Strengthening trust

I have been thinking about trust a lot recently, especially in a corporate context. The fraud trial of four senior executives from Barclays and the resignation of the leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council bring home the reality that in all sectors when trust goes, your time is up.

In public and corporate life we cannot lead without the consent of those we lead. But if you want to be an effective leader, you need more than consent – trust is the factor that makes all the difference.

Trust is one of the very first things we learn as a tiny baby. The helpless, defenceless human infant is initially entirely dependent on his or her Mum and if she (or her substitute) is missing the child will howl uncontrollably and won’t be able to cope without her. His panic is very real. But gradually as Mum generally answers his cry and responds to his need for food, warmth, sleep, etc he begins to believe that he can rely on his call for help. As Mum keeps reappearing to help him, he begins to tolerate being separated from her, knowing that she can be relied on to return.

Trust, therefore, is a basic sentiment. It runs deeply and the experiences we all had as babies will affect our nature. Some of us are more trusting than others. I go through life in a fairly open and trusting way as I have had mainly good experiences in my life. I assume, based on this experience, that most people are decent, honest and helpful. And although some are not benign, the vast majority are. So I tend to trust people. Many, shaped by their own experience, are less trusting. They expect others to have an ulterior motive, or they suspect they will be exploited, ripped off, discriminated against or hurt. I have a few friends who would say they don’t trust anyone.

So how does trust get created and grow?

I think if you are honest and reliable – telling the truth and doing what you said you would – trust will grow over time. As you share more about yourself – opening up about your feelings and vulnerability – others open up too. This is the basis of all close relationships – between partners or parents and children, and close friends.

I believe that in an organisation honesty and reliability are very important principles that almost supplant all other values and priorities. If an organisation is honest, and more or less does what it says, trust will grow.

How do I know this?

As ever, I learnt the hard way.

Once, my senior team and I decided to take away a number of employee “perks” which we thought got in the way of delivering services. We sat in our meeting room and agreed to do it. We announced it soon afterwards and got our middle managers to deal with the consultation and procedures. As you might expect, we got a strong, negative reaction. Everything about this decision was wrong.

  • We didn’t properly analyse the problem or ask for advice from our staff on how to resolve it
  • I believe there was a strong sentiment of “punishing” the staff for having it “too easy”
  • We didn’t really take responsibility for the decision but expected those who reported to us to front it up and implement it
  • We expected a negative reaction and just thought we would have to put up with it (like ripping off a sticking plaster quickly in the hope that it would not hurt as much)
  • Once our decision blew up in our faces, we just shrugged our shoulders and became more recalcitrant
  • The dispute led to a strike and a meeting with ACAS where we started to think seriously about our faults and failures.

This experience led me and my team to rethink fundamentally how we worked.

That one decision led to a sharp dip in trust between the staff group and the executive. Even the middle managers who were loyal to the leadership, hard working and uncomplaining, felt we had messed up. However, it was a “good” negative experience in that it led to us changing how we worked with our staff. We knew that rebuilding trust would be tough as we had managed to get just about everything wrong, but we decided we needed to work differently and our healthy, engaged, trusting culture came about through conscious management action.

So how do you create and strengthen trust in an organisation?

  • Be truthful
  • Communicate effectively so that you keep everyone in the picture
  • If you get it wrong, admit it, explain and put it right. Everyone is human, mistakes do happen. Own up, apologise, fix it and move on. Most people are reasonable and will accept this so long as it is not continual failure.
  • Be reliable – do what you say you will do
  • Don’t say things or make promises that you can’t deliver
  • Don’t reassure in a cavalier way
  • Trust first! If you don’t like something (e.g. colleague is late) ask what has happened that made them late.
  • Care about your work, your staff or team and your customers
  • Treat people as you like to be treated
  • Be accountable

Trust is the magic ingredient that builds truly great organisations. We trust our board and they trust us. We don’t spend time “managing” each other. We reject spin and hyperbole. We delegate authority as far as we can and trust our colleagues to use this authority wisely. We trust our tenants if they say a contractor didn’t arrive or the door handle just fell off. And they trust us when we say we will be there by 3pm this afternoon. We trust our contractors to do what they are paid to do and to tell us if there is a problem. And they trust us to pay them on time and recommend them to others. This basic trust in our organisation means that we can do our work more effectively. We save money and time. People are happier and we do what we say we will do. Our colleagues and customers start to rely on us and so the trust grows. Of course if someone breaches this trust by fraudulent or unethical behaviour we act swiftly to exclude, evict or discipline them. Those that trust need to know that transgressors will be dealt with firmly and fairly.

If the senior team do these simple but important things consistently I guarantee trust will grow. Truth, over time, delivers trust.

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Kate Davies
Kate Davies

After obtaining a Master’s degree in Sociology, Kate Davies got her first job in Housing by chance. She embraced the opportunity it gave her to make a difference to people’s lives. In this stimulating milieu and while acquiring further qualifications, Kate’s career quickly progressed. She has now held management positions for over 30 years in both Housing Associations and Local Authorities. During that time, the nature of her role as leader has changed. The authoritative, handing-down management model of yesterday stopped working as the workforce became diverse, younger and more receptive to a consultative approach.