Leadership Barometer 54 The Impact of a Culture of High Trust

June 9, 2020

Over the past 20 years, I have taught Business and Leadership at seven universities, along with several hundred corporate and professional groups.

One thing that has disappointed me is the discussion of corporate culture in most of the MBA textbooks. They usually leave out the most important parts of culture. This topic has fascinated me for years.

The success and longevity of any organization is directly linked to its culture. We sometimes notice the parts that make up culture, but often they are transparent because they are just a part of doing business in a particular group.

If we stop to think about what defines culture and work to manage or influence it, we can uncover some powerful leadership leverage.

Most of the Leadership textbooks I have read describe the culture in terms of physical attributes that characterize an organization.

For example, here is a typical list of the things purported to make up a company culture.

1. Physical structure
2. Language and symbols
3. Rituals, ceremonies, gossip, and jokes
4. Stories, legends, and heroes
5. Beliefs
6. Values and norms
7. Assumptions

The above list is a montage of the lists in several textbooks. When you think about it, these items do go a long way toward defining the culture of an organization.

Unfortunately, I believe these items fall short, because they fail to include the emotions of the people. After all, organizations are made up of people, at all levels, interacting in a social structure for a purpose.

Let us extend the list of things that make up the culture of an organization to include how the people feel.

1. Is there a high level of trust within the organization?
2. To what extent do people have the opportunity to grow in this organization?
3. Do people feel safe and secure, or are they basically fearful?
4. How do people treat each other on their own level and on higher or lower levels?
5. Is the culture inclusive or exclusive?
6. Do people generally feel like winners or losers at work?
7. Is the culture one of reinforcement or punishment?
8. Are managers viewed as enablers or barriers?
9. Are people trying to get into the organization or trying to get out?
10. What is the level of satisfaction for people in this organization?
11. Can people “speak their truth” without fear of reprisal?
12. Do people follow the rules or find ways to avoid following them?

I could go on with another 20-30 things that relate to the human side of culture. I hope you agree that the items above are at least as important as the items on the first list in terms of describing the culture.

Why then do most textbooks on leadership not mention them when they discuss culture? It baffles me.

Perhaps the view is that these “people-centered” items are best discussed separately and only the “system-centered” items define the culture. Personally, I do not agree with that.

Let’s zoom in on just one item of my list above: item #1. The level of trust in an organization is actually the most significant part of the culture, in my opinion.

The reason I put Trust in the front and center of culture is that with high trust, all of the other things (rituals, ceremonies, values, language, etc.) work to engage people in the business. With low trust, you can have all the trappings, but people will laugh at you behind your back.

You are probably familiar with the CEO who spouts out the values at every chance, but does not live them, so there is no trust. The values are just a useless pile of words.

In fact, they are worse than useless, because every time the CEO mentions the values it reminds people what a hypocrite he or she is.

Why is Trust so powerful? Let’s contrast a few dimensions for a company with high trust versus one with low trust to view the impact.

Problems

All organizations have a steady stream of problems. If the culture is one of low trust, each problem represents a high hurdle to overcome. We have to stop everything and have a meeting to figure out who said what and try to unscramble the mess.

We also have to contend with the interpersonal squabbles that are part of a low trust culture.

If there is high trust, first of all there will be fewer problems, but then the remaining problems are easily overcome, like pebbles in the road we kick aside with our shoe. We can focus energy on the vision rather than the problems.

Any problems will be resolved quickly, and the solutions will be of higher quality, because people will not be afraid to voice their creative ideas.

Communication

In groups with low trust, trying to communicate is like walking on eggs. Every word or phrase is a potential trigger for a sarcastic remark. Things are frequently taken the wrong way and create damage to control.

With high trust, communication seems easy. People have the ability to “hear between the lines” and the instinctively know the intent of the message even if the words come out wrong. Employees are not coiled and ready to strike anytime there is an opportunity.

Focus

In areas of low trust, people are focusing on protecting themselves or bringing other people down. Most of the energy is directed inward to the organization in numerous battles that really don’t help the organization succeed.

If trust is high, people are feeling aligned, so their focus is outward at the opportunities (customers) or threats (competition). This shift in focus from inward battles to outward opportunities is huge in terms of organizational success.

Rumors

When trust is low, rumors spring up due to poor communication. Since there is nothing to retard them, they take on a life of their own.

