AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Building Trust


Copyright 1999 AXIS Performance Advisors, Inc.


The relationship between trust and high performance

by Marsha Willard. Copyright 1999 AXIS Performance Advisors.

Teams hands in air photostockTeams and trust. Seems you can’t have one without the other. Many organizations can readily recognize when trust is missing but get stymied when they tryto do something about it. AXIS, in partnership with The Performance Center,has developed a one-day workshop on trust in the organization. [See bottom of newsletter for dates and description.] In this issue of the Advisory, Darcy Hitchcock interviews Marsha Willard, CEO of AXIS, and Stephen Hacker,director of The Performance Center about trust and how to build it.

Darcy: People seem to yearn for trust in their relationships but theyoften seem to

mean different things. What, in your view, is trust?

Marsha: The point is a good one;one that applies to many of the “soft” terms organizations tossaround (i.e. values, empowerment, quality, etc.) Before an organizationor team tries to deal with the issue of trust, it might do well to havea conversation about what the term means to the people involved. Personally,when I trust people, it means that I believe they have the competence andintegrity to do what they have agreed to do and that they will honor myneeds and interests while they are doing it.

Stephen: Trust is a big word, anexpansive concept containing different meanings for people. Therefore, inbuilding trust within relationships, it is helpful to view trust as havingthree key components: commitment, consistency and capability.

Commitment speaks to both the commitment to each other and the commitmentto a joint goal or direction. Consistency is a matter of “doing asyou say,” or “walking the talk.” Capability addresses theability to accomplish what has been promised, in many cases, the competenceto do the job. Underlying these components is a willingness to risk necessaryto increasing the level of trust in a relationship.


Darcy: Why is trust important in working relationships, or how muchis really


Stephen: When trust is not present,an enormous amount of energy is wasted in the form of redundancy and rework.Fueled by doubt, a person invests time and energy in checking up on another’scommitments and quality of work. This energy could be more productivelyapplied if there was a bond of trust.

I’m reminded of one organization that had a horrible atmosphere of mistrust.There were video cameras everywhere, e-mail was periodically invaded andread, telephone calls were monitored. They were just waiting to catch someonedoing something wrong. In response people developed elaborate behaviorsto beat the system. What a tremendous waste of resources and energy. Comparethat to a lumber mill that was having trouble with tools disappearing. Insteadof instituting a tighter lock down, they established a tool lending policy.Employees were free to borrow the tools and take them home anytime theywanted. Not surprisingly the tools not only stopped disappearing, but toolsthat had been missing some time suddenly reappeared!

Marsha: Another reason trust is importantis because of the interdependent nature of work these days. In the old organization,where employees operated as individual contributors and had sole responsibilityfor their jobs, the need for trust in others was not critical. As organizationsincreasingly make use of teams of interdependent members, however, the needfor trust among those team members increases and it increases in proportionto their interdependence.

Trust provides the social glue that holds a team or organization together.The more connected or “glued” a group feels the more likely themembers will be to share ideas, accept the risk of looking foolish, learnfrom each other, energize each other, spark each other’s creativity andabandon concerns that someone else will get the credit for an idea. Thereis still the potential for conflict in a high trust group, but these conflictsare more effectively managed because there is the trust that people canraise issues without fear of being hurt. All of this also applies to largerinterdependencies like between teams or across departments as well as therelationships between an organization and its partner/suppliers.

Another benefit of trust is that it allows an organization to managemore efficiently. Where trust among organizational members is low, you willoften see lots of micro managing behaviors (unnecessary review loops, lotsof checks and balances) and volumes of policies and procedures. Where trustis high you can comfortably empower people to behave in alignment with theorganization’s goals and values. The Nordstrom employee handbook is a legendaryexample. The handbook is really an 8X5 card with one rule printed on it:”Use your good judgment at all times.” Employees know what theorganization’s value is (good customer service) and they are clearly trustedto deliver it.


Darcy: Let’s say I have a bad relationship with someone on my team.Over time I’ve

learned not to trust them. Frankly my tendency is to write them offand work around

them. What should I do?


Stephen: First check your own trustworthiness.How are you doing in the areas of commitment, consistency and awarenessof your capabilities? [See our self-test on the following page.] Don’t overlookthat you are a part of the relationship and increasing your trustworthinesshas a great impact.

Next, use the most important trust building tool you have at hand?yourwillingness to take another risk in the relationship. In other words, it’sthe offer of vulnerability you bring to rebuild the relationship. I realizethat we would prefer another tool, one that would “force” a behavioron the other party. But inherent in the concept of trust, are dependence,reliance and faith.

Marsha: Building trust requires apretty significant investment. If the need for trust is low (i.e. interdependencyis low or personal need for the relationship is low), avoidance may be thejustifiable tactic. Given the increase in interdependencies in organizations,however, it is likely that work arounds will incur costs for the organizationin the form of lost productivity, waste or rework. While building trusttakes effort, rebuilding trust takes exponentially more. The extra effortgoes into admitting to mistakes, continually checking assumptions aboutnew commitments and regularly checking-in to keep the relationship on track.

If you decide to invest in rebuilding the trust in a damaged relationship,try the process outlined below. If it looks too scary to try alone, aska neutral party to facilitate the conversation.

Each person takes turns completing the following sentences:

  • My current level of trust for you is . . . (use a 1-10 scale)
  • I trust you at that level because . . . (list the observable behaviors-not the intentions you ascribe to them)
  • To increase the level of trust I need you to . . . (focus on what they should start doing rather than what they should stop doing)
  • For my part I promise to . . . (remember building trust involves risk; what are you willing to invest?)


