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Building Trust in Organizations

Kathleen McGinn

White light box with black letters on three lines saying be the change

Leaders Need Trust

The pandemic has brought forward many new social phenomena and transformative changes to our society and economy, affecting all organizations. The emergence of leadership is one such phenomenon arising from this dynamic. This special kind of leadership occurs when individuals who possess critical ability, knowledge and expertise emerge to help us overcome a major problem or meet an explicit need. Thus far, health experts and several Canadian government leaders have been this country’s emergent leaders of the pandemic. More recently, social activists are the current emergent leaders of the anti-racism movement.

At a time like this, we need new leaders to emerge. However, leadership of this nature cannot emerge without trust – which is effectively, the willingness to be vulnerable to the actions or behaviours of another. In 2020, our CanTrust Index showed that over 75 per cent of Canadians were willing to trust medical doctors and scientists for reliable information. This trust and the role these experts have played, has been the critical differentiator in Canada’s response to COVID-19.

Embedding intra-organizational trust

At Proof Strategies, we encourage a trust-building imperative within your organization. Whether it’s in communication, strategy or within your product or service offering, the only way to effectively scale trust, is by embedding it. In this way, when we design organizations that drive trustworthy conduct and measure trust on a regular basis, we create the conditions for great leadership and more viable solutions to emerge.

Having high intra-organizational trust also has a range of benefits related to productivity within organizations such as the increase in individual and group level performance, job satisfaction, employee motivation and retention, and greater openness of communication, commitment and cooperation.

The issue at hand is that Canada and other Western countries are currently experiencing a crisis of trust in its formal leadership. In 2020, only 28 per cent of Canadians were willing to trust business executives for reliable information. Overall, employee’s trust in their own CEO  has fallen from 55 per cent in 2018 to 38 per cent in 2020. Moreover, our research found that Canadian employees gave their employer a ‘C” grade for their capacity to build trust internally.

These data are very concerning given that we inherently need trustworthy relationships to make meaningful progress, especially in our workplaces where we are navigating a range of complexities associated with pandemic safety precautions, ending racism and adapting to the recession.

What happens inside doesn’t stay inside

Low trust within organizations also has important implications for trust in the public domain. A  key lesson in modern trust research shows that what happens inside organizations impacts the larger social environment outside the organization and vice-versa.  This means low trust in the leadership of organizations will harm trust at all levels of your stakeholder ecosystem, from customers to clients, to suppliers and regulators. Low trust can spread like a virus.

So how do we build trustworthy organizations?

We believe that trustworthiness must be embedded into all aspects of organizational design. Most recently, Proof Strategies and our new venture Trustlab Inc. conducted an in-depth study of the state of trust within Canada’s workplaces. Our aim was to provide clients with a deeper level of understanding of the drivers of trust within organizations and provide benchmark levels against which they can evaluate and compare their own trust performance.   This data was collected under pre-pandemic conditions and will provide a baseline for inquiry once we reach a post-pandemic period.

Our inquiry was based on research that demonstrated that trust in working relationships predominantly manifests by engaging in two very distinct behaviours, reliance and disclosure. We elaborate on these below.

Reliance within a work context refers to relying on another’s skills, knowledge, judgements or actions. When people are willing to rely on others, they are also more likely to delegate and give autonomy.   

Disclosure within a work context refers to sharing work-related or personal information of a sensitive nature. When people trust, they disclose more accurate, relevant and complete information and more fully share their thoughts and feelings.

It’s important to note that there is definitely an interconnection between reliance and disclosure.  People are more willing to disclose to others with whom they feel they can also rely on and vice-versa. When a workplace is characterized by both, it creates multiple benefits such as higher collaboration between co-workers and an environment with strong interpersonal care and concern.  These are all attributes of an organization poised to weather substantive change.

Progress comes in many forms. We have known for a long time that corporations and their leaders need to work harder and more intentionally at building trust.  Most recently, society has been galvanized by world events to support a more deliberate and concerted effort to address the inequality and racism that has plagued our organizational systems.  This progress can be facilitated by further engaging in trustworthy behaviour, most notably behaviour that demonstrates a positive orientation toward others and that is invested in “doing the right thing”.  A recent national example is the BlackNorth Initiative underway in Canada established to remove systemic barriers which states: “we will increase our efforts to make our workplaces trusting places to have complex, and sometimes difficult conversations about anti-Black systemic racism and ensure that no barriers exist to prevent Black employees from advancing within the company.”

Indeed, times of great uncertainty and disruption present organizations with the ideal conditions for building trust.  This is because uncertainty creates vulnerability – and the more vulnerability there is, the more trust is required to overcome it.  Unfortunately, the same probability exists for the destruction of trust. Leaders will need to pay close attention to this risk as it’s highly material.

If companies are serious about building trust and wish to address discrimination so that leaders can more readily emerge within their organization, they must begin by dedicating resources toward a better understanding and measuring the nature of trust within their own organizations.  We all know that what gets measured, gets done. If you are not measuring trust, you will never reliably know if you are building it.