Building Success by Building Trust

By Cindy Vallance

What do surveys about asset management firms and the NHS have to do with the topic of trust?

As outlined in an April 2012 Harvard Business Review blog, more than 100 asset management firms around the world were surveyed for the strength of their cultures and for the effectiveness of their leadership teams. One of the top success factors was that “There is a high level of trust among team members. ”

Those conducting the survey stated “Over time, the team must develop trust by having clear rules of engagement and accountabilities. This trust then allows the team members to move beyond “politically correct” conversation or “politically incorrect” confrontation to fruitful debate and dialogue…leaders show an unusual commitment to getting the trust factor right. Our interpretation of this is that it relates to other surveys of investment professionals which indicate that their top desire for improvement in their firms is to achieve more open communication and debate…these cannot occur in environments with low trust.”

On the other hand, a March 2012 People Management blog reported on the results of a recent NHS survey. Here the results highlighted that “the survey identifies a lack of trust in managers’ abilities which undermines trust and could stall change.”

The comparison of these two surveys reinforce the importance of trust for organisational success. If we reflect on the four aspects of trust highlighted in my last blog: ability, benevolence, integrity and predictability, how can we improve on any that are lacking?

Ability – this aspect of trust is perhaps the most straight forward to rectify, although not necessarily easy. Providing or taking advantage of training and guidance and then identifying specific goals and working towards these over time should improve ability.

Benevolence – to increase benevolence it is critical to get rid of any sense that either party has a hidden agenda and instead highlight areas of common interest and mutual benefit.

Integrity – increasing integrity requires a willingness to engage in open discussion to arrive at common principles and to set boundaries for mutual expectations.

Predictability – only the repeated demonstration of positive behaviours will help others to be confident that what they have seen in the past will be repeated in the present and future.

The reality is that trust and distrust are not opposite ends of the spectrum. The same person can be trusted or distrusted in different areas. I may trust my accountant to get me a good tax rebate but I certainly wouldn’t trust her to perform brain surgery on me. In my next blog, I will discuss different types of trust.

In the meantime, are you currently facing any situations where you could work to improve some aspect of trust?


This post is part of the HBR Insight Center on The Secrets of Great Teams. Do take a look at their other posts for practical team building ideas.




5 thoughts on “Building Success by Building Trust”

  1. It seems that trust ‘oils the wheels’ of effective working relationships, however it has to be combined with a common, relevant set of values.

    In an extreme case which I once encountered where suitable values were NOT present, a department’s senior managers and their well-paid, highly responsible and independent staff had an established culture which was highly trusting (of each other) to the extent that they had developed practices for handling expenses and ‘perks’ that was not in the interests of the company and was, frankly, borderline theft. The managers trusted that staff did things for the wider benefit of the company and therefore deserved the benefits, whilst the employees trusted that they had the manager’s approval and could be signed-off on expenses without being questioned – effectively their internal circle of trust had developed its own policy for expenses. Unfortunately because they didn’t check whether these values were ethical or fitted with what the organisation itself felt was important, they got it all badly wrong. The problem was that the senior managers did not have a sense of organisational values – it just wasn’t on their radar. As a result the employees simply followed their lead – down the wrong path. Their culture became corrupted.

    Integrity is important, but for trust to be sustainable in working relationships we must have integrity between ourselves AND integrity in the eyes of outsiders. Otherwise we just become a cartel, which erodes the trust of other stakeholders in the long term.

    Discussions around ‘values’ may sometimes seem hypothetical, but clarity on which attitudes, perspectives and behaviours are important can be extremely helpful in shaping what we do on a practical day-to-day basis.

  2. Thanks for this, Simon. I take your point about integrity in the eyes of outsiders. I also think there is something about the safety of belonging.

    For example successful street gangs where trust is about faith in each other against an outside that they prey upon. The mission is really important – what the members understand they are together to do – and if someone sells out in some way or otherwise breaks the faith, often punishment ensues; usually about being denied the right to be part of the gang any more. But also huge support is forthcoming when an individual falls on misadventure; honour among thieves is based on trust among thieves. Often the stuff of high romance but gang members aren’t trusted by society.

    I have, however, experience of (for example) third sector organisations whose culture and way of operating is , sometimes in exasperation, described as like that of a closed “gang” by those they encounter but whose mission and purpose is regarded in the same breath as entirely laudable and trusted to be beneficial and good. I have also known some very painful sanctions meted out on individuals who are judged to have let such organisations down in some way and this usually looks and feels like rejection.

  3. Thanks Simon and Mary for your thoughts on this topic. The link between trust and values certainly can’t be underestimated. When there is a disconnect between individual values of people and the collective values of the organisation, both espoused and embodied through behaviours, then trust will be difficult to maintain. I’ll be writing about the difference between the types of trust: individual and organisational, later this week.

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