The rumors and gossip spread like wildfire all over the organization creating significant damage control for management.

In areas of high trust, there will still be rumors from time to time, but they will be easily extinguished before they do significant damage. This is because people believe management when they say something is not true.

Attitude

Look at the people in an organization of low trust; what is their general attitude? Usually it is one of apathy. They need their job in order to live, but they dearly wish it wasn’t such a struggle.

Now look at the attitude of people in an organization of high trust. You will see passion and motivation to really help the organization succeed. The difference here is huge in terms of organizational survival.

For one thing, customers notice the difference immediately. You know the feeling of sitting in a restaurant where the trust level between management and the servers is low.

You get an uncomfortable feeling and may net even realize why you decide to not patronize the place again.

Impact

With these differences, the result when workers have high trust has been shown by several authors is that they are between 2-5 times more productive than low trust groups.

Think of the number of organizations where managers are constantly feeling under-staffed. “We need more people,” is the common phrase.

My retort is that it is a leadership problem. What you need is not more people, but better leaders who know how to build a great culture of trust.

We could go on with numerous more examples of the difference between a culture of high trust and low trust, and that is only the first item on the list above.

I hope it is obvious that having the right kind of culture makes all the difference in the ability to survive in business.

Take the time and energy to work on your culture; the ROI is astronomical.

The preceding information was adapted from the book The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.
Mr. Whipple is also the author of Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, , and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change.
Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.


Hold Up a Quarter

April 23, 2011

This article is about perspective. No two people will see a phenomenon the same way. As our fingerprints are all unique, so is our perception of what is going on around us. A simple way to demonstrate this is for me to hold a quarter out in front of me while I am facing you. I will describe a round metal object with an embossed head on it with the word “Liberty” around the circumference. You will describe a round metal object with an embossed picture of an eagle sitting on a branch or some state-specific rendering. We are both describing the exact same object, yet we see it differently.

The same phenomenon happens when two people see any kind of situation at work or at home. They see the same thing, but it has a different appearance depending on their personal vantage point. This means they will draw different conclusions about what just happened and the significance of it. Taking the next step requires each individual to react to the stimulus in an appropriate way. Each person is free to react however he or she feels is appropriate for the situation. Even if both people perceived exactly the same thing, what would seem appropriate to one person might be the wrong thing to do for the other. All this discrepancy leads to squabbles about actions taken.

For example, let’s suppose a manager is discussing an employee with a severe attendance problem with her supervisor. The manager and supervisor may have different opinions about the problem itself. Perhaps the supervisor knows the lady has a child who has special needs, and this calls for more trips to the child’s doctor than would be normal. The supervisor wants to be lenient based on this knowledge. From the manager’s perception, this employee needs to be treated with the same set of rules as everyone else or it will be hard to maintain discipline. The manager sees an untenable situation that needs progressive counseling, while the supervisor sees the need for flexibility.

Differences of opinion about what is happening and what should be done in response to it create a great deal of conflict in any work place. Since what I see is obvious to me and the resulting call for action is a logical consequence of that perception, I will be pretty sure my way is right. The trouble is that another person will be just as sure his perception and remedy are right. If I know that I am right, and you see things differently, then by definition, you must be wrong. In most instances my reaction to this dichotomy is to try to educate you on why your perception is incorrect. You, of course, will try to get me to realize the error of my thinking. We are off to the races in conflict.

This genesis of conflict is going on in small and large ways within each and every day. Is it any wonder there is so much acrimony in the workplace and at home? This problem is ubiquitous. What are some antidotes so we can reduce the conflicts between people?

Seek to understand assumptions – In coming up with different perceptions of what has just occurred, the root cause is often based on differing assumptions. I might assume the bulb is burned out while you may be convinced the wall switch is off. A third person may think we are experiencing a power failure. We all observe a dark room, but we ascribe the cause to different assumptions. Each of us will come up with a course of action different from the others based on our assumptions.

Try reversing the roles – If you and I are at loggerheads over an issue, it is often helpful to call a temporary truce and ask you to verbalize my argument while I attempt to articulate yours. This process can create a kind of empathy that is helpful at seeing the other perspective or it can uncover flaws in the logic of either party. This method can backfire, though. I was once in disagreement with an individual and suggested a reverse role play. He said, “Fine, you start by stating my position.” I did my best to lay out his thesis. He looked at me and said, “You know, Bob, you’re right.”

