For any leader, the aspect of trust in the organization is a foundation for performance. Without trust, groups might look the same on the outside, just as a golf ball looks shiny and dimpled on the outside, but it is the compressed inner layers that give power and flight characteristics to the ball.
Actually, golf balls come in numerous designs from one piece (practice) balls to five piece balls: each design having different characteristics. For example, the two-piece ball is designed for low spin to allow excellent stoppage on the green and to minimize the magnitude of any slice or hook. Trust also comes in a variety of designs, and you cannot tell how well established the trust is by just looking at the outside. The striking difference between high trust groups and low trust groups can be seen on many levels. Let me name a few ways trust impacts how groups operate.
What people say
One good barometer of trust is to monitor what people are saying to each other in normal conversation. If you just walk around your place of work for a day and listen to how people talk, you will get a quick view of the level of trust. Mark an X on your score card every time you hear a conversation about pursuing the goals or vision of the group. Mark an O on the card every time you hear a conversation that is basically badmouthing other individuals within the group. If, at the end of the round, you have more X’s than O’s, then you are likely witnessing a high trust group. If it is the other way around, then trust is low, just like cheap “driving range” golf balls.
How groups deal with challenges
All groups have challenges from time to time. Groups with low trust get stopped in their tracks because the interpersonal problems make it very difficult to even figure out what is wrong. It is as if a golfer accidentally used the wrong style of golf ball off the Tee. The error would be evident from the results. Groups with high trust can resolve challenges quickly and easily because they communicate honestly. They deal with the root cause of problems rather than getting hung up on symptoms. They also frequently come up with more creative solutions to problems because they are free to explore out-of-the box ideas. Teams at work have a style of operating that works to produce the highest level of trust. Golfers find a type of ball they are most comfortable with, based on their swing and strength.
The level of people development
In high trust environments, the leaders are vitally interested in developing all employees to be the best they can be. Investment in people is a hallmark of high trust groups. In low trust organizations, you can find leaders who are less interested in training people for a few different reasons: 1) They are so busy trying to survive that they have no time to devote to training, 2) Leaders are afraid if people are properly trained the leader might be overtaken, or 3) There is so much apathy that nobody really feels like development would be helpful. Not investing in people would be the equivalent of using a cut ball where the surlyn cover has been damaged to the extent that the core is compromised.
Making ethical decisions
The study of ethics is very interesting because most leaders are convinced they are ethical, yet many of them find ways to shade things somehow when nobody is looking. We see this all the time in scandals that seem to come up like crocuses in spring. The important part of being ethical is not what you do when people will see it but what you do when nobody would know if you were cheating. Having two sets of books, one for public display and one that is kept hidden away is a good example of a kind of empty shell of a leader, like a golfer who is inclined to write a wrong number on his or her card if nobody is keeping track. For an honest golfer, it is annoying to have another person checking to see that the right number of strokes has been recorded for each hole. This verification step signals a lack of overall trust, and it can lead to hard feelings.
When leaders talk a good game, but really do not act in ways that are consistent with their words, there is a falsehood that is obvious to everyone. It is like we all have x-ray vision and can see inside the ball. One good example of this is when senior leaders have a value like, “People are our most important asset.” It sounds really good until you realize that the decisions made on a daily basis rarely reflect that as a reality. If it was so, then when times were tough, the senior leaders would scale back by selling off buildings and equipment and keeping people on the payroll. Instead, they do the opposite. People notice the hypocrisy quickly, so the value becomes something we say but not something we back up with actions. We may look good on the outside but we are missing an important layer inside.
The analogy here may be kind of wild, but it is an interesting one because we rarely think of what is going on inside as being that important, but we sure would notice a difference on the links if we were using incorrectly fabricated golf balls. Likewise leaders need a firm foundation that is as true under the surface at it appears to observers.
Incidentally, the golf ball in the picture is real, not Photo-shopped. I obtained it in the late 1970’s at the home of a relative who found the ball in his garden. He lived next to a fairway on the golf course at San Clemente, California, where Nixon lived at that time. The ball is a “Titleist 4” and is identified “K2 Acushnet.” It is available, if anyone is interested.