s really hard to recover. Sometimes it’s impossible. You know this because there are people in your life where you feel as if you’ll never be able to trust them, ever.

But in the professional context, in business, you can’t just easily quit on someone or just fire them. You have to confront them in a healthy, respectable, and meaningful way.

It is important and it is possible. In fact, the consequences of confrontation are far less severe than the consequences of concealment. The former is tangible, immediate, and impact fewer people. The latter is intangible, long-term, and impacts everyone.

Naturally, to develop a culture of organizational trust the leaders must be trustworthy (and choose to be daily).

Every single day we, as leaders, must make this commitment. It’s not a one-time thing. It’s continual and it should be part of the very heartbeat of our day and, as a result, the very heartbeat of the organization:

To maintain the relationship integrity necessary to operate as a team, we must choose to trust and be trustworthy.

Building a culture of organizational trust is hard, but worth it. Recovery is always possible but it will not always be easy. Again, it’s worth it.

We all have a role and a part to play. We all have control over our choices and how we may respond to the gaps that we see and the expectations that we have. But if we are all truly committed to building a healthy organizational culture we must choose to trust and commit to work on it consistently.

This post was originally written here on my personal blog but I’ve edited the content and updated it. It’s also worth noting that all of this was deeply inspired by the work of Andy Stanley and his staff via North Point Ministries. I worked there for a time and they are directly responsible for crafting my perspectives around leadership and organizational health. I am deeply grateful for the years that I spent there and would not be who I am without those experiences.