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  • Restoring Trust

    Published on Monday, October 8, 2012

    I recently participated in the Summit on Restoring Trust in Business at Fordham University, sponsored by their Consortium for Trustworthy Organizations.  Robert Hurley, a professor in the business school and author of The Decision to Trust took on the task of organizing the Summit meeting (and the Consortium itself) out of a sense of mission and frustration. Everyone there seemed to share these two sentiments.

    Participants and presenters ranged from leading academics studying the implications of trust in organizations to business leaders affected by stakeholders’ trust, or lack of it, in their businesses. MBA students at Fordham trying to determine the right path to follow and best employer to join up with were also present. Over lunch we heard from Richard Edelman about the implications of declining stakeholder trust in so many of society’s institutions around the world.

    Everyone agreed that yes, there is a trust problem facing businesses and society. How to approach the problem of diminished trust attracted less agreement.  A few people were frustrated that their organizations were being singled out as untrustworthy, claiming that it is in people’s nature to latch on to scandals and blow them out of proportion to the incident. Others argued strongly that stakeholders reactions to scandals – whether single incidents or long running practices – are legitimate regardless whether one agrees with their point of view or not.

    All agreed that it is an organization’s responsibility to respond and that some companies and institutions are more adept at this than others.

    As I listened to people’s stories and participated in the discussion, a few points clarified for me and I’d like to share them here.

    First, with respect to the idea that people latch on to scandals and that’s why an abundance of attention gets placed on small negative incidents that are blown out of proportion relative to the good that a company does.  I believe that what is actually happening is that people are latching on to the story that is being told. Negative incidents can make good stories as the people who tell them are often trying to explain to themselves and others how something seen as scary, confusing or even life-threatening could have happened. It is something we all want to steer clear of so we need to understand the story – how it happened – to try and avoid it next time.

    The same is true for good stories though and I cite as an example the fact that Fortune magazines issues with the Best Companies to Work For and the Most Admired stories in them are consistently some of their best selling issues. People want to read a good story and the details in those two issues – about how leaders create great workplaces, what employees think of their bosses, and which companies garner worldwide admiration from stakeholders – grab people’s attention.

    So what should we do? Learn how to tell detailed, positive stories in our workplaces about what is going well, describe the positive incidents and interactions, how they happen, why they happen and what the benefits are. Give as much attention to the details of a positive event as a negative one – actually give more attention to the positive events so that people know exactly what happened and why and they can learn from it.

    Maybe you’ll start to see more positive events as people will try to emulate the behavior in the positive story.  With negative stories we learn about things to avoid, yet don’t learn about how to make things better.

    Everyone who introduced their company at the Summit began by talking about the amount of money their company makes – it’s ‘size’ - then about how many employees there are in how many different countries. They then moved on to talk about the various markets in which they do business and whether or not they were one of the dominant players. No one talked about the quality of the workplace or the level of trust that exists between employees and management. And we were at a gathering whose focus was on restoring trust in business!

    Is the market capitalization of a company something that is going to inspire you to trust that company? It’s market share, dominance in a niche, global reach? None of these pieces of data convey anything about the quality of interactions that occur in the organization - they are numbers that in general reference more numbers.

    Trust is inspired by interactions between human beings. It is an emotional connection that is created when people see, hear or experience directly an event that instills confidence that one person or entity is looking out for the best interests of the other. I think that business leaders need to start sharing numbers about the people inside of their organizations and the quality of their experience.  Who are the people whose work goes in to creating the market cap numbers – who think up, make and sell the products?  How do they feel about what they do, what is their experience of the workplace and how does that overall experience help them to do their job well?

    If we want people to trust businesses – or any institution – we need to help them connect with the people who are a part of that institution. Within institutions leaders need to help people connect with each other, to create bonds of trust that will strengthen the organization and, as a wonderful side benefit, create positive stories that can be told to keep the trust building process going.

    A number of people talked about the importance of the human resources staff and front line managers in building trust in organizations. I’ve heard variations on these themes many times over the years. Commentators have decried the lack of support provided to HR departments, or cited the oft-quoted phrase ‘people leave their manager, not the company’. This becomes a way of directing attention, and in many cases blame, to these groups for the trust problems that exist in their organizations.

    I can confidently say from my twenty-five plus years of experience looking at what makes some workplaces great that declining trust in business and other institutions is neither the responsibility of front line managers nor the human resources department.

    The responsibility for declining trust in organizations rests squarely on the shoulders of leaders. And it is also the responsibility of leaders to rebuild trust in their organizations. Leaders need to tell better stories about what is working in their organizations, they need to be conversant in the positive numbers about the quality of the workplace and level of trust that exist and they need to provide support to front line managers and human resource departments, not blame.

    Every front line manager who is unable to do his job well, unable to build high trust relationships with colleagues and direct reports, has a manager he reports to and it is her job to help that front line manager learn how to build trust. How? By being an excellent role model and mentor and building trust herself. And she learns from her manager who needs to be a role model for her. This keeps going to the desk of the CEO who holds ultimate responsibility for the quality of workplace culture in his/her organization. This is the story that needs to be told.

    Front line managers are incredibly important in organizations yet they cannot create trust in an organization in which they themselves do not receive support. Human resources staff can counsel, train, and try to motivate front line managers, yet without institutional support and visible and vocal support from the company’s leaders they will be unsuccessful in turning things around.

    The most important support that a company’s leaders can provide to people within their organizations is to be trustworthy themselves. There are many examples of great trustworthy leaders available to serve as role models for others. These people are actively involved in creating the culture of their organization – they are visible on the shop floor, in the manufacturing plant or in the design room. They talk with people about the importance of trust, what it means for the company and all stakeholders, and they praise people when they do a good job, holding them up as role models for others.

    The Summit on Restoring Trust in Business was a great addition to the ongoing work of so many people trying to strengthen people’s ability to trust businesses and other institutions. The discussions were open, honest and challenging. I came away with three concepts that I will continue to use myself and reinforce in my talks.

    First, we need to tell the great trust stories that do exist in our organizations with as much detail and excitement as we use when talking about a scandal.

    Second, when asked about our organizations we should start by sharing trust numbers, rather than financial numbers, speaking about the quality of the workplace environment. These are the numbers that will enable people to make the emotional connection needed to create a bond of trust.

    Finally, we need to talk about leadership and the responsibility of leaders to create cultures in which trust will flourish – by being trustworthy themselves, speaking out about trust, praising and recognizing trust building behavior. Responsibility for the quality of the workplace environment rests squarely on a leader’s shoulders, not those of the front line manager or HR department.

    Trust in business and all institutions will be strengthened when we engage in open and honest conversation about the importance of trust – sharing stories and numbers and shining the light on leaders who are great trust builders so that they can be examples for others.

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