Use Reflective Listening – Often perceptual arguments involve two people talking at each other, but neither party doing much effective listening. Reason: when each party is pretending to listen, he or she is actually spending nearly all mental energy preparing to speak. Reflective listening forces each individual to pay full attention to what the other person is actually saying. Once reflective listening is employed, it is not uncommon to have two people who were feuding suddenly realize they have been in violent agreement. They were expressing their opinions in words that sounded opposed but were really congruent.

Watch the language – Rather than say, “You are clueless, can’t you see that he has no intention of picking up the mess,” try, “I am seeing his actions somewhat differently than you do. Can you tell me why you’re assuming he will not pick up the mess?” Asking questions rather than making statements is a technique that can reduce the inflammation in perceptual disagreements. Aggression can make it difficult for a person to hear, let alone understand. As David Halberstam wrote, “…excessive amounts of testosterone leads to a loss of hearing.”

Agree to Disagree – Acrimony can easily be thwarted by simply agreeing to disagree. After arguing about an issue for a while, either party can say something like, “This issue is not worth arguing over, I am not going to convince you, and you are not going to convince me. Let’s not get hung up on it. Just because we see this issue differently is no reason we cannot respect each other and work well together.”

Do not blow things out of proportion – Much of the acrimony in personal disagreements can be avoided if people remember the petty squabbles from day to day mean very little in the long run. If an issue that seems worth fighting over today will be totally forgotten in a week, it is a good idea to relax and just let the other person win rather than duke it out for several days. Pick battles worth fighting and ignore the insignificant give and take issues.

Get a good mediator – Often a third person can step in and clarify the different opinions and help people sort out their differences quickly. Reason: The participants get emotionally involved in the fight and lose objectivity. A cool head that is respected by both parties can make some reasonable suggestions that at least soften the struggle.

Give in – Just letting the other person win is often a great strategy. Some people find this hard to do for reasons of pride or ego. Who cares who is right or wrong? In fact, in most arguments both people are a little bit right and a little bit wrong. The true winner of an argument is usually the one who quits the fight first.

Humans have a remarkable ability to drive each other crazy. This tendency is amplified by close proximity. It is the reason why you can appreciate and love members of your family until they come to visit for a week. At a distance, it is easy to manage disagreements most of the time, but when people are underfoot every day, the little things tend to become so irritating, the conflict begins to snowball.

I am reminded of the TV show “Everybody Loves Raymond,” where the characters do nothing but fight through the whole show. I rarely watch that sitcom because I find it exhausting. As one person adroitly observed, “I don’t watch TV to get an ear full of fighting, pettiness, cruelty, lack of respect, and sarcasm. I can get all that at home.” Since we all see things through a slightly different lens, and we process assumptions about what is happening through our parochial brain, we are going to have conflict. Expect it and take some of the evasive steps above to keep the volume down on interpersonal differences. Life is too short to be habitually annoyed by fellow workers or family members.


Leadership Barometer 54 The Impact of a Culture of High Trust

November 9, 2009

Over the past 20 years, I have taught Business and Leadership at seven universities, along with several hundred corporate and professional groups.

One thing that has disappointed me is the discussion of corporate culture in most of the MBA textbooks. They usually leave out the most important parts of culture. This topic has fascinated me for years.

The success and longevity of any organization is directly linked to its culture. We sometimes notice the parts that make up culture, but often they are transparent because they are just a part of doing business in a particular group.

If we stop to think about what defines culture and work to manage or influence it, we can uncover some powerful leadership leverage.
Most of the Leadership textbooks I have read describe the culture in terms of physical attributes that characterize an organization.

For example, here is a typical list of the things purported to make up a company culture.

1. Physical structure
2. Language and symbols
3. Rituals, ceremonies, gossip, and jokes
4. Stories, legends, and heroes
5. Beliefs
6. Values and norms
7. Assumptions

The above list is a montage of the lists in several textbooks. When you think about it, these items do go a long way toward defining the culture of an organization.

Unfortunately, I believe these items fall short, because they fail to include the emotions of the people. After all, organizations are made up of people, at all levels, interacting in a social structure for a purpose.

Let us extend the list of things that make up the culture of an organization to include how the people feel.

