Create A Culture Of Trust: 3 Ways To Do It Right

July 6, 2016

In 2015, Jack Welch, ex-CEO of General Electric, was asked in an interview, “What is leadership all about?” His reply: “Leadership is about two words: truth and trust.” But how does trust work? How can you build a culture of trust throughout your organization? Here are three steps that will accelerate your trust-building journey:

1. Create a Triple Bottom-Line Purpose

“There is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game.” Such was the opinion of the economist Milton Friedman when interviewed in September 1970. Friedman’s quote reveals that we lived in a business world that worshiped the concept of financial profit. However, diverse 21st century consumers are urging business leaders to go beyond the single bottom-line of profit and embrace the triple bottom-line of results, relationships, and reputation.

Unilever is a shining example of the power of triple bottom-line thinking. In the past seven years, Unilever has transformed employee engagement and increased its positive social impact, while also doubling sales and increasing long-term profitability—results, relationships, and reputation. Paul Polman, the company’s CEO , summed up the case for triple bottom-line purpose when he said, ‘We are at a turning point in history: Only those who grow sustainably will thrive.’

2. Recruit and Develop Trustworthy Leaders

So what leadership behaviors inspire trust in others? There have been some fine academic arguments on this point. Thankfully, Shawn Burke and her research team at the University of Florida summarized a 30-year debate, concluding that all models of trust could be boiled down to three pillars:

  • Ability
  • Integrity
  • Benevolence

The pillar of ability refers to our professional competence to fulfill the core task of leadership: delivering results. The second pillar, integrity, refers to the extent to which we “walk the talk.” The third pillar of benevolence refers to our concern for the well-being of others. We show our good wishes to others through care, generosity and kindness. As one of the CEOs I interviewed put it, “The most powerful destroyer of trust is when you feel the other person is acting in their own best interest and not in yours.”

3. Beware the Excuses of CSR, PR, and Regulation

Regulation, PR and CSR are all potential cop-outs from the genuine trust-building challenge. The thinking goes that we do not need to focus on building a culture of trust because we can outsource this as a non-core activity. We can either “outsource” the problem internally to the PR and CSR functions and hope that they can spin a good enough story, or we can outsource trust externally and hope that the regulator stays one step ahead of the curve. Yet the public tolerance for these tactics is wearing thin, as many of the CEOs I interviewed noted:

  • “CSR is seen as something an organization must have. But half the time the stuff that is being put out in CSR is not really believed either by the CEO or by the rest of the organization. It is just something that they think they ought to do. As a consequence, it is a lie.”
  • “So long as we rely upon regulation then there has not been a sea change because we are still relying upon fear of consequences rather than positive action.”
  • “Managing trustworthiness becomes a PR exercise and that is not plausible – you are constantly drip-feeding the public spin and they know it.”

These are damning perspectives from inside the boardroom. A culture of trust is built on authentic human connections, not on sophisticated organizational sleight of hand that is now perceived as simply “playing the game.”

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About The Author

John Blakey was recognized as one of the top thought leaders on trust at the ‘Trust Across America’ 2016 awards. This recognition is based on his award-winning doctoral research and his highly successful career as a business leader and executive coach. His new book, The Trusted Executive: Nine Leadership Habits That Inspire Results, Relationships, and Reputation, is published by Kogan Page.


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