I Can't Trust You The Organizational Behavior Trust Challenge

In my leadership career I have witnessed, most recently and most commonly, the issues of building trust within organizations. This elusive behavioral outcome is a moving target where employers and their leaders commonly develop linear, one direction programs. Among the greatest issues with such a model is that when organizational behavior measures suggest a lack of trust in leadership, those very leaders become the architects in developing trust building programs. This is a troubling and slanted approach to building trust where the leaders that are not trusted are blind to their own factoral behaviors that actually create the trust issue. And, it is difficult to tell the top leaders of an organization they are the problem.

In a recently observed environment upper-level leaders were in a meeting with senior leadership of an employer trying to get their hands around the trust issue within the organization. When asking 'why' these upper-level leaders thought there was a trust issue, one leader cautiously spoke up in a room of roughly 40 leaders. Before the leader could finish the concern a C-Suite leader interrupted them. As an apprehensive comment, the interruption clearly demonstrated the trust issue; senior leaders did not realize they were the issue.

Strategic Development

In observation of the plan to develop trust-fostering initiatives, the team that structured the program met as an independent group to develop strategies to improve trust within the organization. The strategy was engineered in a silo without understanding what motivation factors were present and absent. It is important to understand job attachment, motivation and the correlations with organizational trust. If an organization does not understand what motivates their employees, they fail to understand what motivations need to be fortified so that trust is possible. To illustrate, if employees are significantly motivated by the relationships with their supervisor and trust in the organization is low, then the focus should be squarely placed on developing leadership relationships within the workplace. In other words, it is difficult to improve trust when you don't know what employees are most motivated by; motivation factors dictate the approach to satisfy needs where employees have emotional attachments that drive their perception of trust when they are or are not satisfied. If you can't satisfy employee needs, they will not trust you to have their best interests in mind.

Rather than a closed-group approach to designing the trust-building initiative, the group should seek out how to understand before being understood. With the climate of lacking trust, it is difficult to gather the causes of trust, even in a survey. However, an assessment should have first been conducted to understand the underlying issues with organizational trust while also seeking to identify employee motivation factors. What is more concerning is that this group was not only isolated, but the other 30+ leaders had no knowledge of this strategic development. Further, the next step in the process was to bring together a team to work on the strategy in which they did not design and, by way of design, are forced to try to develop trust out of a dictated model. It is like building a house and bringing in carpenters to use that house to satisfy everyone seeking to buy a home by saying 'our house fits everyone's needs and you cannot change it'; even if it is changeable, it is implied as the template to which solutions are expected without alterations. Even more concerning was an appointment of a new people leader without consideration of internal and external opportunities. Lastly, a group detached from operations developed the strategy. It is truly a model developed by a group without hands-on, first-hand experience and knowledge about the group to which the strategy is to be applied.

How to Build Trust

Building trust requires the most comprehensive knowledge of the workforce possible. A workforce satisfaction survey is not designed to understand employees from the inside out; it is designed to understand their responses to a structured approach to understand their interaction with the organization from the outside in. Workplace engagement surveys are structured in a specific design that does not identify motivation factors on an extensive level required to engineer behavioral initiatives in complex environments.

Once employee motivations are understood, gap analyses should be conducted to understand what employees want from their employer and what employees are getting from their employer. Once gaps are identified, then strategic development may be structured. Once the strategy is developed it is critical to validate the model in value to understand whether the target developed satisfies the workforce to which it was developed for. While this becomes a lengthy 'back and forth', it is the only way to know if you're aiming at the correct target. The target strategy may be validated through subsequent surveying and/or focus groups among employees and their direct leaders. The bottom line is: if you want to solve the complex issue of trust, you have to spend the time and use tactics that truly seek to specifically satisfy the issue.

How to Destroy Trust

Trust is immediately eroded and lost when organizations put cultural initiatives in place and fail to deliver on them. However, the precedent of culture is to determine if the culture fits the workforce. Cultures are not a one size fits all and they are not as simple as putting together a warm and fuzzy strategy. No one accepts a force-fed culture; culture is the result of people behavior rather than culture developing behaviors of people. The people within an organization develop trust issues; the cultural model does not solve trust issues that are driven by the behaviors of leaders within the organization.

Trust is also lost when solicited information is criticized. In one of the most disturbing observations in the history of my career was the pushback of organizational leadership on a survey they issued to their own leaders. Essentially, the organization put out a survey that included the question "How excited are you about the [upcoming] event?" Within the same survey, names were collected from participants. In the scaled question of 1-5 (5 being most excited), anyone that scored the question at a 3 or less was directly targeted about responding in an unfavorable way. Additionally, this dissatisfaction of organizational leadership was communicated in large forums and broadcasted live in large meetings that responses should have been a 4 or 5.

Suddenly, no one will ever be honest on a survey ever again. Trust is fully and completely destroyed when feedback is sought.

Ultimately, organizations have to be transparent, accepting and inquisitive about challenges. In environments such as those outlined, there will never be a positive advancement toward improving trust.