Rise Performance Group

How can a leader create a high trust environment?


“Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”

~ George W. Bush

Read that one more time. Let it sink in.

In 2016, after the horrible and unthinkable attack on Dallas Police Officers, the Former President used these words to help explain why we have such crippling divisiveness in our country even as he presented his plea for unity.

If it’s true in our society, in our schools, in our communities, it’s certainly true in our organizations.

His words provide some insight into why it is so difficult for us to create high levels of trust in our organizations.

It takes hard work. It takes intentional thinking and actions. It’s not the easy path or often the most visible path.

When we interact with others, all we see are their actions. Their intentions are invisible to us. However, when we act, we tend to focus on our intentions. How our actions are perceived by others is invisible to us.

Is trust trending up or is trust trending down?
This is one of the questions I ask when I am teaching on trust. Is the trust level in your organization, or on your team, trending up or down?

Most people feel that trust is trending down in our society. There are many reasons… the internet, social media and 24-hour news cycle are often cited.

The increasing skepticism we see in society spills over into our workplaces, meaning leaders must work even harder to build trust within their organizations.

Signs that Trust is Low
People behave differently when trust is high versus when trust is low.

In a high trust environment, we see more productivity, higher energy, more collaboration with peers. Organizations experience higher retention rates and higher performance as employees feel secure and confident.

In a low trust environment, people are more tentative and guarded, they tend to isolate from peers and feel stressed out and fearful. Companies see high turnover rates and lower performance.

High Trust Environment

Low Trust Environment

More Productive More Tentative
More Energy More Guarded
Collaboration with Peers Isolation from Peers
High Retention High Turnover
Secure and Confident Stressed and Fearful
High Performance Low Performance

In 2016, PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) reported from its global CEO survey that 55% of CEO’s believe that lack of trust is a threat to their organization’s growth and ability to innovate.

Paul Zak, in his Harvard Business Review article, The Neuroscience of Trust found that those working in a high trust environment enjoyed their jobs 60% more, were 70% more aligned with their companies’ purpose and felt 66% closer to their colleagues.

Feeling Safe = Increased Trust
How can a leader intentionally create more trust in him- or herself as well as within the team?

Google, the company that has mastered analytics, conducted a survey to determine traits of high performing teams.

The two most important traits from the study, code-named Project Aristotle, found that on the highest performing teams, peers spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking”. There was not one person dominating conversations or meetings, and all members felt they could speak their opinions and contribute.

Secondly, these teams all had high “average social sensitivity”. That’s a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.

Within psychology, researchers sometimes refer to traits like ‘‘conversational turn-taking’’ and ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ as aspects of what’s known as psychological safety — a group culture that Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’

Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

Creating a Culture of Higher Trust
How does a leader apply this to their day to day leadership activities and create a culture of high trust? Below are three specific actions you can take that will increase the trust of your team.

  1. Understand and appreciate the importance of relationships in building trust. When people intentionally build social ties at work, trust increases and improved performance follows. Create an environment that fosters this type of relationship building. Schedule time for social interaction and team building inside and outside of the normal workday. Make it okay to have fun and be individual. Foster an atmosphere where people feel psychologically safe. Don’t allow harassment, squash judgment, encourage openness and connecting.
  2. In your weekly meeting make sure everyone has a chance to contribute to the conversation. Intentionally go around the room and ask everyone to comment and offer their perspective and recommendations. Encourage ideas. Withhold and discourage public criticism of opinions and suggestions. As a leader, ask more questions and seek more input while spending less time making statements and giving direction. Work on showing more empathy and improving your ability to read people.
  3. Don’t stifle new innovation by cutting off new ideas. Strive to say, “yes and” more than “yes but”. “Yes and” will validate the value of a new idea, keep the energy high, create psychological safety and help you innovate. You never know where your next breakthrough will come from – don’t shut down the creativity of your team. Not every idea is a winner, not every suggestion should be implemented. When you allow your team to feel safe in making out-of-the-box suggestions, even the ones that seem far-fetched or crazy, you’ll unlock their willingness to think bigger and better.

Create an environment that encourages your team to judge others more by their good intentions and less by their worst examples. Be intentional about it. Focus on it every day, in every meeting, in every interaction.

Implementing the above suggestions will yield a stronger, more fulfilled, more loyal team which will lead to happier, more loyal, long-term clients. Your productivity will increase, turn over will decrease, teamwork will strengthen.

Most importantly it will put in position to reach your full potential while creating a great place to work.

Is your organizational or departmental trust where you’d like it to be?

If you’re spending more time putting out fires, settling the same disputes, and trying to motivate your team than you are celebrating new ideas, developing your leaders and achieving your goals the answer is most likely NO.

Let’s change that! Comment with your challenges and let’s see if we can fix it together.

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