The role of trust in a high-performance culture

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Michael Reitz | Executive Vice President, Mackinac Center for Public Policy


Dr. Katherine Ruger | Assistant Dean of Admissions, Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine

In your work, do you struggle with communications conflicts or staff turnover? Is employee morale and absenteeism a problem? Do teams in your organization work in silos, unaware of and unconcerned with how their work affects and is affected by others? Are your people focused on day-to-day routines to the exclusion of thinking about the future, the results of their actions, or your unifying goals? If so, you probably know that you have a problem with your corporate culture.

Michael Reitz and Katherine Ruger provide perspectives on transforming workplace cultures through building trust. Working in two different industries, Reitz and Ruger connected while attending a health policy forum where their discussion evolved from health policy to effective leadership. They discovered, despite the distinct differences between their respective industries, the two had some things in common. Both serve in executive-level leadership positions for nonprofit organizations. Reitz works for a public policy think tank and has led teams in an evolving, data-driven business, as they seek to make a strong organization even better. And Ruger, with over 10 year of experience in higher education, has focused on leading diverse teams in making decisions in a time of rapid change.

Both individuals are committed to using effective leadership techniques to bring a culture of continuous improvement to their organizations. They have learned a few practices for enabling a culture of trust that leads to high performance.

We will review why trust is essential in building and maintaining high-performance organizations. We will also explain how leaders are a key part of building a culture of trust, even if they can’t create it on their own.

How do leaders make it more likely that people will trust — or distrust — each other in an organization?

If you want to be a leader who can lead your people into a culture of trust, you must yourself be able to trust. So start by asking yourself, “Do I trust other people?”

Before you declare, “Yes!” automatically, consider a few factors that may inhibit your ability to fully trust. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I have underlying or unresolved issues with my team?
  2. Do my personal biases and assumptions affect my ability to trust?
  3. Do I harbor some cynicism that could impair my understanding of trust?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should start addressing the issues they bring up as you move forward in building a foundation for trust.

If you answered no to each question, congratulations! You are closer to achieving a high performance culture than you may think. So now ask yourself this: “Am I trustworthy?” Because, let’s face it, if your people can’t trust you, why would they follow you?

We asked our teams, colleagues, and networks: “What specific actions might one implement to create and model an atmosphere of trust?” From their answers, we identified five themes.

Create a climate of openness & transparency: Leaders go first

Harvard Business School professor of leadership Amy Edmondson described a climate of openness and transparency as having a “shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Many people, perhaps most, fear appearing ignorant, intrusive or incompetent in the workplace. They are less likely to admit mistakes, which may be perceived as a sign of ignorance; present ideas, which may be perceived as intrusive; or ask questions, which may be perceived as a sign of incompetence. In a study conducted at Google, Edmondson found the best teams deal with errors in an effective way. That is, team members admit errors and discuss them. What distinguishes the best performing teams, she contends, is felt psychological safety, which facilitates a “climate of openness.”

Leaders must model openness, and practicing vulnerability requires pluck. Reitz and a colleague, Jim, recently interviewed a candidate for a new position. They explained to the candidate that a key organizational value is candor. At the end of the interview, the candidate asked, “Okay, you say you value candor, so tell me: How did I do? Do you have any concerns?” Reitz instinctively said: “Oh, you did fine.” But Jim leaned in, complimented the candidate’s openness, and then identified a concern that could have been a deal breaker. The three discussed it and decided the concern was misplaced.

Geneva, another of Reitz’s colleagues, points to her organization’s transparency as a key habit that built trust. When the organization encountered a challenge, the leaders brought it to the entire team. They briefed the team on the problem, the plan of action, and what each employee could do with the information. “This helped me understand the decisions they made,” she said.

People who feel free to take interpersonal risks ask questions. In assessing your organizational climate, ask yourself: Does your team feel secure enough to ask questions? Will you, yourself, admit a mistake?

Have you ever been in a large group and wanted to ask a question, but everyone else was silent? If so, did you ask the question? If you answered “no,” you’ve felt the power of fear. Building a culture where your people have the ability to fail is essential to cultivating trustworthiness in an organization.

Practice humility

Demonstrate humility by admitting your mistakes. In fact, think of a recent mistake right now. Did you admit it to anyone else in your office? By admitting your mistakes, you create an open and transparent environment.

