Nurturing Trust

joy research Oct 06, 2020

Written by Ed Cook

Trust shows up frequently as a corporate value, a desirable commodity.  It is inscribed on our money  (“In God We Trust”) and in our nation’s official motto.  But for something that is valued so highly, organizations struggle to explain what Trust is.  They seem unclear about how to get it,    how to nurture it, and how it erodes. They often make decisions that seem blind to the impact of Trust on their members.  

Organizations often expect their employees to think of Trust in terms of actions: 

“I can depend on you to do what you say.”

“They’ve got my back and I’ve got theirs”

“We are all in it together.”

Although these are fine statements and positive situations, they miss an important point,  an idea that has lived in the research literature about the individual but needs to expand to that of the organization --  psychological safety.    

Trust Is About Safety

This is what emerges from The Change Decision research on Joy at Work.

“Trust is the degree to which I can safely put myself at risk by depending on you.” 
-The Change Decision Joy Assessment

This plays out in dramatic behavior depending on the amount of Trust present.   One can imagine the following internal conversation going on in the mind of anyone in an organization as they make their own calculation about Trust.

 “If I have little Trust, I will perceive dependence on you as putting me at risk, and,  therefore, I will seek to lessen that dependence or compensate in some other way.  If I am expected to be dependent on you because of your role, yet you exhibit little or no understanding of the risk this presents to me the relationship is compromised.”  

Imagine this Trust dynamic in a supervisor-employee relationship.  Think of the employee’s reaction to a situation in which the level of Trust is low.  Let’s call that employee Morgan.  Morgan likely would exhibit low levels of risk-taking and stricter adherence to a policy if Trust is low.  Morgan does this so there is always a back-up or reference for each behavior.  Morgan’s boss may be frustrated by this.  She sees Morgan as less energetic and less productive than how she would like Morgan to be.   She sees lost opportunities as Morgan acts only on explicit guidance,  never on an insight or hunch.    She may think  Morgan lacks initiative or energy or commitment. 

 But the Trust dynamic from the boss’s perspective is unstable, and not just because of her position.  If she feels there is a risk in trusting Morgan because Morgan does not exhibit an understanding of the downside of a particular action, then naturally the boss will act cautiously with Morgan.  The boss will not be as likely to try Morgan on a new effort with less history of what it takes to be successful,  and no procedures.  Morgan’s ability to perform in the organization is diminished because she does not get the chance to excel.   Morgan’s career trajectory likely will lower.

Lack of Trust between the boss and Morgan is mutually reinforcing.  The behavior of each person is perfectly rational from each of their perspectives given the low level of Trust.  The result, unfortunately, can be devastating 

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
– Ernest Hemingway

Now, imagine the opposite is true and Trust is abundant.  Employees will try new things because they trust their supervisor to protect them.  Supervisors will allow employees to try new things because they believe the employees will be aware of the consequences of their actions.  As a result, new products are launched, new businesses are started, new approaches are taken.  The underlying dynamic is psychological safety.  This is not a permanent state of being, but a process.  Trust needs to be nurtured or it continually erodes.  

Trust is a Process

Trust is not a resource that you manage, but rather a state that must be nurtured.  A process:

  1. Risk-Taking: The boss makes a decision and assigns an employee a task.  
  2. Result: The employee executes the task and gets a result.
  3. Consequence:  The boss decides what action to take as a consequence of the result.

Simple enough, but in this process, Trust is either nurtured or eroded.  Here’s an example:

Morgan is a heavy equipment operator and is given the task of excavating part of a hill for the foundation of a new building.  Morgan has all the qualifications to run the equipment, but it is more difficult to excavate while operating on a hill than level ground.  e.   This poses a risk, and the results will be varying levels of success or failure.  What is important for nurturing Trust is not the result but the consequence.  If the work goes well,   the boss’s trust in Morgan will increase. and Morgan’s trust in the boss likewise will increase.  Interestingly, if the job goes poorly, and the boss guides Morgan to improve without punishment, Morgan’s Trust in the boss will increase, as well.   If Morgan makes a mistake and quickly tells the boss, thereby taking responsibility (and even more importantly,  learning), then  Morgan gains Trust. .  Similarly, Trust can erode if the consequence moves in the other direction.  It is not the result that impacts Trust, but the broader consequences.

How to Nurture Trust

A way to think about managing this is an approach called The Leadership Bubble.  Here, the boss creates a “space,” a set of possible consequences where an employee can learn and make mistakes but not damage the company or their own reputation.  Make the bubble too tight and the employee won’t grow. In other words, micromanaging.  Make the bubble too big and the employee can damage their reputation and the success of the organization.   Trust is nurtured by staying in a Zone of Balance in which learning leads to personal growth for the employee and the boss, and also growth for the organization.  

Make this an active process and Trust will be nurtured and enable Joy at Work to grow.

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