Trust Rules: The Most Important Secret About Trust

From Susan M. Heathfield,
Your Guide to Human Resources.

What Is Trust?

Trust. You know when you have trust; you know when you don’t have trust. Yet, what is trust and how is trust usefully defined for the workplace? Can you build trust when it doesn’t exist? How do you maintain and build upon the trust you may currently have in your workplace? These are important questions for today’s rapidly changing world.

Trust forms the foundation for effective communication, employee retention, and employee motivation and contribution of discretionary energy, the extra effort that people voluntarily invest in work.

When trust exists in an organization or in a relationship, almost everything else is easier and more comfortable to achieve.

In reading about trust, I was struck by the number of definitions that purportedly describe trust in understandable ways – but don’t.

The Three Constructs of Trust

Tway defines trust as, “the state of readiness for unguarded interaction with someone or something.” He developed a model of trust that includes three components.

He calls trust a construct because it is “constructed” of these three components: “the capacity for trusting, the perception of competence, and the perception of intentions.”

Thinking about trust as made up of the interaction and existence of these three components makes “trust” easier to understand. The capacity for trusting means that your total life experiences have developed your current capacity and willingness to risk trusting others.

The perception of competence is made up of your perception of your ability and the ability of others with whom you work to perform competently at whatever is needed in your current situation. The perception of intentions, as defined by Tway, is your perception that the actions, words, direction, mission, or decisions are motivated by mutually-serving rather than self-serving motives.

Why Trust Is Critical in a Healthy Organization

How important is building a trusting work environment? According to Tway, people have been interested in trust since Aristotle. Tway states, “Aristotle (384-322 BC), writing in the Rhetoric, suggested that Ethos, the Trust of a speaker by the listener, was based on the listener’s perception of three characteristics of the speaker.

“Aristotle believed these three characteristics to be the intelligence of the speaker (correctness of opinions, or competence), the character of the speaker (reliability – a competence factor, and honesty – a measure of intentions), and the goodwill of the speaker (favorable intentions towards the listener).” I don’t think this has changed much even today.

Additional research by Tway and others shows that trust is the basis for much of the environment you want to create in your work place. Trust is the necessary precursor for:
• feeling able to rely upon a person,
• cooperating with and experiencing teamwork with a group,
• taking thoughtful risks, and
• experiencing believable communication.

How to Maintain Trust

The best way to maintain a trusting work environment is to keep from injuring trust in the first place. The integrity of the leadership of the organization is critical.

The truthfulness and transparency of the communication with staff is also a critical factor. The presence of a strong, unifying mission and vision can also promote a trusting environment.

Providing information about the rationale, background, and thought processes behind decisions is another important aspect of maintaining trust. Another is organizational success; people are more apt to trust their competence, contribution, and direction when part of a successful project or organization.

What Injures the Trust Relationship?

Yet, even in an organization in which trust is a priority, things happen daily that can injure trust.

A communication is misunderstood; a customer order is misdirected and no one questions an obvious mistake. The owner of a company that went through a bankruptcy, even though trusted on the “intentions” side of Tway’s trust model, was severely injured in the eyes of the work force, in the “perceived competence” aspects of the model.

In the first aspect of the construct, capacity for trust, even when organizations do their best, many people are unwilling to trust because of their life experiences. In many workplaces, people are taught to mistrust as they are repeatedly misinformed and misled.

Several years ago, I spoke at a conference attended by 400 executive leaders of metalforming corporations. I asked the group how many of them still had fear in their organizations, despite all of their efforts to build trust. Every hand in the room was raised. As a consequence of sessions such as this, I have determined that trust is an issue, to one degree or another, in most organizations.

The Critical Role of the Leader or Supervisor in Trust Relationships

Simon Fraser University assistant professor Kurt Dicks studied the impact of trust in college basketball team success. After surveying the players on 30 teams, he determined that players on successful teams were more likely to trust their coach.

He found these players were more likely to believe that their coach knew what was required for them to win. They believed the coach had their best interests at heart; they believed the coach came through on what he promised. (Something to think about: trust in their teammates was hardly deemed important in the study.)

Del Jones of the Gannett News Service reports that in a March, 2001 Wirthlin Worldwide study of employees, 67 percent said they were committed to their employers. Only 38 percent felt their employers were committed to them.

In another study, by C. Ken Weidner, an assistant professor at the Center for Organization Development at Loyola University Chicago, findings suggest several implications for organizational performance and change.

Weidner found that a manager’s skill in developing relationships that reduce or eliminate distrust, have a positive impact on employee turnover. He feels that turnover may be a result of organizations failing to “draw people in.” He also found that trust in the supervisor is associated with better individual performance.

Specific Trust Relationship Building and Maintaining Steps

You cannot always control the trust you experience in your larger organization, but you can act in ways that promote trust within your immediate work environment. The following are ways to create and preserve a trusting work environment.
• Hire and promote people, who are capable of forming positive, trusting interpersonal relationships with people who report to them, to supervisory positions.
• Develop the skills of all employees and especially those of current supervisors and people desiring promotion, in interpersonal relationship building and effectiveness.
• Keep staff members truthfully informed. Provide as much information as you can comfortably divulge as soon as possible in any situation.
• Expect supervisors to act with integrity and keep commitments.
If you cannot keep a commitment, explain what is happening in the situation without delay. Current behavior and actions are perceived by employees as the basis for predicting future behavior. Supervisors who act as if they are worthy of trust will more likely be followed with fewer complaints.
• Confront hard issues in a timely fashion. If an employee has excessive absences or spends work time wandering around, it is important to confront the employee about these issues. Other employees will watch and trust you more.
• Protect the interest of all employees in a work group. Do not talk about absent employees, nor allow others to place blame, call names, or point fingers.
• Display competence in supervisory and other work tasks. Know what you are talking about, and if you don’t know—admit it.
• Listen with respect and full attention. Exhibit empathy and sensitivity to the needs of staff members.
• Take thoughtful risks to improve service and products for the customer.
• If you are a supervisor or a team member, set high expectations and act as if you believe staff members are capable of living up to them.

The Human Resources professional has a special role in promoting trust. So do line managers. You coach managers and supervisors about all of the appropriate roles described above in building trust relationships.

You also influence the power differentials within the organization by developing and publishing supportive, protective, honorable policies. You are influential in building appropriate social norms among people who are doing different jobs in your organization.

Engage in trust building and team building activities only when there is a sincere desire in your organization to create a trusting, empowering, team-oriented work environment. Engaging in these activities for any but honorable reasons is a travesty and a sham. People will know the difference, or they will find out, and then, they will never trust you.

Build a Trust Relationship Over Time

Trust is built and maintained by many small actions over time. Marsha Sinetar, the author, said, “Trust is not a matter of technique, but of character; we are trusted because of our way of being, not because of our polished exteriors or our expertly crafted communications.”

So fundamentally, trust, and here is the secret I promised in the title of this article, is the cornerstone, the foundation, for everything you’d like your organization to be now and for everything you’d like it to become in the future. Lay this groundwork well.

Trust is telling the truth, even when it is difficult, and being truthful, authentic, and trustworthy in your dealings with customers and staff. Can profoundly-rewarding, mission-serving, life- and work-enhancing actions get any simpler than this? Not likely.

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