This will give you a good start. You will likely need to repeat the conversationor at least check in regularly in some fashion. If someone “screwsup” and doesn’t live up to a commitment, address it immediately andwith candor.


Test your trustworthiness

Use this diagnostic to assess your own trustworthiness. Check all thosestatements that are true for you.

Then think about what you can do to achieve those left blank.



o I say what I mean and mean what I say.

o When given a task or responsibility, I follow through 100% of the time.

o I don’t make promises I can’t keep and I keep the promises I make.

o I am loyal to those not present (I don’t talk about people behind theirbacks).

o I walk my talk; what I do matches what I say.



o I seek first to understand someone before I try to make my point understood.

o I am empathetic to the situations of others.

o I respect and visibly value what others have to contribute.

o I share my honest thoughts and feelings without disrespecting the thoughts
or feelings of others.

o I give needs of the team (project, organization) precedence over my
own personal needs.



o Before accepting a responsibility, I make sure everyone has the same
expectations about what will happen and when it will happen.

o I know my own strengths and weaknesses.

o I tell the truth about what I can and can’t do.

o I keep no hidden agendas; I make my motives, assumptions and needs

o I am a skilled and sincere listener.

o I know how to give helpful and tactful feedback.


Willingness to risk

o I freely admit when I am wrong and apologize sincerely for my mistakes.

o I am not afraid to speak the “hard truths.”

o I seek honest feedback from others.

o I assume others are trustworthy until proven otherwise.

o I frequently empower others to make decisions on my behalf.

o I treat others as partners in the business, sharing both the risksand rewards of performance.

o I let others know when they have not fulfilled an agreement as I perceivedit.



Darcy: How do you build trust with a whole team? It seems that trustin “team” is

different from the level of trust I may have for each individual teammember. How do I

trust the team as a whole will operate consistently, have the capabilityto fulfill its

commitments and be committed to our goal and to me as an individual?


Marsha: Building trust in a teamrequires attention to team basics beginning with the team’s formation. Toget off on the right foot, ensure first of all that you select the rightmembers for the team. I don’t just mean people who get along well together,but people who have the skills to fulfill the team’s mission. (This is buildingcapability.) It is also helpful to facilitate a conversation among teammembers about what they hope to achieve as a group and what each individualwants to achieve for him/herself. (This builds commitment.) Lastly, theyshould come to explicit agreements about how they want to work togetherand how they expect to be treated on the team. (This ensures consistency.)

Once the team is up and running, there are some habits it should developto keep trust building. The team should be disciplined about providing feedbackto members on how they are doing?including recognition for work well done,suggestions for how to contribute better to the team, and reminders of expectationsand commitments. The team should also make time to play and allow team membersto get to know each other personally to strengthen the bond among them andpay attention to the individual member’s needs for support.


Stephen: I agree with Marsha; thefoundation is critical. A team is like the child of an organization andlike most off-spring, will imitate the character of the organization. Thisimplies that in addition to providing a sound “upbringing” andtraining to build capability, an organization and its leadership must modelthe character it wants its teams to develop. It’s nearly impossible to havea trustworthy team in a distrustful organization.

In addition to how a team deals with its own members, I’d like to addthe issue of how a team deals with other teams or units in the organization.Part of its process of development should include establishing its reputationwith others outside the team and assuring that it is perceived as a trustworthyentity. This implies establishing meaningful check-in processes with theircustomers and others with whom they have dealings.


Darcy: What about organizations that just have a very distrustfulatmosphere. How do

you apply your techniques on a large scale to change an entire organization?Or is trust

building inherently a one-person-at-a-time phenomenon?


Stephen: Trust ultimately does comedown to individual relationships; however, a sour environment contributesto a distrusting predisposition. You can, though, alter the institutionalcharacter and supporting systems to make them more confirming of trust ratherthan distrust. It means bringing the different interest groups and distrustingparties to the table and focusing them explicitly on the issue of trust.Leaders should take the first steps toward creating a trustful atmosphere.With their pledge to build trust within the organization, the needed changesto institutional systems will become clear.


Marsha: Trust does have a high interpersonalcomponent, but there is a second and equally important aspect that dealswith the level of institutionalized trust within an organization. An organizationcannot achieve a whole culture of trust without attending to both components.There are two places you can intervene to impact institutionalized trust:leadership and architecture.

Leaders play a pivotal role in the creation of a culture of trust. Theymust first of all deliver results. An unsuccessful organization is a breedingground for cynicism and insecurity. Leaders who can’t deliver results haveno credibility with employees and inevitably appear either two-faced orincompetent. Leaders must also operate with integrity. This means makingtheir values clear and then behaving in alignment with them. It also meansadmitting when they are wrong and using the mistakes of others to fosterlearning rather than retribution. Thirdly leaders must demonstrate concernfor all members of the organization. And it has to be genuine concern. Employeescan spot a fake from a mile off.

In addition to strong leadership, organizations need the architecture(the systems and structure) to foster trust. A starter list of organizationaldesign elements includes:

  • A clear vision and aggressive but achievable targets
  • Accountabilities that are aligned to the vision and are uniformly enforced
  • Free flowing information; no secrets; no management filters
  • Reward systems that support collaboration and results
  • Empowering leadership practices

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

%d bloggers like this: