Build a culture of trust as a leader

When do you put your trust in people?

Ask around, and many people will say, “I trust people when they’ve proved they can be trusted”. Others give The Enlightened Response: “I trust people until they let me down”. Which is your stance?

Either way, you’re being reactive. Ultimately what you’re saying is that whether you trust someone or not depends on their behaviour. Clearly, that’s a reasonable position.

The problem is that in an organisational setting it creates a powerful downward spiral. How does it work?

  • I trust you until you let me down.
  • I tell Bill that you let me down.
  • Now Bill doesn’t trust you.
  • You notice that Bill is avoiding you, so…
  • you start watching him, and warn Jane…
  • who warns me that Bill’s up to something…

Before you know it, no-one trusts anyone any more, and they can’t even remember why!

The problem? Nobody is taking responsibility for maintaining and building trust. If we trust each other, that’s fine. But the moment you let me down, or (more likely) the moment I think that you let me down, I have a choice. I can either put you on my list of ‘people who can’t be trusted’, or I can take responsibility and talk to you about it.

In practice, that’s the last thing people want to do! It takes extraordinary courage to tell another person that something they’ve done has left you questioning whether you can trust them or not. There are all sorts of valuable tips and techniques for communicating that kind of difficult message effectively; but however skilled a communicator you are, it isn’t comfortable.

For an organisation to build a culture based on trust, each person has to accept that “if I don’t trust you, that’s my problem”. ‘You’ may or may not be trustworthy; but ‘I’ have to be willing to deal with the situation. There may be a misunderstanding, or a miscommunication; there may be personal or professional issues in the background that you know nothing about. The other person may even be genuinely untrustworthy! But the only way to build a culture of trust is for each individual to provide leadership, and take responsibility for creating that culture, brick by brick.

  • Do you believe people are innately trustworthy or untrustworthy?
  • When do you put your trust in people?
  • What effect does it have on others’ behaviour when you don’t trust them?

Do you trust people in your organisation?

Build trust with the help of our Organisation Development approach