1. Is there a high level of trust within the organization?
2. To what extent do people have the opportunity to grow in this organization?
3. Do people feel safe and secure, or are they basically fearful?
4.  How do people treat each other on their own level and on higher or lower levels?
5. Is the culture inclusive or exclusive?
6. Do people generally feel like winners or losers at work?
7.  Is the culture one of reinforcement or punishment?
8.  Are managers viewed as enablers or barriers?
9. Are people trying to get into the organization or trying to get out?
10. What is the level of satisfaction for people in this organization?
11. Can people “speak their truth” without fear of reprisal?
12. Do people follow the rules or find ways to avoid following them?

I could go on with another 20-30 things that relate to the human side of culture. I hope you agree that the items above are at least as important as the items on the first list in terms of describing the culture.

Why then do most textbooks on leadership not mention them when they discuss culture? It baffles me.

Perhaps the view is that these “people-centered” items are best discussed separately and only the “system-centered” items define the culture. Personally, I do not agree with that.

Let’s zoom in on just one item of my list above: item #1. The level of trust in an organization is actually the most significant part of the culture, in my opinion.

The reason I put Trust in the front and center of culture is that with high trust, all of the other things (rituals, ceremonies, values, language, etc.) work to engage people in the business. With low trust, you can have all the trappings, but people will laugh at you behind your back.

You are probably familiar with the CEO who spouts out the values at every chance, but does not live them, so there is no trust. The values are just a useless pile of words.

In fact, they are worse than useless, because every time the CEO mentions the values it reminds people what a hypocrite he or she is.

Why is Trust so powerful? Let’s contrast a few dimensions for a company with high trust versus one with low trust to view the impact.

Problems

All organizations have a steady stream of problems. If the culture is one of low trust, each problem represents a high hurdle to overcome. We have to stop everything and have a meeting to figure out who said what and try to unscramble the mess. We also have to contend with the interpersonal squabbles that are part of a low trust culture.

If there is high trust, first of all there will be fewer problems, but then the remaining problems are easily overcome, like pebbles in the road we kick aside with our shoe. We can focus energy on the vision rather than the problems.

Any problems will be resolved quickly, and the solutions will be of higher quality, because people will not be afraid to voice their creative ideas.

Communication

In groups with low trust, trying to communicate is like walking on eggs. Every word or phrase is a potential trigger for a sarcastic remark. Things are frequently taken the wrong way and create damage to control.

With high trust, communication seems easy. People have the ability to “hear between the lines” and the instinctively know the intent of the message even if the words come out wrong. Employees are not coiled and ready to strike anytime there is an opportunity.

Focus

In areas of low trust, people are focusing on protecting themselves or bringing other people down. Most of the energy is directed inward to the organization in numerous battles that really don’t help the organization succeed.

If trust is high, people are feeling aligned, so their focus is outward at the opportunities (customers) or threats (competition). This shift in focus from inward battles to outward opportunities is huge in terms of organizational success.

Rumors

When trust is low, rumors spring up due to poor communication. Since there is nothing to retard them, they take on a life of their own. The rumors and gossip spread like wildfire all over the organization creating significant damage control for management.

In areas of high trust, there will still be rumors from time to time, but they will be easily extinguished before they do significant damage. This is because people believe management when they say something is not true.

Attitude

Look at the people in an organization of low trust; what is their general attitude? Usually it is one of apathy. They need their job in order to live, but they dearly wish it wasn’t such a struggle.

Now look at the attitude of people in an organization of high trust. You will see passion and motivation to really help the organization succeed. The difference here is huge in terms of organizational survival.

For one thing, customers notice the difference immediately. You know the feeling of sitting in a restaurant where the trust level between management and the servers is low. You get an uncomfortable feeling and may net even realize why you decide to not patronize the place again.

Impact

With these differences, the result when workers have high trust has been shown by several authors is that they are between 2-5 times more productive than low trust groups.

Think of the number of organizations where managers are constantly feeling under-staffed.  “We need more people,” is the common phrase.  My retort is that it is a leadership problem. What you need is not more people, but better leaders who know how to build a great culture of trust.

We could go on with numerous more examples of the difference between a culture of high trust and low trust, and that is only the first item on the list above. I hope it is obvious that having the right kind of culture makes all the difference in the ability to survive in business. Take the time and energy to work on your culture; the ROI is astronomical.

The preceding information was adapted from the book The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.
Mr. Whipple is also the author of Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, , and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change.

Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.