All Articles Leadership Inspiration How to build trust as a foundation for innovation

How to build trust as a foundation for innovation

Digital transformation requires trust and buy-in from employees to have any chance.

5 min read


How to build trust as a foundation for innovation


As a manager, you know all too well that every organization endures periods of change. Maybe it’s due to a long-needed digital transformation. Perhaps it’s the result of a series of innovation projects or an aggressive move by a competitor. Maybe you had to replace a departing superstar or cut your team because of budgetary constraints.

The reason for the change doesn’t matter one iota if a crucial element is missing: trust. Without trust, avenues of communication experience gridlock. Collaboration ends up stifled and stilted. Everyone feels on edge and misaligned. A lot of this falls on the manager’s shoulders.

A team that lacks trust is a bad setup for innovation. It’s also risky, because no company can adapt without the confidence of its people. Consider the jarring findings from a December 2017 study by Ultimate Software: 93% of employees said trust in their direct support is crucial to staying satisfied at work, and a majority said they’d turn down a large pay increase to stay with a great boss.

Here’s the disconnect: 80% of managers think they are transparent with their employees, while only 55% of employees agree. And, 71% of managers say they know how to motivate their teams, while just 44% of employees agree.

Trust on both ends of this dynamic is lacking.

Warding off the troubles of distrustful teams

Have you ever been on a team whose members don’t trust one another? It isn’t really a team at all, just a group of people working on similar efforts. Plus, most of its members spend too much time protecting their work, not to mention wasting energy battling over rights and responsibilities.

It’s a shame. Without the bonding that comes from colleague confidence, no team or department can be innovative, creative, or productive.

Ironically, many leaders and managers forget this fact when they agree to implement digital transformation endeavors. Instead of making sure their people have faith in one another’s abilities and motives, managers move full steam ahead with programs and strategies. Then, they watch in surprise as talented members leave, infighting begins and trust dissolves.

As one piece of Forrester research showed, battles over digital ownership negatively affected 43% of reporting businesses. That’s a significant number of organizations trying to compete in their industries with limited trust.

On the flip side, companies that clearly define their team players’ roles and talk about innovation transparently from Day One have a better chance of constructing cohesive teams — and ultimately winning the digital revolution race.

When team members can clearly see their purpose in any effort, they naturally worry less about one-upping each other and concentrate on hitting overall goals. As they see and celebrate real-time progress, they foster a culture of innovative thinking that’s not limited by change-related fear. Without the presence of suspicion, loyalty grows and objectives come to fruition.

Establishing levels of trust prior to transformation

Considering a digital quantum leap of one or more corporate processes? Be certain your team members are ready to work together seamlessly by taking a few necessary steps:

1. Share your game plan

What do you hope to accomplish with your upcoming change? Hold nothing back and tell the full story to team members. Don’t feel you have to sugarcoat difficulties. Instead, talk about them honestly and discuss how you expect to overcome them. Being realistic, positive, and honest from the jump will help your team feel less anxious about working together to tackle the unknown.

2. Give your teams a wide berth

If you want your teams to take full ownership of their tasks, don’t hold them back with unnecessary red tape. Allow them to make decisions on their own — with parameters that you have precisely outlined upfront — so they can adapt as needed. The more agile they are, the faster they’ll achieve their expected goals.

3. Make listening to everyone’s ideas a must-do

Promote thought diversity along every step of your digital transformation, encouraging your players to toss out ideas originating in their personal experiences and knowledge. As employees open up, they will naturally grow closer. They’ll also start offering solutions that wouldn’t be considered in a less diverse forum, and their faith in you as a manager will flourish.

4. Get buy-in from less-enthusiastic workers

Have some team players who aren’t thrilled to embrace their roles? Get their buy-in as soon as you can. Be empathetic to their concerns while remaining firm about going forward with the digital transformation. After your conversation, they should feel heard but should also recognize that their contributions are expected. The last thing your team deserves is a naysayer who strives to resist, not commit.

Digital transformation can be a game changer for any corporation, but it doesn’t happen without strategic planning. Innovation won’t just find you. Instead, go out and discover it yourself by empowering and educating a trust-infused team.


Michael Manning is president at Rocksauce Studios, a people-driven innovation agency from Austin, Texas, that uses technology for corporate digital transformation and popular mobile apps.

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mail on leadership, strategy and communication, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.