If you want trust, you have to invest in culture

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OJO_Images/iStock
Graham Massey
Business Head
The House
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Trust is big business. From Davos down, business leaders are consulting oracles like Edelman’s Trust Barometer or the CIPD’s Employee Outlook Report in order to increase trust in their organisations, inside and out.

It’s a perfectly sensible goal. The commercial advantages of trust are well documented: when employees trust leaders and each other, it reduces the cost of doing business and helps companies move faster. To make trust work, however, organisations need to think clearly about what trust is, where it is found and how it is achieved.

Our experience of helping a variety of organisations to develop trusting working environments has led us to a simple conclusion: you cannot have trust unless you invest properly in values and culture. For this reason, we believe that HR professionals should be at the forefront of the trust conversation.

Trust in action

In organisations with high levels of trust, employees are engaged, committed and bring their discretionary energy to work. They are more productive because they have more freedom and autonomy to apply their skills, knowledge and creativity to problem solving. In short, they are empowered.

Granting more autonomy and employee freedom is just one piece of the puzzle.

There are many inspiring examples. Holland’s Buurtzorg has revolutionised community nursing and achieved breakthroughs in patient satisfaction by putting power in the hands of nurses, who self-organise in small teams with minimal hierarchical oversight.

Online footwear retailer Zappos promotes employee freedom by allowing customer service agents to go ‘off-script’ and independently decide how to handle incoming enquiries. The firm is now committed to getting rid of managers altogether and becoming what CEO Tony Hsieh describes as “a fully self-organised, self-managed organisation”.

Why doesn’t every business simply remove the shackles and let its people loose to solve problems?

Encouraging employee autonomy is not a new phenomenon. In the 1980s, companies from around the world beat a path to Toyota’s door to learn about the famous Kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement, which gives factory-floor workers leeway to find innovative methods of improving their own productivity.

Making trust work

Why, then, doesn’t every business simply remove the shackles and let its people loose to solve problems? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

Employee freedom requires trust, but they are not one and same thing. A business cannot simply hand over responsibility and hope for the best. Trust-based employee autonomy cannot work without accountability, and accountability cannot function properly without a solid foundation of shared values and culture.

Accountability: necessary but insufficient

Let’s start with accountability. Making peers accountable to each other reduces the risk that autonomous problem-solving ends up with everyone pulling in different directions.

Peer-to-peer accountability can take many forms. At Lego, for example, the senior leadership team tracks the firm’s operational processes on an old-fashioned whiteboard, making everyone’s responsibilities and progress plainly visible.

Other businesses use internal social media platforms such as Slack or Yammer to enhance communication, share updates and celebrate success. No matter which approach you choose, creating such spaces and processes for honest feedback is very much the traditional domain of HR managers.

Such accountability is a precondition for trust. That said, accountability alone offers no guarantee that people will be truly open with each other or treat each other fairly.

Take the hyper-accountability of Amazon’s culture, for example. According to the now infamous New York Times exposé, Amazon employees are encouraged to give secret feedback to their peers’ managers, and undergo constant high-pressure ‘business reviews’ in which they are drilled on key metrics. Some former employees argue that this created a culture of cutthroat internal competition and high rates of burnout.

Vulnerability and openness

The Amazon exposé highlights the fact that accountability alone doesn’t allow for “vulnerability-based trust”, to borrow a phrase from Patrick Lencioni. This is the kind of trust that gives employees permission to admit to each other that they don’t have all the answers, or that they need help.

Accountability alone offers no guarantee that people will be truly open with each other or treat each other fairly.

In our work, we’ve seen time and time again the breakthrough that occurs when employees trust each other enough to display this kind of vulnerability. You can almost physically feel the whole company relax its shoulders, breathe more deeply and let the energy flow.

It’s at this point that businesses become poised to reap the “low cost, high speed” benefits of trust – but it only happens after employees start to engage in a conversation about values, culture and what’s important to them.

Understanding trust

We are now getting into the real guts of what trust is, and why HR should be leading the trust conversation. Before we go further, let’s quickly dispel two common mistakes that business leaders make about trust.

The first mistake is treating trust as either a commodity (“we need to shore up trust”) or as an attribute of senior leaders (“she is trustworthy”). This is unhelpful. Trust is better understood as a quality of relationship that exists between the people and parts that make up an organisation.

The second mistake is seeing trust as a value to be embedded in company culture, akin to ‘transparency’, ‘creativity’ or ‘customer focus’.

As Richard Barrett argues persuasively in The Values-Driven Organisation, trust is an outcome of defining and following your values, not a value in itself.

Once we see trust clearly for what it is – an interpersonal, relational quality that arises as the result of the activities that promote shared values and behaviours – we can see why HR professionals have such a vital role to play in building organisational trust.

Why getting your values right is vital

Investing in trust means watering its roots: behaviour, values and culture. Shared values and culture create the cornerstone on which employees can start to build trusting relationships with each other.

Let’s go back to our examples. In each case, employee freedom is guided and shaped by common values. Buurtzorg describes itself as a “values-driven organisation”, Zappos employees are guided by 10 core values (‘Deliver WOW through service’, ‘Do more with less’), while for Toyota, employee autonomy is just one component of the wider Kaizen culture.

It is this shared commitment towards a set of values that allows us to trust each other.

It is this shared commitment towards a set of values that allows us to trust each other. This doesn’t mean that we all must have exactly the same personal values. Rather, it means that we must do the hard work of deciding which values and behaviours we promote and celebrate within the business, and which behaviours we won’t tolerate. Again, this is bread and butter to HR professionals.

Culture is an investment

Why do we talk about ‘investing’ in values and culture?

Because figuring out your values and bringing them alive is hard work. It’s subtler than measuring engagement or tracking employee sentiment. It comes from asking deeper questions about what is important to the company (its purpose) and what is important to employees.

These values and behaviours will be different from business to business, and they won’t suit everyone - that’s OK. Equally, there are many different approaches and schools of thought around defining and implementing your corporate values. When done right, however, investing in culture yields enormous dividends.

Investing in culture boosts the bottom line by increasing productivity, as employees bring more to the table.

From an HR perspective, a strong culture will boost the employer brand, reduce turnover and increase engagement and commitment. From a sales perspective, a company’s values act as a competitive differentiator. Investing in culture boosts the bottom line by increasing productivity, as employees bring more to the table. A strong culture will also make a business more agile and resilient in the face of disruption, as well as creating a more fertile breeding ground for innovation.

Granting more autonomy and employee freedom is just one piece of the puzzle. A healthy values-led culture gives you the basis on which to build accountability, foster openness and empower employees to trust each other to act freely in pursuit of a common goal. Less cost, more speed.

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