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The Hidden Cogs of Trust

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

We all have a basic human need to trust. From birth, we trust our parents to look after us,

feed us and protect us from danger. Even in the worst cases of abuse or neglect the bond of trust between parent and child is incredibly strong. But we’re also taught from an early age to mistrust, insofar as we should avoid talking to strangers and to take care when crossing the road.

Generations ago the relationships we had were confined to those geographically closest to us; friendships and commerce were all conducted within a community of people we knew personally. Trust was easy to define. In today’s super-connected global economy we frequently have relationships, however brief, with people we’ve never met and will never meet. We communicate and transact with people who we’ve only known digitally as part of our “virtual” community. It’s much more difficult to be certain of who we can and can’t trust and we have to base these decisions on new criteria. So what impact is this having on organisations?

Confucius told his disciple Tzu-Kung that three things are required for government; weapons, food and trust. If a leader cannot hold on to all three he should give up the weapons first and the food next. Trust should be guarded to the end; without trust we cannot stand. There’s now a large body of research and evidence to support Confucius’ belief. Author Stephen Covey suggests that things can happen up to 60% faster in “high trust” organisations. People follow leaders they trust, allowing decisions to be made and implemented faster, creating a more agile, responsive organisation. Customers, in turn, are more loyal to organisations they trust creating further competitive advantage.

But why can some people or organisations let us down and yet still retain our trust, whilst others make mistakes from which they never recover? Trust is hard to build, but so easy to lose. It’s often overlooked, yet it’s at the root of practically every decision we make. In an organisational environment, we build trust most quickly by demonstrating capability and delivering results. This is why managers often speak of getting “quick wins” when they take over a new job or team.

Trust is lost most damagingly when integrity is brought into question, or when self-interest influences actions and behaviour; we trust people who we believe will act in our interests, or who we at least believe are looking for a mutually beneficial outcome. There are many recent and well-publicised examples of how trust can be damaged when integrity fails or self-interest governs behaviour; consider politicians and their expenses, or bankers and their bonuses, for example. Once integrity is damaged or actions are driven by self-interest, trust is lost in a way which can be almost impossible to recover from.

So how can we most effectively build and sustain trust? We may start with our own personal credibility by building skills and knowledge that are relevant to our roles, organisational strategy and the market in which we operate. We can use these capabilities to deliver great results, to take the occasional risk and strive always to be the best we can be. Once we’ve established our competence through strong capabilities and consistent results, care should be taken to always to demonstrate integrity. This involves being honest, standing up for what we believe in and having the courage to do the right thing even when it’s the most difficult path. Finally, we should not allow self-interest to lead us astray; being open, giving credit where it’s due and being supportive of other people and their needs are fundamental. We can seek “win-win” outcomes rather than “win-lose”. This is how people will judge our character and cultivate trust.


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