Trust is the Key to High Performing Organisations. Here’s how to build it.

“Trust is like the air we breathe. When it’s present, nobody really notices. But when it’s absent, everybody notices.” – Warren Buffett

Do you make a conscious effort to cultivate trust in your workplace?

Or do you take trust for granted?

A lot of people don’t think about trust at all. But it’s a mistake no organization can afford to make. As leadership expert Stephen Covey says, trust is not a soft skill, it’s a hard necessity. Studies have shown that trust is the key to high-performing organizations.

Amy Lyman, co-founder of the Great Place to Work® Institute, analyzed Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For in her book The Trustworthy Leader. She concludes: “Companies whose employees praise the high levels of trust in their workplace are, in fact, among the highest performers, beating the average annualized returns of the S&P 500 by a factor of three.”

Now most people think of themselves as trustworthy, so they naturally assume that other people will trust them. When someone doesn’t trust them, it’s always the other person’s fault: “I know there’s nothing wrong with me, so why don’t you trust me?”

The thing is, people don’t judge your trustworthiness by what you think – by what your personal values are. They judge you by what you do. People can’t see your intentions or your values.  But they can see your behaviors.

Building trust starts with focusing on your behaviors. Let me share a story to show you what I mean:

Larry’s story: Being trustworthy is not enough

Larry was the new President of NuParts, a small manufacturing company. NuParts had been facing increasing competition from overseas suppliers, putting pressure on them to reduce their prices. Larry had been brought in by the owners of the company to cut costs so that prices could be reduced without affecting profitability.

Larry did an excellent job. He was able to cut costs so that NuParts could remain competitive without sacrificing their profits. Larry had proved to the owners that he was trustworthy.

But beneath the surface, things were not so rosy. The proportion of defective parts produced had increased by 6 percent and the staff turnover had increased by 15 percent. There were signs of morale problems in the workforce. Larry decided to commission an employee survey to get to the bottom of things.

To Larry’s shock and disappointment, the survey revealed the employees had low trust in their management. Larry couldn’t understand this. He’d achieved what he’d been asked to do and kept the company profitable in the face of stiff competition.

What Larry failed to realize, is that being trustworthy does not guarantee that you will be trusted. Being trustworthy and building trust are two separate things. Larry was too focused on being trustworthy to the owners and had neglected to build trust with employees. Somewhere along the way, the employees had become alienated.

The science behind trust and high-performance

Paul Zak is a neuroscientist whose quest to understand the principles of trust and human connection has taken him from Fortune 50 boardrooms to the rainforests of Papua New Guinea. In Zak’s book Trust Factor he describes how he discovered that the brain synthesizes the neurochemical oxytocin when we are trusted by another person. Interestingly, this oxytocin causes us to reciprocate the other person’s trust by becoming more trustworthy.

Oxytocin makes us feel good to be part of an organization. Our brains reward us for cooperating and treating others well, and for being trustworthy when we are trusted. In the words of Zak: “Trust begets trust.”

Zak has worked with companies in the United States, Europe and Asia across a variety of industries. He used the opportunity to collect data on approximately 5,000 employees to measure the effect of trust on productivity.

Zak compared the employees of high-trust companies with employees of low-trust companies. He found that the employees of high-trust companies are 50 percent more productive, have 106 percent more energy, and are 76 percent more engaged at work. Additionally, those working in high-trust companies experience 60 percent more joy at work, align with their companies’ purpose 70 percent more, and feel 66 percent closer to their colleagues.

Furthermore, employees at high-trust companies earn 17 percent more than employees at low trust companies. In a competitive market, high-trust companies will only pay more for labor if their employees are more productive than those working in low-trust companies. As Zak observes, this is powerful evidence that trust directly improves profits.

So we’ve established why trust is important. Now how can we build trust?

The four behaviors that build trust

Let me introduce you to the Intégro Trust Model. Through Intégro’s many years of research, we have found that there are four behaviors that build trust: Acceptance, Openness, Straightforwardness and Reliability.

A trusted team member is one that is accepting of others, open about what’s really happening, straightforward in raising problems and addressing issues that need to be discussed, and reliably doing their job, and delivering on their promises.

I’m guessing that you can think of people you work with who demonstrate these behaviors. But do they operate by all four behaviors all of the time? I can almost guarantee that you can think of some team members who don’t use all four of these behaviors consistently.

You’ll have some team members that are reliable but don’t share very much – they lack openness. And you’ll have other team members that are accepting but don’t say what they think – they lack straightforwardness.

Let’s take each of the four behaviors in turn:

Acceptance

We all have a need to be accepted for who we are. It’s not pleasant to be judged, criticized or made to feel inferior. If someone puts us down, or treats us as less important than they are, we’re going to lose trust in them; we’re not going to be open with them – in fact we won’t want to work, or live with them.

People who lack acceptance typically set extremely high standards for themselves, and then impose those same standards on others they work with. When others fail to meet their standards, they become critical. They react with frustration and annoyance, whether they express it or not. What these people fail to realize is that when they do this, they diminish the trust other people have for them.

People who  are accepting are more understanding and forgiving of others’ mistakes. It’s not that they’ll accept poor performance, but they are more ready to  accept the person for who they are, and deal performance issues as opportunities to develop the person’s knowledge and skills.

