Trust is a value, an experience, a strength which is hard to build, and easy to lose.

There is growing evidence that we live in a trust-starved society. Trust’s absence can be seen on screens and social media sites in the anger, character assassinations and socially destructive behavior of people. The problem is not simply that trust is missing, but that it does not seem to matter that it is absent. 

Trust Reaches A New Low Point

For the past eighteen years, the Edelman Trust Barometer has surveyed the state of trust in four institutional settings: Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Business, Government and Media in 28 markets (countries) worldwide.

From the report, “In order to feel safe delegating important aspects of our lives and well-being to others, we need to trust them to act with integrity and with our best interests in mind. Trust, therefore, is at the heart of an individual’s relationship with an institution and, by association, its leadership. If trust in these institutions diminishes, we begin to fear that we are no longer in safe, reliable hands. Without trust, the fabric of society can unravel to the detriment of all.”

The responses of two representative groups comprise the survey.  The General Online Population and the Informed Public from 28 different markets (countries). Four criteria distinguish this latter group:

  • Ages 25-64
  • College educated
  • In the top 25% of household income per age group in each market
  • Report significant media consumption and engagement in business news

What is most disturbing to me is that from 2017 to 2018 the Informed Public’s trust in these four institutions in the U.S. dropped from sixth to last in the ranking of the 28 markets. I take this to mean that the people who may well be leading these institutions have lost trust in them and quite possibly in themselves. I find this very troubling.

While it may be true that trust is at a low point in American life, it does not mean that trust is entirely missing from society. All one has to do is turn to Forbes annual list of the 100 Most Trustworthy Companies to see a wide variety of companies at three levels of capitalization where trust is a core aspect of their life.

Having consulted with a company that was once on this list, I see trust from a different perspective.

I see trust as a quality in the relationship between people or within the social structure of a business or community. It is not a stand-alone idea. It is the outcome of the active qualities of the relationship. Those qualities are values like respect, honesty, and integrity.

Too often trust is treated as a label, as in the marketing of a brand. The idea can exist in print and be absent in the practice of the company. The companies on the Forbes list practice trust as an integral part of their corporate culture.

I worked with organizations where trust was a highly valued practice and also ones where it was missing. I came to see that trust is a measure of connectedness and wholeness. Where trust thrives, the fragmented character of modern organizations has been resolved. Trust, therefore, is a kind of glue, creating a social bond between the people of a company, its purpose and the structure of the organization.

The remarkable thing about trust is that it is personally initiated. It is not a delegated responsibility. You can’t order people to place trust in another person. It has to be earned. As a result, trust is an excellent measure of the freedom that an organization’s people have to do their best work. Show me a high-trust organization, and I’ll show you a place where people are free to solve problems, communicate broadly and innovate work processes to benefit the whole company.

Understanding Trust Through Three Leadership Dimensions

In my book, Circle of Impact: Taking Personal Initiative To Ignite Change, I write about three dimensions of leadership. They are the dimensions of ideas, relationships, and organizational structure. These three dimensions are three contexts in which trust can be built.

Ed Brenegar - Circle of Impact

Let’s illustrate these three dimensions by looking at a typical problem situation in the context of building trust.

Trust functions principally in relationships. It can be a personal relationship between two people or an institutional relationship between a person and the organization. Trust is the same in both contexts.

As the Edelman Trust Barometer describes, trust is a relationship where we feel safe. When we do, we feel free to be honest, even vulnerable with another person. Or, if we are talking about an institutional relationship, we feel free to accept risk because we trust that we will not be placed in jeopardy.

If trust is missing from an organization, it is a relationship problem. However, it is not merely a relationship problem. The other two dimensions of ideas and structure also contribute to the situation as a source of the problem and a source of the solution.

What kind of problem is a workplace relationship in which trust is absent? From my experience, it is a relationship without foundation or reason for being. It is two people inhabiting the same space without intention or agreement as to the kind of relationship each wants.

Think about all your business relationships. Is the trust that exists merely a convenience or is it an intentional agreement to work together with respect, integrity, and trust?

When convenience seems to be the answer, it is often because the values structure of the organization attracts like-minded persons. This conceit works fine until a significant challenge hits the office. The shallow nature of the trust may well prove inadequate for the conflicts that emerge.

When trust is an agreement that each person commits to operating by, trust-based relationships require nurture and a structure to support it.

One of the problems that I continue to see in organizations is how the three dimensions are not developed to work together. When they do not align according to a set of values and a stated purpose for the company, the structure does not provide a safe space for trust to grow.

Relationships function in a context that is both social and organizational. There is a structure which either supports the relationship or it does not. If the company’s sole focus is on the functioning of the structure, then the relationship dimension is neglected. Even with a strong values statement and clear purpose, it makes sustaining trusting relationships difficult.

3 Requirements for A Trustworthy Company

What then are we looking for in each of the dimensions to create a culture of trust?

First, a set of core values that points the way to building trust in the company. Values like respect, openness, honesty, and integrity are an excellent place to begin. For if these values live in the relationships and practices of the company, then trust both within and outside the organization will grow.

Second, trust requires a support structure that elevates the relational dimension to a level of strategic importance. If a company desires to be a trustworthy company, then it must be intentional in translating the company’s values into the training and support of people. Trust is a product of how people act. How people act is based on the attitudes and behaviors that the company defines as those intentionally identified as building trust.

Third, a culture of trust is a product of the relationships between people throughout the organization. To create this culture requires recruiting and hiring people who share a common commitment to the values of the company. In other words, you hire for behavior as well as their skill set, and being a trustworthy employee is a condition for continued employment.

Trust Is A Universal Value That Transcends Culture

Trust is a value that is practiced in our relationships with people. It requires more than talk to create trust. It is the measure of the quality of the relationship. As the Edelman Trust Barometer shows, trust is easy to lose. Yet, even if it has been lost, it can be rebuilt with intention and focus on aligning the three dimensions for creating a culture of trust.

Dr. Ed Brenegar is a Leader for Leaders working with individuals, their teams, organizations and communities who find themselves at a point of transition. Ed has developed an innovative leadership model called, Circle of Impact, that clarifies what the impact of their life or the work of their organization can be. From this perspective, impact is the change that makes a difference that matters. Ed. for over 30 years, has inspired and equipped people and organizations to practice this fresh understanding of leadership. All leadership begins with personal initiative to create impact that makes a difference that matters. Everyone within an organization or a community can, therefore, practice leadership initiative. In so doing, they turn what were once leadership-starved organizations into leader-rich cultures that make a difference that matters.

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