Is Lack of Trust Undermining Your Organization?


I, along with millions of others, have been fascinated (and at times flabbergasted) by this year’s presidential primaries and election. One of the things I have found most fascinating (and it’s hard to narrow that long list down) is how much the qualities of trust and distrust have played in voter behavior and emotions. Exit polls have showed that one of the qualities voters find most important in a candidate is honesty and trust.

A lot of people out there feel betrayed by their government and by politicians. There is no doubt that it is this feeling of betrayal that erodes trust and motivates voters’ behavior. Trust may very well be one of the key determining factors in who becomes our next president.

Before you read any further, let me assure you that this blog is NOT another commentary on the sad state of our political system. However, given what is going on in that arena, it highlights the importance of trust in our lives—both our personal lives and our work lives. We have always wanted to trust those who are running our government, just as we have always wanted to trust those running our organizations and those for whom we work.

The importance of trust in our work lives—trust in our organizations and in our leaders--is nothing new. Organizational trust, or lack thereof, has been in the headlines for decades. Here are just a few of the headlines that have been in the news in the past several years.

  • The dynamics of public trust in business--emerging opportunities for leaders: The call to action to overcome the present crisis of trust in business

  • New poll finds a deep distrust of government

  • Lack of trust caused by institutional corruption is killing the economy

  • Only 10% of Americans trust their managers

  • Businesses face a storm of anger and distrust when customer data is breached…

  • US distrust in media hits new high

  • Survey paints picture of mistrust

There is no shortage of examples of distrust and its damaging impact, whether it be in our public and private corporations, small businesses, governmental institutions or the media. The major ones that captured the headlines over the past 10 to 15 years included Enron, Bernie Madoff, AIG, WorldCom, Lehman Brothers, and the IRS. In each of these examples there was a breach of trust in the organization and that, of course, suggested a breach of trust by the leadership at the top of the house. And that has led to the public’s distrust of corporations and employee’s distrust of the organizations they work in and the leaders they work for.

Volumes have been written about trust, but I want to focus today on what exactly we mean by organizational trust and why it is so fundamental to our organizations’ success and the success of our teams. I want to share with you three different viewpoints and ways defining trust in organizations as presented by: Stephen M. R. Covey (author of The Speed of Trust), Kenexa High Performance Institute, and Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner (authors of The Leadership Challenge).

  • First, borrowing from Stephen M. R. Covey, trust means confidence. "When you trust people, you have confidence in them--in their integrity and in their abilities.” Covey further states that one of the most important competencies for leaders today is, "The ability to establish, extend, and restore trust with all stakeholders – customers, business partners, investors and coworkers…” He describes the opposite of trust—distrust--as suspicion. When we distrust people we “are suspicious of them--of their integrity, their agenda, their capabilities, or their track record.” With Covey’s definition of trust in mind, ask yourself, “How would I and my fellow employees rate our leadership on trust, confidence, and integrity?”

  • If you looked back over your career, my guess is that you have had bosses that you would rate from one end of the continuum of trust to the other. What personal and leadership qualities or traits did those you rated high on the trust continuum possess? What was it about them that enabled them to create a culture of trust? Kenexa High Performance Institute identified three core determinants—qualities or traits—of leadership trust. They are listed below in order of importance:

  1. Integrity--are they honest?

  2. Benevolence--do they care about me?

  3. Competence--can they do the job?

Once again, look at the leadership in your organization (including yourself). How do you think those who work with you and for you would answer these questions about you?

  • Finally, if you buy into the premise that successful leaders are those who are able to build and maintain effective relationships on their team, then you can see that trust is the foundation upon which all great leadership is built. When researching for their book The Leadership Challenge, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner asked respondents “what qualities do you look for and admire in a leader?” The quality that was rated as the most important was honesty—88% of respondents rated it as number one. Honesty, they said, is strongly tied to values and ethics and that people admire leaders who know where they stand on important principles and have confidence in their own beliefs. In the simplest of terms, they keep their word, they tell the truth! When it comes to actions and words aligning, how do you and other leaders in your organization stack up?

So, now with this basic understanding of what we mean by organizational trust and why it plays such a critical role in our organizations, in my next blog I will turn my attention to trust and its importance and role on your team. I will address questions like, how do you know if you have trust on your team and what is the impact of the lack of trust on your team? I will begin to share with you some of my thoughts about specific actions you can take as a leader to build trust on your team or in your organization and to create a corporate culture of trust.

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