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Don’t be a liar — and other brilliant ways to increase trust

4 min read


According to Edelman’s 2012 Trust Barometer, 53% of the global public ages 25 to 64 (slide No. 7) do not trust business. This is neither surprising nor acceptable. What are the causes of this mistrust, and what can business leaders do to remedy the situation?

The usual culprit for mistrust is dishonesty. Lies small and large pervade business, whether it’s Ticketmaster calling their fees “convenience charges” or Enron’s core values stating “We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly and sincerely.”

So let’s not lie, OK?

Now that that’s settled, we can examine less obvious sources. I propose much of this mistrust actually stems from people not trusting their own companies. After all, many respondents work for businesses, as do their friends and family. They trust themselves, and they trust their friends and family, but they don’t trust the companies comprised of these same people. Something about the actions and structures of businesses has created a trust gap.

Here are few simple ways to create an environment of trust.

Be transparent

Mistrust comes from misunderstanding, and the easiest way to prevent misunderstanding is to make sure everyone has the same information. That requires transparency. One area where most companies are not transparent is in their employees’ compensation. The result is an unnecessarily adversarial relationship between company and employee, as well as between employees. Publishing all employee compensation, including equity and your cap table, will increase trust within a company and provide many benefits.

One immediate benefit is demonstrating what behavior is valued and rewarded at the company. That’s not always clear in the abstract, but cash makes it real in a hurry. Another benefit is eliminating the potential for misinformation. Employees are already talking about compensation with their peers. Why not replace theorizing and misunderstandings with actual data?

If you’re not comfortable justifying your compensation decisions, the problem isn’t transparency. The problem is your compensation decisions. Employees may not always agree with the results, but they are more likely to trust a company when they are confident they have all the information. Compensation is merely one example. What else in your organization would benefit from transparency?

Do not tolerate incompetence

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is known for his mantra, “Do your job.” This is a deceptively simple insight with far-reaching benefits.

“Do your job” means you have to know your role completely. Do you? “Do your job” means you need to focus on the immediate task at hand rather than worrying about events beyond your control.

“Do your job” means an organization can get more done due to specialization across individual roles. That is, after all, the point of organizations — to achieve something greater than possible as individuals.

Most importantly, “Do your job” means you have to trust that others will do their jobs. When you are worried about someone else’s job, you are not doing your own job. If leaders allow some employees to underperform, it dishonors the work of everyone in the organization.

Tolerating incompetence prolongs the difficulties of the struggling employee, wastes company resources and sends a signal to competent employees that their diligence does not matter. Mistakes are OK; incompetence is not. To increase trust among all employees, coach your struggling employees up or out. People are more likely to trust a company when they know that everyone is accountable.

Co-create your business

“Do your job” is powerful. But unlike football’s finite number of games, plays and players, business is far more complicated, with rapidly shifting markets, competitors and scoreboards. To contend with this complexity, empower employees to define their job (and then let them do it).

Empowered employees are in a much better position to solve problems and serve their customers. The complexity of business means that it’s essentially impossible to plan for all contingencies, so an employee who knows her role and has the latitude to perform it will be more prepared than someone in a less flexible environment.

Employees with a say in their job structure will also be more likely to be competent at that job. They will know the limitations of the company’s systems, products and people (including themselves). They will put themselves and the company in a position to succeed, especially if transparent communication has provided insight into what behavior is valued and rewarded.

People are more likely to trust what they help create. Increasing trust levels with your employees is possible through transparency, requiring competent performance and co-creation.

(And don’t forget to tell the truth.)

Bill Tolany is an entrepreneur with leadership experience in startups and at Whole Foods Market. Follow Tolany on Twitter @btolany.