Many understand the importance of trust in a society. The ability to park your car somewhere and know it will be there, undamaged when you get back. Booking and paying for a travel ticket or hotel room before arriving and knowing that it will be there. Working for an employer and knowing that there will be a paycheck at the end of the month. Walking home late at night and not having to worry about being robbed, stabbed or shot. There are numerous examples where citizens act based on trust and the more your trust is rewarded, the more trust in society you have.
A well functioning society is a trusting society where everyone feels a basic level of safety for themselves and for their loved ones. This is one of the reasons why I dislike all the “apocaholics” (those constantly predicting the next apocalypse) going around like Chicken Little shouting “the sky is falling, the sky is falling” as much of their argument is concerned with reducing the level of trust that exists in a society. Of course, there are many things in society that could be improved, but playing the fear and distrust card often is unnecessary at best and destructive at worst.
What many fail to recognize, in my experience, is that trust is equally important in organizations. In one of my earlier blog posts, I described a pattern that I often see in companies: a team has learned the hard way to not rely on promises from or the work of other teams. As a consequence, the team works hard to bring everything under its own control. This tends to cause an enormous duplication of effort, a significant reduction of specialization-based productivity improvement and a politicization of the company as everyone is constantly fighting to maintain their independence.
As human beings, we go through three stages in our lives: dependence when we rely on our parents, independence when we learn to stand on our own and, finally, interdependence when we enter a long-term relationship where we become dependent on each other. Companies can be viewed as going through the same process, but those that have low trust levels never reach the interdependent state and remain in a kind of adolescent culture where every individual and team aims to remain as independent as possible.
It is often hard to quantify how destructive a low level of trust and a pervasive lack of interdependence in organizations is. When every individual and team in the organization meets others with a basic distrust and a “guilty unless proven innocent” attitude, all the benefits of operating as one company disappear. It leads to finger pointing, factions, the building of kingdoms and a generally internal, rather than external, focus that sets up a company for disruption.
In the end, much of this boils down to culture and this is where leaders need to role model. Although many parents say to their kids “do as I say; not as I do”, both in families and in companies, it is the behavior that gets copied, not what one says. So, as leaders, do you constantly control and micromanage or do you trust your people? Do you escalate and form task forces or do you trust the team that is in trouble to sort things out and ask for help when they need it?
The final point is that the ecosystem surrounding your organization is becoming increasingly important. I have seen many examples where the culture inside the organization is carried outward into the interactions with your ecosystem partners. And, different from your own people, those partners have a choice of who they want to work with. Typically they prefer to work with companies where there is mutual respect and trust and people avoid companies that are based on distrust, blame cultures and politics.
At the other end of trust, of course, is accountability and conscientiousness. It is not enough to trust others; you also need to be a trustworthy person and your team needs to be reliable. One of the simple adages is that to be successful, you need to say what you do and do what you say. Sometimes it is as simple as that, even if executing according to this principle can be incredibly hard.
Concluding, trust forms the basis for successful organizations as it is the fundament for collaboration and mankind, western society, families and your company are based on collaboration. As a leader, you need to role-model trust and trustworthiness. Companies that do not prioritize building this culture fail and are setting themselves up for disruption, especially in a rapidly digitalizing world.