Ask for feedback and be open to it, without taking it personally. Receiving feedback may be an intimidating idea, but it’s one that is needed for improvement. In an effort to ensure a positive team culture, Ruger surveyed her employees, asking how their experiences shaped how they worked today and whether they had a clear understanding of their roles within the organization. Although their answers were not all favorable, Ruger used the survey as an opportunity to change her leadership approach and implement a new strategy to improve transparency.

A culture of feedback carries risks, both for the organization and individual employees. For example, Ruger was part of an organization that encouraged employees to provide open feedback and share knowledge. But when a colleague provided respectful and timely feedback to a supervisor, she ultimately lost her job. The same situation happened again; when another colleague provided respectful feedback to the same supervisor, he was soon shown the door.

Contrast that to a leader Reitz worked with who asked Reitz to identify his blind spots. Reitz did. The leader listened carefully, did not argue or justify, and began to acknowledge and discuss his blind spot with other colleagues. He changed his behavior because he was willing to solicit, hear, and respond to feedback.

What messages were these organizations sending to their employees? What message do you send to yours?

Offer idealized influence

Leaders who model high standards of integrity, morality and ethics gain the deep respect of their followers. Susan was a great example of what we may call “idealized influence,” or influence by embodying a set of ideals. Susan practiced “management by walking around” – getting out into the workplace and talking with employees on an informal basis. She acknowledged her people, remembered their life events, and praised their successes. And when she was nominated for an industry award, she insisted that before making the announcement public, she would personally tell her team. She wrote an email to the organization, and its president, declaring that this nomination belonged to each of her team members. She stated that if it weren’t for her team’s hard work, she wouldn’t have received the nomination.

As a result, her team will do anything for her, though this was not her intent. She sincerely sought to show appreciation and provide credit to her team.

Demonstrate emotional consistency

Would others describe you as a “hair on fire” leader, or as someone who is “cool as a cucumber?” This question gets to your emotional intelligence and how others perceive you. Employees are apt to trust leaders who consistently control their emotional responses, in words, actions, and behaviors. Does the employee who wants to approach you have to guess whether you’re in a good mood, or likely to blow up? Do members of your team have to huddle with each other to guess how you will respond if someone approaches you?

Demonstrating consistency starts even before a person joins your team. Claire Kittle Dixon of Talent Market says that one of the reasons people leave nonprofit organizations (her clientele) is false advertising: The role or the organization’s culture was different than what the new hire was told before taking the job. It’s understandable that a mismatch could occur. Everyone, including managers, wants to give a positive impression in a hiring decision.

This insight prompted Reitz to routinely tell job candidates what they should expect, both good and bad. It’s natural to tell the candidate why she should take the job. But a leader should also use the opportunity to explain the weaknesses and threats the organization faces. If hired, the candidate will learn about them soon enough. Good candidates will be drawn to the challenges if the organization is intent on improvement.

Share the vision and delegate

Why do you have qualms about trusting your team? Since you are responsible for training your staff, delegating provides your team the opportunity to demonstrate skills and knowledge that you have encouraged.

Take Jessica for example. Ruger presented an idea to her organization and asked if any team members would like to become involved. Jessica responded enthusiastically to the offer and Ruger encouraged her to run with it. After three short months, Jessica successfully implemented the new initiative and earned a promotion. She has since become more independent in decision-making and has contributed new ideas. Not only was Jessica empowered to fully contribute to the organization by her interaction with Ruger, she felt trusted by her leader.

How to build trust as an individual contributor

Leaders are not the only ones who can build or erode trust. Individual contributors have a wide-ranging impact on whether a culture of trust exists. A team member can increase her personal credibility by building trust with colleagues. We offer three strategies for doing so: Achieve results while growing relational influence, cultivate strong communication habits, and presume positive intent on the part of others.

Achieve results

Results, results, results. There’s no hiding this fact: The best way for a team member to become trustworthy is to deliver results.

Results can be small or large, the on-time delivery of a major project, or taking a phone call as promised. The basic building block is the willingness to make and keep commitments. Think of a person who eagerly agrees to do something but never follows through. What happens? Eventually you become reluctant to give that person any task. You build backup plans around his responsibilities. You stop inviting him to meetings.

To build a reputation of reliability, clearly communicate your commitments and expectations. “Sandra, I will send you a first draft by Monday.” “George, can you talk to Ted before our next staff meeting?” “Tonya, I’ll do that. When do you need it?”

