Changing the Trajectory of Trust

cometIn most organizations the level of trust is something that needs improvement at all levels. As a consultant, I am rarely called into an organization where the CEO tells me, “We are in excellent shape here. I can think of no area where any improvement is needed.”

Usually there is a rather long list of things that are broken, and the top leaders want me to reach into my medicine bag and pluck out a miracle that can be applied in a two hour workshop for the supervisors and managers that will produce a remarkable cure.

The dilemma for me is not in finding out what is wrong, but in getting the top brass to recognize their role in creating the problems they sincerely want me to fix.

It is a rare CEO who will tell me, “Things are in very bad shape here and you are looking at the source of most of these problems.” I have actually met a few leaders who are smart enough to think that way, but they are definitely in the minority.

Most leaders have a view that if you can only get “them” to do better, then most problems will vanish. In 98% of the cases “them” does not include “me.”

When trying to build a culture of higher trust, one analogy I like to use is trying to change the trajectory of a comet. The comet is made up of millions of particles that travel in a pattern so that it becomes recognizable.

We could change the trajectory of the comet to a higher orbit by changing the position of each particle in the tail.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that changing the trajectory of the comet’s head is a far more efficient route to a better orbit. Future particle movement will follow any alteration to the movement of the head.

So it is in any organization, it is the behaviors of the leaders that ultimately determine the level of trust throughout the entire organization.

The most effective combination I have found is where the top leaders insist on participating in the culture improvement effort rather than directing it to be done solely by an external consultant.

There is a role for the consultant in enabling the process, but it is a support role. The top leaders need to invest the time as teachers of a better culture of their own invention. The consultant has the time and experience to suggest certain tools that work and also allow the leaders to be participants in the learning process along with everybody else.

As the culture change takes hold, if the top leaders continue to reinforce higher trust actions and practice them daily, the momentum starts to change quickly. Once people see a genuine change starting at the top, they gladly participate in any training efforts to spread the trust-building tools throughout the organization.

You can actually observe the process accelerating as the percent of advocates grows. Once the head of the comet is heading for a higher orbit of trust, the pace of change picks up dramatically and before long the entire comet has been moved.

13 Responses to Changing the Trajectory of Trust

  1. Great article Bob. I agree that trust must be generated from the top down, which contributes greatly to one’s authenticity.

  2. R.D.Khimesra says:

    Happy New Year. I believe behavior of top management in following code of conduct is one of the prerequisite for trust in today’s global business organization

  3. Susan Penn says:

    Would love to someday work for a leader who looked first at his role in the need for organizational, cultural change! Unfortunately, surveys, 360’s which point to the lack of trust at top levels often do not get responded to with self reflection and the openness to take responsibility. Unfortunate, as difficult as that may be, changing the trajectory relies on it, and offers an amazing opportunity for change in the life of the leader, a sense of self-efficacy, and trust.

    • trustambassador says:

      That is right Susan. A certain percentage of top leaders exempt themselves fro culpability, and that really hinders the growth of trust.

  4. bobvanourek says:

    Another great post, Bob. I can echo this theme from my own experience since I was responsible for a lot of “turnarounds.” They required many things to be fixed, and I learned that, when I came in to “fix them,” I was a part of the problem for how to move forward.
    At various retreats to address the problem, I slowly learned that I had to define myself as a part of the problem for how to move forward, be vulnerable about what I did not know or could not do, and sincerely enlist them in helping us to effect the changes necessary, including building trust by granting amnesty for past sins and moving forward with a mutual commitment to operate by the shared values.
    Once people saw me (the titular leader) as truly committed to them and operating by our shared values, then the real turnaround began. The leader is not there to “fix them.” The leader is there to enlist them.

    • trustambassador says:

      Right on Bob. You and I learned the same lesson working in different organizations. It is one I am trying to teach to the top leaders I work with. We both know that the leader must be ready before the advisor can do much good.

  5. edgar schein says:

    Not only do I agree completely with the conclusion that trust and open communication can only occur if the leader creates a safe climate for subordinates to speak up but I also agree that some of the hardest things that consultants have to do is get the leader on board to at least consider his or her own role in creating a trusting climate.
    I wrote a whole book on this subject called “Humble Inquiry” which argues that step one is to get the leader to recognize his or her dependency on the subordinates and then to discover that they are whole people not just “hand” or “roles.”
    I have found that one thing OD consultants can do that is low key and not too dangerous is the leave that book around and encourage some people to glance at it to find out “what is all this business about humility?”

    Ed Schein

    • trustambassador says:

      Hi Ed. You and I have always sung from the same songsheet. I will pick up a copy of “Humble Inquiry” and read it with interest. Thanks for the reference.

  6. Leen Nair says:

    Great article and it’s so true, Trust is the bases of any relationship and association. Leaders need to look within and drive the process of change, Unfortunately in most cases its outwardly projected.

  7. Deidra Dain says:

    In addition to the requisite of leadership buy-in–indeed belief and commitment–to valuing trust and taking appropriate action, other actions within the organization can also help to spark positive change toward illuminating the need for trust.

    As within any system, Dick Beckhard once said that the way to create change is to light small fires. I have experienced — both from the inside as a manager and as an external consultant — how the people within the organization contribute to creating awareness, and sometimes calling to action, shifts in the trust trajectory. Behavior change in one part of the system resonates throughout.

    It’s another example of “both-and.”

  8. u2see4all says:

    Hello Bob,

    I agree with your observations on the responsibilities of leaders.
    As I read your article I began to think of my role as the individual employee waiting for “leaders” to change their way of thinking and their capacity to trust “us” (the employees).

    For the first time in my professional career I am placing trust in my leadership team. I am treating them in the same way that I want them to treat me. I am being honest during my 1:1 conversations with my direct supervisor. To my surprise, my professional relationships are more realistic and productive. I believe I have the power to create a healthy, trustworthy work environment between employees and leadership/upper management. Each step in a positive direction creates a ripple…and the power of persuasion from multiple ripples is starting to work. The same energy that I use to criticize my managers can be used to provide positive feedback about my managers.

    Trust is really a two way street, and I am becoming the change that I want to see.

    • trustambassador says:

      That is a wonderful perspective. Trust is bilateral, so if we want more trust in our lives, we need to find ways to extand more trust to others. You are very wise. I wish more people would understand this simple equation. I congratulate you on your knowledge of how trust works!

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