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The 10 Elements of a Trust-Based Company Culture

By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager

Business is more trusted than government and the media. Though some may find that to be a low bar, the latest Edelman Trust Barometer documented the finding. Their report, based on a comprehensive survey, showed that 72 percent of US workers say confidence in their employer is stable or rising.

The Barometer is issued annually, but this year the survey’s timing was unprecedented. Its administrators asked people to rate their trust in these entities while the pandemic pulled the collective rug out from underneath them. Despite significant uncertainty in the work world, many felt their employers were doing what they could to support them.

In 2021, people are hungrier than ever for stability and trust. And they’re looking to their employers to provide that peace of mind. Our jobs, after all, are where we spend at least a third of our waking hours. And our experience there impacts every other aspect of our lives.

Having a work environment grounded in trust is paramount for employees. And trust is just as important to the organization’s stability as it is to the people who work there.

The Source of Organizational Trust: Leadership

A trust-based company doesn’t just materialize because people want one. Leaders can’t simply tell their staff to trust the organization and each other.

Author and management theorist Simon Sinek explains the roots of this concept in his popular TED talk, “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe.” Trust, he says, is not an instruction. It is a mutual understanding that humans developed in Paleolithic times by establishing a “circle of safety” to ward off unpredictable dangers.

We’re no longer worried about saber-toothed tigers, but the modern world is still full of threats we can’t control. In business, these dangers include a volatile economy, aggressive and sometimes unethical competition—or even a pandemic.

Company leaders have no control over such outside forces. But they do have the power to build trust and a circle of safety within their ranks so their staff can confidently face adversity as a team.

As Sinek put it:

“If the conditions are wrong, we’re forced to expend time and energy to protect ourselves from each other, and that inherently weakens the organization. When we feel safe inside the company’s environment, we’ll naturally combine our talents and strengths and work tirelessly to face the dangers outside.”

The environment Sinek references is a company’s culture, which is composed of the behavioral standards exhibited by its staff. The first step leaders must take to establish the culture is to define the conduct and attitudes that should permeate their company.

If leadership wants trust to be foundational, they need to articulate and coach behaviors that establish and maintain it. Most importantly, they must model those behaviors consistently.

CultureWise Founder and CEO David Friedman says leading by example is one of the best ways to establish trust in an organization. As he points out in his book, Culture by Design:

“Our people are observing us every minute of every day, consciously and unconsciously, and they’re taking their cue from us about what really matters. We can talk all day long, but how we respond to situations will have more impact than anything we say.”

Friedman also makes clear that employees notice what behavior is tolerated. If leaders turn a blind eye towards team members who don’t align with the culture, they teach their people that poor conduct is acceptable. Trust won’t survive under such circumstances.

The Impact of Trust

Paul J. Zak, renowned researcher and author of Trust Factor, has evidence that people who trust their employer and coworkers are healthier than those who don’t. In over two decades of research, Zak found that compared with employees at low-trust companies, people who work in high-trust environments have:

  • 74% less stress
  • 106% more energy at work
  • 29% more life satisfaction
  • 40% less burnout

Zak shared one of the main reasons for personal gains in high-trust organizations in his article for Harvard Business Review, “The Neuroscience of Trust.”  In his studies of people at work, he found a direct correlation between the amount of oxytocin produced in a person’s brain and the degree of trust they feel in any given situation.

Oxytocin is a chemical produced when people feel safe. When the level of oxytocin increases, individuals become calmer and more confident—even more empathetic.

And when trust is established, the organization benefits along with the individual. As author Stephen M.R. Covey said, “Trust is the highest form of motivation. It brings out the very best in people.”

In his book, Speed of Trust, Covey uses a math analogy to illustrate how trust drives organizational success.

The traditional business formula is:

Strategy x Execution = Results

But Covey suggests adding a variable to the equation:

Strategy x Execution (multiplied by Trust) = Results

His point is that the amount of trust in any given situation can increase or decrease the quality of the results.

Covey writes:

“When trust is high, the dividend you receive is like a performance multiplier, elevating and improving every dimension of your organization. High trust materially improves communication, collaboration, execution, innovation, strategy, engagement, partnering, and relationships with all stakeholders.”

Or, as Zak puts it, “Creating a culture of trust is exactly where doing good and doing well coincide.”

