This is important. Trust me.

THE BIG IDEA: Trust is at the foundation of collaborative organizations and effective teams. Without it, organizations decay into dysfunctional and defensive cultures with a dissatisfied workforce.


Trust. It’s an easy word to say, but as anyone responsible for managing groups of people knows, trust isn’t so easy to foster.

If you’re successful at establishing trust, you can build strong social bonds and build effective teams.

When Employees Don’t Trust

Without trust, you have individual and departmental silos—a defensive culture driven by fear and personal gain.

Without it, social interactions are unpredictable, community building is thwarted, and people are unable to collaborate effectively.

In the absence of trust, we create antagonistic work environments with a “me versus you” mentality.

Without trust, we feel psychologically unsafe. This causes employees to watch their own backs instead of the interests of their team and the organization itself.

Loyalty, creativity, and collaboration are untenable without a strong foundation in trust.

As Patrick Lencioni writes in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, “Trust lies at the heart of a functioning, cohesive team. Without it, teamwork is all but impossible.”

The Power of Trust in the Workplace

Professor of Sociology Barbara Misztal explains that trust has three social implications:

  1. It makes social life more predictable.
  2. It creates a sense of community.
  3. It allows people to work together.

Economist John Helliwell researched the determinants of workplace happiness, and found that trust is the greatest contributor, beating out pay, workload, or perks.

Respondents were asked on a scale of 1 to 10 to rate the level of trust that workers have in management at their workplace. Helliwell and colleagues found that a 0.7 point increase on the trust scale delivers the same psychological benefit as a 31% wage increase. When employees trust their managers, and feelings of trust are extended to co-workers, they tend to be happier at work.

The pay off for managers? More productivity, less turnover, less absenteeism. And when employees are satisfied, customers tend to be satisfied too.

How Organizations Foster a Trusting Environment

The Container Store, the nation’s leading retailer of storage and organization products, has made its way on to Fortune Magazine’s annual list of 100 Best Companies to Work for for 17 consecutive years.

Two-thirds of the score is determined by an anonymous employee survey. The Container Store’s consistent high ranking as one of the best companies to work for demonstrates that their employees feel secure and relatively happy at work. They’ve effectively created a trusting work environment. The company consistently embraces their “do unto others” business philosophy, where trust is foundational at the top levels of management, and penetrates all levels of the organization.

Under the wings of founder and former chairman Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines thrived in an industry notorious for low employee morale and bad customer service. He professed, “The only way that you ever get people to respond with trust and fidelity is to treat them as if you trust them and believe they will be faithful … You have to give everyone the opportunity to show their best qualities.”

Both Netflix and financial service provider The Motley Fool offer unusual vacation policies, allowing employees to take whatever time off they need, as long as they get their work done. They not only give employees the freedom and flexibility to choose their work schedules, they also send a powerful message of trust.

Years ago, Netflix tossed out their policy manual on travel expenses, and simply tell employees to “travel as you would on your own nickel.” Netflix doesn’t enforce a per diem rate or impose restrictions on the amount employees can spend on business travel. They trust that their employees will be honest and spend within reason, as marked by the bounds of their conscience.

The Motley Fool proclaims, “Just do your job and do it well. We trust you.”

The Core Value of Truth

Outperforming businesses don’t just fulfill the basic needs of their employees and customers; they help them meet their higher level needs.

Maslow called these higher level needs B-values, short for being values. He believed that these being values are the hidden motivations behind our self-actualization, of realizing our best selves. Truth, trust, and honesty are examples of being values.

When companies like Netflix, The Motley Fool, The Container Store, and Southwest Airlines embrace the being values of truth, trust, and honesty, they nurture workplaces empowered by higher principles.

These being values most often surface through conscious decisions among leadership. Here’s a sample of the core values related to truth, trust, and honesty:

  • Zappos: Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  • Amazon: Earn trust of others
  • Netflix: Honesty (candor and directness; non-political; quick to admit mistakes)
  • Under Armour: Integrity. Without it we cannot be a team
  • The Motley Fool: Honest: Make us proud.

Outperforming leaders, however, don’t just talk about core values like truth, trust, honesty, and integrity. They live them. If leadership isn’t modeling the behavior of their organization’s values, no one else will.   

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How to Start Building Trust

While it’s important to establish trust with your customers—if you want them to become loyal—you must first cultivate trust in your workplace. Trusted employees pay it forward through first-rate customer service.

In the context of your organization, trust translates to a collective confidence among employees that everyone has good intentions. In a trusting environment, there’s no need to be defensive or protective.

Building trust requires vulnerability. And that’s the challenge. In the absence of trust, we tend to be defensive; we put up walls to protect our own self-interests. Vulnerability and defensiveness are at the opposite ends of the trust continuum.

Trust always starts with leadership. If you can demonstrate vulnerability first, you open the space for others to follow. Humble leaders—Level 5 Leaders—aren’t defensive. They are, by nature, vulnerable and open to honest feedback.

Humble leaders are willing to put themselves on the line and risk losing face in front of their team. As such, they inspire those within their lead to loosen up their defenses, take risks, and begin to trust.

Building trust isn’t for the faint at heart. Be bold and courageous. Win your team’s hearts with humility, honesty, and inner strength.

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