I recently came across a LinkedIn Group discussion on the ‘dimensions’ of organizational culture. Started by Robert Wimple, this homed-in on trust as the essential component for a sustainable culture. It drew on an interesting blogpost on his site, The Trust Ambassador.
Trust is regularly cited in this way as a critical factor in effective organizational performance. It frequently appears on lists of ‘corporate values’. And “creating an environment of trust” is often stated as a primary leadership task. But what do we mean by “trust”? Is it achievable in organizations? And, if so, how can managers bring it about?
Relational and interactional
First, from the viewpoint of organizations as complex social processes, trust is a property of relations and interactions. Managers often speak of trust as if it can be designed-in to an organization or imposed by decree. But people’s sense of trust is embodied – or not – in the unscripted detail of each and every interaction that they have with one another. It is personally and socially constructed - both consciously and subconsciously - in these moments that people come together. As such, it reflects participants’ past history of interactions, their future hopes and expectations about this and/or other important relationships, and the current immediacy of the exchange. At the same time, the emerging outcomes of this ongoing process shift the ways in which ‘the past’ is recalled, ‘the future’ is constructed and the present is lived - all in the here and now.
Secondly, trust is multi-dimensional. For example, we might believe that someone is being genuine and truthful when they say that they intend to do something, and yet still not trust them to do it because we don’t think that they have the necessary competence. Some of the factors that might contribute to our sense of trust in others – or detract from it - are suggested below:
- character (perceived integrity and trustworthiness) – “I believe your intentions are well meant.”
- community (whether the person is recognized as being ‘one of us’, with shared perspectives, common interests and sense of identity) – “I see you as having the same outlook and objectives.”
- communication (perceived openness, honesty and straightforwardness) – “I believe that you are being open and honest in what you say.”
- confidentiality (sense that it is ‘safe’ to share confidences) – “I believe that I can be open with you, without fear of you taking advantage of me or breaching that confidence.”
- credibility (whether or not the ‘story’ makes sense and is believable in it’s own right) – “I believe that your ‘story’ (proposition, strategy, system etc) is credible and makes sense in its own right.”
- capability (perceived knowledge, skills and abilities in relevant areas) – “I believe that you have the necessary capacity and competence to do what is needed in this situation.”
- commitments (dependability in keeping agreements and promises) – “I believe that I can depend on you to do what you say you will do.”
- context (whether the patterns of taken-for-granted cultural assumptions are tending to channel behaviour in ways that enhance or undermine trust) – “I believe that the organizational culture and climate fosters an environment of trust.”
Thirdly, trust is emergent. As suggested above, people derive their sense of trust from the detail of the actions, interactions and transactions that comprise everyday life in the organization. The sense they make of their world, including the feeling of trust (or mistrust) that this evokes, emerges from this ongoing interactional process. Also, the more that a particular ‘sense’ of trust is ‘taken up’ by others, through the diverse interplay of conversations across an organization (or fragments of it), the more generalized it becomes. It is then more likely to be taken up in similar ways by those same people in future - and, potentially, by others with whom they interact.
This is what “the culture” of an organization is about, as described in Informal Coalitions. It is the self-organizing process of ‘shared’ meaning-making, through which patterns of assumptions emerge and become taken-for-granted over time. These patterns create expectancy and tend to channel ongoing sensemaking, imperceptibly, down familiar ‘pathways’. It is this natural pattern-reinforcing tendency that makes ‘cultural change’ (pattern switching) more difficult to achieve than the maintenance of continuity.
Since this patterning process is self-organizing, it means that trust cannot be ‘designed and built’ by managers, as part of a structured ‘culture change programme’. However, a major influence on this ongoing sensemaking and action-taking is people’s observation of the behaviours of those in formal leadership positions – throughout the organization.
So here, as elsewhere, role modelling the desired behaviours in their own day-to-day conversations and interactions is critical for all managers. In Informal Coalitions, I referred to these instances as “moments of leadership truth”. And it is equally important for them to pay attention to the impact that ‘informal leaders’ have on the emergence of local patterns of thought and action – whether for better or for worse. Actively engaging with this ongoing sensemaking process, both directly and indirectly, is therefore at the core of leadership practice aimed at building a wider sense of trust.
Finally, in a related post, High-expectations leadership - moving from vicious to virtuous circles, I stressed the importance of managers maintaining high expectations of people's willingness and ability to contribute:
"Success requires managers to make a ‘leap of faith’: raising their expectations of people and enabling greater levels of self-management, even where (or especially where!) the evidence ‘on the ground’ makes this appear foolhardy. The required shift will occur if, as a result of what staff see managers doing, the patterns of their informal conversations change in line with the changed levels of expectations."