The Elements of a Trust-Based Company Culture

In a global CEO survey, PwC reported that 55 percent of CEOs think that a lack of trust is a threat to their organization’s growth. But most have done little to increase trust, primarily because they aren’t sure where to start. 

As noted above, to make trust a mainstay of their organization, leaders need to bake behaviors that reinforce it into their company culture.

10 Critical Behaviors that Build Trust
  1. Honor commitments
  2. Listen to understand
  3. Assume positive intent
  4. Embrace diverse perspectives
  5. Speak straight
  6. Invest in relationships
  7. Act with integrity
  8. Show meaningful appreciation
  9. Share information
  10. Practice blameless problem-solving
1. Honor Commitments

When people don’t do what they’ve promised, others lose confidence in them. Leaders should coach people throughout an organization to do what they say they’ll do when they say they’ll do it. This includes big commitments as well as simply being on time for meetings or calls. A companywide pattern of dependability elevates trust.  

2. Listen to Understand

We build trust in those who take the time to carefully listen to what we have to say. When employees feel “heard,” they develop a stronger sense of belonging to their organization and more comfortable voicing their views. This behavior includes giving others undivided attention, suspending judgment, and not jumping to conclusions.

3. Assume Positive Intent

People could avoid so much workplace conflict if they worked from the assumption that others were good, fair, and honest. It’s hard to have confidence in someone who assumes the worst about us or outright accuses us of wrongdoing. When staff members give others the benefit of the doubt, they demonstrate that they trust them. People who feel trusted almost always live up to that trust.

4. Embrace Diverse Perspectives

Organizational trust develops when everyone feels confident that they have a seat at the table. It won’t happen if inclusion and respect aren’t equitable across the board. Individuals feel valued, and the team is strengthened, when everyone’s perspective is welcomed and celebrated. 

5. Speak Straight

Staff members who trust their coworkers and management feel comfortable speaking up. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. In a high-trust workplace, people are willing to ask questions, share ideas, or raise tough issues to help move things forward. When problems arise, they speak directly with those involved and don’t talk behind people’s backs. Trust is essential for people to have the confidence to speak straight.

6. Invest in Relationships

You can’t trust someone you don’t really know. Organizations built on trust have a strong network of relationships. For this behavior to take root, employees should be coached to connect more personally—even if they work remotely. People’s confidence in their coworkers grows the more they get to know and understand one another.

7. Act with Integrity

When people unwaveringly do the right thing, they win the trust and respect of others. Acting with integrity means always telling the truth, not cutting corners, standing up for others, and being ethical. Perhaps more than any other behavior, leaders must embody integrity for it to become non-negotiable throughout the organization.

8. Show Meaningful Appreciation

Acknowledgment is most effective when it timely, specific, and includes an explanation of its impact. According to Paul Zak, neuroscience shows that this kind of recognition also has the largest effect on trust. People feel they can depend on organizations where meaningful appreciation is extended regularly in all directions.

9. Share Information

Few things erode trust faster than when people believe information is being withheld from them. If leaders are open about company goals, strategies, and tactics, they eliminate uncertainty among their staff. In this kind of atmosphere, workers are more prone to entrust what they know with their teammates. Transparency bolsters everyone’s confidence in the workplace, enabling more successful collaboration.

10. Practice Blameless Problem-Solving

Mistakes will happen in any business. The way they’re handled signals to staff whether they can feel emotionally safe in that environment. The core of this behavior is a relentless solution-focus that targets the “why,” not the “who,” when errors occur. As a result, staff will feel supported in a blame-free atmosphere and inspired to be more innovative problem-solvers.

The rewards are boundless when elements of trust are woven into a company’s culture. Notes Barbara Kimmel, editor of the award-winning Trust Inc books:

“Building trust-based principles into the DNA of an organization elevates security among employees. They spend less time looking over their shoulders and more time engaging, innovating, collaborating, and working for the greater good.”

CultureWise Can Help Build a Culture of Trust

The ten behaviors outlined above are part of the CultureWise system that David Friedman designed to build and sustain a thriving company culture. His groundbreaking program gives business leaders the tools to create and maintain a culture of trust that is foundational for a company’s success.

Explore the website and try the innovative CultureWise app demo to see why so many business leaders say this system is transformational.

CultureWise was inspired by the eight-step framework to build high-performing corporate culture that Friedman details in Culture by Design. A free, two-chapter download of this helpful resource is currently available. 

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