We can learn to accept others for who they are, be they young or old, experienced or inexperienced, outgoing or reserved. The most important thing is to understand that people will not trust you if you think that they are in some way inferior to you. Judgement shuts down the next behavior that builds trust – Openness.

Openness

We tend to work best with people who don’t hide things from us. We like to hear the whole story, even if some details may be unpleasant. If there’s been a change of circumstances that could affect us, we’d like to know.

People who have difficulty being open are naturally inclined to be more private. They feel uncomfortable about discussing their thoughts and feelings. They may wrongly assume that others are simply not interested.

People who are naturally open are happy to share their thoughts and feelings with anyone who will listen. They also want to know what other people are thinking and encourage open debate in team meetings.

There has been a lot of emphasis in recent years on the importance of business leaders being more transparent with employees. Employees want to know what is going on – how the business is performing. They also want to know how they are performing.

Are employees in your organization getting regular feedback about their performance, or do they have to wait for the annual performance review?

If you tend to keep your thoughts and opinions to yourself, you can learn to be more open with those you work with. You may be thinking that others are not interested in what you have to say, but in most cases this is not true. Every good team member is interested in the thoughts and opinions of their teammates. When you are more open consistently, you become more believable. This will  result in people valuing your opinion and asking you to contribute more .

Straightforwardness

We like people who say what they think, who are honest, and who don’t shirk from telling the truth – even if it’s not what we want to hear.  We know exactly where we stand with them, and we don’t have to second-guess them.

People who have difficulty being straightforward are concerned about hurting people’s feelings or alienating them. They may try to sugarcoat the truth to avoid unpleasantness or conflict. When conveying bad news, they may tell a long roundabout story rather than getting straight to the point.

People who are straightforward often pride themselves on their ability to tell it like it is. Although they may come across as blunt or insensitive at times, everyone knows where they stand with them. They hold no surprises. If they are so blunt as to offend people, they need to remember the first behavior that builds trust – acceptance. You can be straightforward and respectful at the same time.

We can learn to be straightforward to ensure that our messages are clearly expressed. This will avoid misunderstandings and grievances accumulating that will eventually come to a head. By saying what we mean, we show people that we can be trusted.

Reliability

We need to know that when a person says they are going to do something they will in fact do it. A person who makes a lot of promises can quickly gain our favor, but we will just as quickly lose confidence in them if they don’t deliver on what they promised.

People who have difficulty being reliable are often enthusiastic, optimistic and energetic by nature. As they find it hard to say no, they end up committing on more projects than they can handle. Consequently, they can fail to deliver.

People who are reliable take their commitments very seriously. They won’t make a commitment  unless they are sure that they can keep it, and that they can do it to the best of their ability. They typically have high standards and are very time conscious.

We can learn to be reliable to the extent that we fulfill all our commitments. It’s essential that we don’t take on more than we can handle. We can’t afford to make promises we can’t keep. When we show that we will do what we said we would, people will know they can trust us.

Are you building or diminishing trust?

You’re either building or diminishing trust all the time. In every relationship you have, everything you do, and everything you do not do, has an impact on the level of trust you achieve. In order to improve, you must first learn to become aware of this.

With every action that you take, simply ask yourself: Are you building trust or diminishing it?

When trust is neglected, it can be a virus that sweeps through an organization, causing widespread disillusionment, disengagement and dysfunction. The predictable reaction is the introduction of control-based management, and the end result is high employee turnover.

Fortunately, building trust is a learnable skill. As long as you have the intent and desire, trust is an asset that can be consciously increased and developed.

Now building trust comes easily with people who are similar to you. For example, if you value punctuality and attention to detail, you’ll quickly build trust with someone if they arrive on time for meetings, fully prepared with facts and data. But if they turn up two minutes late with no preparation, you’ll be less than impressed.

On the other hand, building trust with people who are different to you is more challenging. But you can’t focus on just one of the four behaviors and expect to build trust. If you want to build trust, you’ll find that knowing how to combine different behaviors will be much more effective.

I’d like to share a quick example:

Bill’s story: Combining two behaviors

Let’s say you have a team member – we’ll call him Bill – who’s not performing up to his usual standards. He seems distracted at work and his performance is dropping. You want to be direct with him, but you don’t want to be unnecessarily harsh with him, as this will lead to resentment and loss of trust.

So you decide to raise the matter by combining straightforwardness and acceptance.

“Bill, we need to talk, is this a good time?”

You want to respect Bill’s time and ensure he is able to give you his full attention without distraction.

“Bill, I’m concerned about your work performance of late. I know what you are capable of and you have been a strong contributor to the team, but lately your mind seems to be elsewhere, and your performance has slipped well below your usual standard. Is there a problem?”

You’re being straightforward to Bill about your concerns, while conveying acceptance by showing appreciation of his positive qualities.

You can now have a frank and honest discussion about what the issue is. Then you can discuss the way forward.

“Well Bill, what do you think you need to get back to your usual self? Is there anything I can do to help?”

You’re making your expectations clear while emphasizing your willingness to work together with Bill.

Create a high-performance culture

Trust is the foundation for creating a high-performing culture in your organization. When you show your people you have confidence in them, when you give them more responsibility and get them more involved, you’ll be rewarded with people who are inspired and driven to give you the very best they’ve got.

People really do want to make a difference. People really do want to do their best. So give them permission to do so. Develop relationships based on trust, build a high-performance culture and all things will become possible.