We have a trust problem. Now what? - SmartBrief

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We have a trust problem. Now what?

Trust issues are all too real for companies and organizations. Leaders can diagnose, measure and fix trust problems, however, if they know what to look for.

7 min read


We have a trust problem. Now what?

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Working remotely requires a high level of trust among team members and also between teams. As a result, leaders and managers are now being bombarded with both new trust challenges and others they may have failed to address pre pandemic.

Let’s begin by identifying some of the most common trust challenges inside teams and organizations:

  • Dishonesty or distortions of the truth
  • Inconsistent talk and actions (saying one thing and doing another)
  • High employee turnover and low engagement
  • Slow innovation
  • Disrespect including micromanagement
  • Lack of transparency, hidden agendas and suspicion
  • Low accountability
  • Compliance and regulations drive decision making

The good news is that, contrary to popular belief, fixing or increasing trust need not be viewed as an insurmountable challenge. With the right tools and resources, and by taking the following three essential steps, trust can quickly be addressed.

We call this process AIM (Acknowledge, Identify, Mend) Towards Trust.

Step No. 1: Acknowledge

The first and most important step in creating a culture of trust requires leadership acknowledgement that trust is a learned competency, just like any other. Elevating trust among team members or across the organization will not “just happen” without a well-designed plan and a roadmap with a destination.

Can you think of the last time anyone on your team or in your organization was brave enough to acknowledge the existence of an internal trust problem? If so, the team is one step ahead of most others. Ignoring trust issues and/or an unwillingness to recognize them for what they are is the No. 1 reason why leaders, teams and organizations have ongoing trust challenges.

It’s not all that different from denying a toothache. Eventually, it will need to be addressed. What makes acknowledging trust weaknesses so difficult?

First, admitting to a lack of trust makes most people feel weak, vulnerable and most of all fearful, especially those in positions of leadership or authority. Second, most simply don’t know how to fix the problem.

But what if the “fear factor” could be eliminated by approaching trust with the understanding that the problem might not be one of trust at all, and if it is, it may not be difficult to fix?

Step No. 2: Identification

This step involves identifying the behavioral weaknesses that are keeping trust from flourishing.

If the acknowledgement hurdle can be overcome, and that’s a big “if,” the next step is identification of the primary underlying behavior that is weakening trust.

In our work at Trust Across America, this is done through a simple, one-question/one-minute anonymous team survey. The responses give us an immediate time-stamped trust profile and a baseline to begin a discussion and create a fix. Trust is not “one size fits all,” nor can it be addressed with a shot-in-the-dark approach. Because the behavioral weaknesses that affect trust differ between teams, and often between leaders and employees, they must first be identified.

Short of surveying the team, another approach to determining whether the issue is one of trust, is to start by asking, “Does the behavior fit into one of these three categories?”

Character: possessing an ethical and high-integrity focus with an outward instead of self-interested perspective.

  • Character behaviors that break trust include dishonesty, low integrity or lack of ethics, poor listening skills, close mindedness, lack of respect and empathy.

Competence: capability (knowledge, experience, ability) to complete the task or do the job in a satisfactory manner.

  • Competence behaviors that might impede trust include poor communication skills, lack of training, and hiring without alignment and consideration to team or organizational purpose or values.

Consistency: the ability to stick with, follow through and complete tasks.

  • Are the trust challenges a result of any of these: lack of accountability, disengagement, high stress, misunderstood expectations or low transparency?

In our trust work with teams and organizations, we usually find that the top three trust challenges are not character-based. That’s good news, because those tend to be the most difficult to address and usually require experienced third party facilitation.

However, when we separately survey leadership teams and employees in the same organization, we often find a wide gap between how the leadership team perceives their own character versus how employees view them. That’s a huge trust red flag.

Step No. 3: Mend

The final step is fixing the weaknesses while celebrating the strengths. This requires the right resources.

Consistency- and competency-based trust issues are relatively simple to address as long as the core values of the team or organization are aligned and practiced. Teams also require the right resources and tools to address these issues.

Let’s use transparency as an example. In our work with teams and organizations, transparency has been identified as one of the primary behavioral weakness impacting trust. Trust Across America’s Trust Alliance Principles (TAP) describe transparency as follows:

 “We reject hidden agendas. We are transparent wherever and whenever possible.”

How can your team address transparency? Start by providing context and then having a discussion using the following resources:

1. Have the team read these articles:

  • A recent article from Trust Across America on how to elevate transparency to build trust
  • This SmartBrief article provides tips for building a culture of transparency
  • Olivia Mathijsen, one of our European Trust Alliance members, shared this article about how a distributed tech company called GitLab has successfully built transparency into their core values and everyday work.

2. Follow with a discussion using one or all of these questions and giving all team members a voice:

  • Is transparency part of our culture? If not, why not?
  • Is our level of transparency aligned with our ethics?
  • How can we determine which confidentialities can be safely made transparent?

Your team should now be well on its way to understanding and fixing the broken links in the trust chain. If more than one behavior needs mending, follow the same steps outlined above, and don’t forget to celebrate the trust strengths team members share.

As a final thought: Leaders who embraced the growing business case for trust as a strategic advantage didn’t wait for a crisis to address it. Those who failed to give trust the attention it deserves are now panicking and turning in all the wrong directions for a quick fix.

When we read about “solutions” like employee productivity surveillance software, we have a problem. One can only conclude that leaders continue to take guidance from organizations offering expensive trust work arounds that fail to address underlying behavioral problems.

As the saying goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”


Barbara Brooks Kimmel is the founder of Trust Across America-Trust Around the World, whose mission is to help organizations build trust. Now in its 11th year, the program has developed two proprietary trust-evaluation tools. She also runs the world largest global Trust Alliance and is the editor of the award-winning TRUST INC. book series. Kimmel is a former consultant to McKinsey who has worked across industries and with many Fortune 500 CEOs. She holds a bachelor’s in international affairs from Lafayette College and an MBA in marketing from Baruch.

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