Develop a reputation for delivering on those commitments, no matter how small. Write your commitments down as you make them. Draw a unique symbol, like a star or box, next to each commitment on a page full of notes. Load them on your calendar and set aside time each week to plow through them. The habit of logging your commitments will cause you to scrutinize new commitments.

A maniacal focus on results, however, cannot come at the expense of the team. An effective organization harnesses the unique capabilities of individuals to achieve an outcome that is greater than their individual contributions. A person who seeks results while tearing down the team is not creating value for the organization.

A rock star performer gets things done while making the team stronger, as shown in Figure 1. An employee who focuses on preserving harmony and collaboration while ignoring results is a spectator — he applauds the team but fails to contribute to the outcome. A person who focuses only on results without building the team leaves road kill in her path and is toxic to an organization. The employee who cares neither for the team nor for results should be, as Drucker recommends, released to your competitors.

Figure 1

Young professionals can incorrectly assume that they only gain influence over others by getting a promotion. Jay Conger rejects this assumption in “Winning ‘Em Over.” Conger explains three types of influence: role power, expertise power and relational power. Role power is a blunt force; it’s the ability of a manager to act on behalf of the organization. Hiring, promotion, compensation, termination — these decisions require role power. Expertise power is the credibility that comes from specialized skills or knowledge. Relational power is the goodwill that builds over time as a person proves herself to be reliable, honest and kind. The most effective people always grow their relational influence faster than their role power.

Cultivate strong communication habits

An individual team member cannot build a team without effective communication habits. And communication requires more than delivering information. It occurs when two or more people create mutual understanding. It starts with speaking clearly, of course, but it requires just as much attention to listening.

Communication is buoyed by curiosity — curiosity in what the other person has to say, what he means, what he sees. One does not convey curiosity by talking, but by asking questions and listening. Asking questions can spark mental discoveries for both communicators.

Good communication can’t happen without candor. The Merriam-Webster definition of “candor” includes “unreserved, honest, or sincere expression.” In communication, that means transparency: no hidden agenda, no masking of true motivations, no unspoken requests. A candid person is not rude or malicious, but seeks an open dialogue.

You can demonstrate candor by giving feedback. Providing feedback to a colleague can feel like a perilous task, especially if the person does not report to you. What do you say? How will your co-worker respond? What if you get angry? Mark Horstman and Mike Auzenne of Manager Tools offer a feedback model: First, ask for permission to give feedback. Second, state the behavior. Third, describe the impact of the behavior. And fourth, if a person reports to you, it’s appropriate to discuss next steps.

It sounds like this: “Roger, when you come to the meeting five minutes late, it sets us all behind.” Feedback can be positive as well: “Jennifer, thanks for delivering that project on time. It made us all look good with our client.”

The feedback model focuses on behavior — actions, words, manner of communication. Good feedback does not focus on intent. You cannot see a person’s motivation, and it is useless to guess. Rather, state the behavior and then, dispassionately, describe how it affects the team. If you can’t do it with a smile on your face, you should wait until you can.

Presume positive intent

Reitz’s organization has adopted a standard for interacting with others: the presumption of goodwill. That is, always assume that a person is acting and speaking with a positive intent in mind. Think of that person as you think of yourself. You try to act in the best interest of your organization; you say and do things in a well-intentioned manner. The same is true for the people around you.

The problem comes when we assume a person’s motivation is negative. “She always does this to screw us up.” “He knows I hate that font and uses it just to bug me.” “That flight attendant is intentionally giving us bad service.” Presuming bad intent places you in an adversarial posture, and confirmation bias does the rest.

This is a miserable way to live and work. Instead, always assume that the other person had a perfectly valid reason for saying or doing what she did. And if you have a question about it, ask. By putting yourself in the shoes of another, you will consider a problem from more than one angle. You also will convey awareness and care — a simpler and easier way to live.

Closing thoughts

It can take years to build trust and only seconds to destroy it. Understanding the critical aspects of developing a culture of trust and respect is the first step in this journey, but implementing the concepts is key. While trust may not be a one-size-fits-all solution, leaders, teams, and individual contributors win by­ offering trust to others and demonstrating their own trustworthiness. Trusting teams have a greater organizational impact through delivering results and building a high-performance culture.