Part 3: Cultivating a Culture of Trust, Pragmatic ways to Overcome Common Challenges
While cultivating a culture of trust has many advantages, doing so is a difficult process, as I discussed in the first and second installments of my three-part series, respectively. However, there are pragmatic ways you can overcome those common challenges—and start reaping the benefits of having a culture where employees feel heard and psychologically safe, among other things.
I’ve been helping individuals and organizations build cultures of trust for more than 30 years. I use a system I’ve deemed the “Trust Framework,” which has four key parts.
The first tool under the “Trust Framework” is the “Trust Equation.” As I touched on in my earlier articles, when I work with clients, the initial step I have them take is to come up with their own definition of the term “trust.” The most basic definition of trust is when there’s a high correlation between expectations and observed outcomes.
However, the “ingredients” to achieve that high correlation are where individual interpretations apply. That’s the “Trust Equation”—figuring out what your trust ingredients are. My own definition includes all of the below (“DB” stands for “Demonstrated Behavior” and “E” stands for “Expectations”). You can use it as a starting point, but you might find that you’d prefer a narrower focus.
To create your definition of trust, you need to determine what your expectations are. A good way to start thinking about this is by asking yourself which fundamental things people will be evaluated on during performance reviews. This will help your team understand what your expectations are so they can adjust their demonstrated behavior accordingly. This concept of expectations versus demonstrated behavior is the second part of the “Trust Framework.”
Additionally, when you’re defining trust and setting expectations, it’s crucial to remember that trust doesn’t merely flow linearly at organizations. It flows in different directions—from employees to managers, managers to employees, employees to the CEO, the CEO to employees and so forth. There’s also self-confidence, the trust you place in yourself as a leader. All of these moving parts make up the “Trust Flow,” the third element of the “Trust Framework.” Looking at your organization’s “Trust Flow” will help you refine your definition and expectations.
Once you’ve set your definition and expectations, you don’t have to inform everyone at your company at once—you can speak with your direct reports, instruct them to tell their direct reports and so forth.
When you do meet with your team, don’t just stick to outlining your definition of trust and discussing your expectations. That’s not enough. You also need to stress that it’s vital for everyone to have regular conversations about trust, which brings me to the fourth key part of the “Trust Framework”—the “Trust Spectrum.”
As I discussed in my previous article, it’s common to hear the phrase, “I either trust you or I don’t.” It’s also common to hear that “trust is earned, not given.” However, trust is not binary. It operates on a spectrum. Over time, your trust in someone can move up, move down, move up again, move down and perhaps even be broken forever. Nor should trust be something that is earned, as it creates unclear expectations that might be unrealistic. Instead, it should be given and “adjusted” on the “Trust Spectrum” accordingly.
That’s why it’s crucial to have regular conversations about trust, such as in the form of weekly one-on-ones between managers and their direct reports, instead of letting things slide and waiting until trust has been broken to have a meeting. That way, people know where they stand and have an opportunity to turn things around instead of getting fired and feeling shocked.
Think about it this way. If you get a splinter and address it immediately, it’s just a splinter. If you don’t address it immediately, it’ll become infected. The infection might spread to your whole body, and the next thing you know, you have gangrene. That’s the unraveling of trust. For example, when I was a brigade commander in the military, my trust in a lieutenant commander almost lowered because he was running late for an important event. However, I took the time to dig into the reason he was running late. I learned that on his way, he’d seen the scene of a car accident and had stopped to make sure an older woman who’d been involved was OK until emergency services arrived. The moment I heard that, my trust in him actually grew stronger.
When these conversations about trust happen, they need to be non-judgemental, non-accusatory and inquisitive. If you’re the boss, set the stage by making it clear that you want to have a healthy conversation free from judgement and accusations and that it’s not your intent to make the direct report feel bad.
Even with these conversations about trust regularly occurring across your organization, it’ll take time for you to see long-lasting results and a true culture shift at your business. However, over time, you’ll start to notice employees feel more psychologically safe, more responsibly challenging the status quo, more engaged and more accountable. And you might even hear some playful, good-faith teasing between employees about trust. That’s a sign that a culture of trust has truly become integral at your company and you have attained the ultimate competitive advantage, one which you can now routinely cultivate and tend to.