Wisdom from Barry Slauenwhite, the Canadian regional director for the Best Christian Workplaces Institute.
“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.” - Stephen R. Covey
Forty years in nonprofit leadership throughout Canada have taught me at least one thing: The degree of trust in your workplace can make or break your organization’s culture.
Therefore every leader, manager and employee owe it to themselves to ask the question: “How do you build trust in a way that creates healthy communication, strengthens relationships and unites everyone to fulfill our organization’s mission?”
The answer is as simple and as basic as a three-legged stool. What are these three, essential legs of trust upon which interdependence, understanding, and effectiveness rest?
The truth about trust
I recently spoke with one Christian leader who had been wounded by his relationship with his board. He said, “I thought we were all operating on the highest biblical standard of trust and transparency. I was devastated to experience the pain of broken trust.”
Sometimes we have different definitions of trust. In his excellent book The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey describes trust in basic terms:
Simply put, trust means confidence. The opposite of trust –distrust – is suspicion. When you trust people, you have confidence in them – in their integrity and their abilities. When you distrust people, you are suspicious of them – of their integrity, their agenda, their capabilities or their track record. It’s that simple.
Trust is a feeling one person has for another person’s capability and reliability supported by their past actions. As I’ve worked and moved among managers and their teams, I’ve experienced the relationship between truth and trust. Leaders who survey their employees benefit from their honest, candid feedback and thus know the true health of their culture. In short, surveying removes unnecessary second-guessing of, “How are we really doing as a culture?”
Why trust is essential
Covey creates a very compelling image when discussing the importance of trust in organizations. He puts trust into a very simple formula: Increased trust among coworkers produces increased speed of efficiency and a decrease in cost because people can get more done in a shorter amount of time.
The inverse is also true. An environment with little or no trust among coworkers leads to a decrease in speed of efficiency and an increase cost because less gets done.
True story: I once served on the board of a ministry where there were significant trust issues. High-level decisions were frequently made without thoughtful communication to staff. In addition, there was an issue with workgroup silos; teams did not work well together because trust had been broken.
Result: the culture was toxic. Distrust prevailed, and poor productivity and low ministry impact abounded. Leadership spent far too much time putting out fires and mending fences. They missed leveraging the fact that work productivity and ministry impact increases significantly in a high trust environment.
A three-legged stool of trust
In his book Trust in the Balance, Robert Shaw nails the truth about trust for every leader – be it in your organization, church, business, or family:
1. Lead with character
To earn organizational trust, the leader needs to fulfill their obligations and commitments. Promises and good intentions are not enough. Trust requires competent performance that fulfills expectations. As a leader, can you hold yourself to the same level of accountability as you do your staff?
2. Cultivate consistent integrity
The key to integrity is honesty in action demonstrated consistently over time. Integrity is not only the second leg of trust, it’s also the glue that ensures the stool remains stable, unchanging and secure.
As CEO of one of Canada’s largest charities, I learned this firsthand. I recall standing in front of our entire staff, admitting I had made a mistake in how I had dealt with a staffing issue. I had done what I thought was prudent, yet in the end it was not the best decision. It affected a whole team. I was humbled and inspired by how my staff responded. Their compassion showed me that part of creating a culture of trust is our attitude toward mistakes.
Integrity is all about clear communication.
As soon as there is a whiff of something coming down the pipeline, tell employees who need to know.
Keep the communication going both ways. Collect feedback at monthly meetings and have department heads collect suggestions and ideas from their people. Giving employees the freedom to voice their opinions and see their ideas being acted upon creates a strong sense of trust that can translate into increased productivity.
Healthy communication reveals the critical need of fostering mutual trust. This widely beneficial outcome comes to light through a 360-degree process designed to align a leader’s strengths and skills with the organization’s needs.
3. Demonstrate concern
Leaders have a big responsibility to make sure everyone, from the interdependent work group to an entire department, feels genuinely cared for. It’s all about developing positive relationships and instilling the trust of others who know their leaders are taking their best interests to heart.
The ultimate model of trust
Creating a culture of trust doesn’t mean that conflict will not happen. When conflict does arise, it can be addressed (and hopefully resolved) without tearing down what has been built.
Healthy, trusting environments learn to effectively navigate conflict. Needless personal attacks are off the table, as healthy give-and-take of differing opinions help develop more effective ideas. This can create higher levels of trust and productivity and do wonderful things for your organization.
Wisely relying on the three-legged stool of trust can produce immediate benefits, whether you’re listening carefully to someone, following through on a personal commitment or feeling affirmed by a colleague or group.
It’s no coincidence that Jesus himself exemplified trust. Through His godly character, integrity and concern He earned the trust of those He came to serve. May we do the same with each person with whom we work.
Barry Slauenwhite is the Canadian regional director for the Best Christian Workplaces Institute and is based in London, Ont. He can be reached at [email protected].