How Can We Build Trust?

The Relationship Model

You Asked: There doesn’t seem to be much trust in our organization right now. Our CEO says that we should be more trusting of each other, but it sounds more like a demand than a request. What is going wrong? How can we build trust in our organization? We’re paralyzed without it. People are miserable and not much is getting done.

Answer: Trust is a misunderstood value among Christians. It sounds to me like your CEO, in your view, is demanding trust instead of creating it. If you are right, you have identified the first part of the solution of broken trust for your organization.

I have often said to people who are struggling with trust issues, “Forgiveness is free, but trust is very expensive.” Trust certainly isn’t a value that we can turn on like a faucet just because someone with more authority is demanding it. That’s because trust is the result of our behaviour first and the cause of more good behaviour second, not the other way around.

It seems to me that people who want to be trusted will naturally want to be found trustworthy. As much as I want to be trusted, I would rather be called to account for my actions and decisions and found to be worthy of trust. We have so much need for trust going into the unknown future we shouldn’t be requiring trust without accountability when it isn’t absolutely necessary.

Your own CEO is a case in point. He needs the trust and confidence of your Board of Directors. The best way by far to establish a relationship of trust with the Board is to know what the Board expects and then to have a substantial performance review to determine that those expectations have been met. That in itself will build trust with a Board that meets far less often than the rate at which events in the organization unfold.

Whenever we enter into a new relationship, our fellow Christians give us a “bank account” of trust. We want to believe the best about each other, so we take the risk of trusting a new associate or a new employee. Having a good experience with a new co-worker is a return on our investment. As a result, we deposit more trust into that account. Trustworthiness results in more trust.

By the same token, a bad experience means that we have drawn from the “trust” account, leaving less trust than there was before. There comes a time in that relationship that the account goes into a deficit, because trust is not being deposited by trustworthy behaviour. A deficit trust account is a broken relationship. Rebuilding it requires behaviour that is worthy of trust being redeposited.

In the Christian workplace the best way to build trust is to design into the structure and processes of the organization an accountability system at every level of the organization. Strategic and tactical goals should be negotiated between the source and recipient of authority. Regular performance reviews should be a fundamental part of every direct working relationship. Important communications should be made in writing. Assumptions should be replaced by agreements.

For some reason Christians sometimes substitute trust for good business practice. “I trust you.” is a common phrase, and a lovely one to hear. Yet when we make assumptions instead of documenting understandings or rely on memory instead of making records, we set ourselves up for misunderstandings and disappointments. Trust begins to erode between us.

Accountability establishes trustworthiness. Trustworthiness gives trust a foundation. I think of trust as a beautiful statue resting on a foundation of trustworthiness. Failure to maintain the foundation will eventually result in the foundation crumbling and the statue of trust being dashed to pieces.

In your organization it is also possible that there is a significant values clash or perhaps a significant violation of some sort that has broken trust. Perhaps the manner in which some conflict has been handled has also contributed to the broken trust of which you speak. From your comments I can’t tell what conditions have resulted in the present low point in your organization.

One thing I will say, however, and I will say it clearly. Corporate culture, whether it is one of trust or brokenness, starts with the Board of Directors. Even if the cause isn’t within the Board, it is the Board who should be reviewing the CEO and the CEO who should be reviewing the senior managers and so on.

Forgiving without accountability or holding people accountable without forgiveness will only result in more pain. It is forgiveness-based accountability that will turn your organization around.

Trust me.

Les Stahlke, President/CEO

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