Making the case for investing in trust is, for some reason, never easy. Every leader I have spoken to about the need to maintain a high level of trust in organizations has agreed with me. There is no question about the importance of trust in the decision-making process, in employee satisfaction and retention, in better organizational performance and impact. And yet whenever it comes to the actual work of doing something to restore or reinforce trust in organizations, leaders tend to slam on the brakes. The procrastination it occasions would seem to come from an uncertainty regarding what trust is and how it is engendered. Trust is intangible in nature; its very elusiveness creates mental barriers in the heads of many decision-makers, despite their agreement on its importance and their commitment to continuous improvement.
So just how do you make a case for finding both the time and the resources for improving the level of trust in your organization? The recipe might change when applied to the specific circumstances of your organization, but the first step is that of demystifying trust.
One of the most persistent myths I have come across in my work with organizations is that we all share the same understanding of what trust is and how to achieve it. But the more you talk about trust and share your perceptions of it, and discuss how it influences your day-to-day decisions and relationships, you may discover that people in organizations define trust in very different terms. Some define trust as leadership competence (it is up to leaders to inspire trustworthiness and lead by example). Some people compare trust to a currency, something very transactional (if you trust me, I will trust you). Others see it as a rigid, fragile, indispensable and, yet very precious condition for any relationship (you either have trust or not; once you lose it, you never gain it back; it’s like a broken vase that can be put back together but will never be quite the same).
These differences in perceptions regarding trust are understandable, but reflect only one aspect of what it is. Trust is many things, a multi-dimensional notion. There is no single, universally agreed upon definition of trust that we can apply to organizations and take as a baseline to start with. That is why one of my key recommendations to those who want to work on strengthening trust in their teams or organizations is to create a shared language around trust.
What is a shared language? It is common knowledge co-created and shared by all members of your organization of how you define trust in your own terms. Creating a shared language requires an internal dialogue, an honest conversation about your beliefs, mindsets, and assumptions that determine how people define trust and what makes them trust in one situation and not in another. It is by challenging each other’s assumptions that people in organizations will come closer to forging a common meaning they attribute to trust, an association of values with high trust, a set of behaviours that create trust, and strategies to achieving and maintaining a high-level trust environment.