How to build trust in an open organization

A guide to building trust in teams and organizations

Open organizations depend on trust. These factors can influence it.

A guide to building trust in teams and organizations
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My travels globally have given me a feeling for how best to work in many different contexts—like Latin America, West Africa, North Africa, and Southeast Asia, to name a few. And I've found that I can more easily adapt my work style in these countries if I focus on something that plays a role in all of them: trust.

In The Open Organization, Jim Whitehurst mentions that accountability and meritocracy are both central components of open organizations. Trust is linked to both of those concepts. But the truth, I've found, is that many people don't have the information they need to determine whether they can trust a person or not. They need data, along with a system to evaluate that data and make decisions.

I've found a way to measure trust, studied trust building, and developed a strategy for cultivating trust that's worked for me over the years. I think it could work well in open organizations, where building trust is critical.

Let me explain.

The meaning of trust

"Trust" means confidence in a person or organization; the opposite of trust is suspicion and doubt. Here are a few factors that can influence trust:

  • A person's integrity or character, which is typically constant in any situation, and a person's abilities or competence, which is situational and depends on a given requirement.
  • The environment in which people work. Whether you're talking about individual trust, trust within a team, trust between teams, or trust between management and workers, you should remember: in a toxic environment people do not behave the way they normally do, sometimes even regretting their behavior afterwards. Therefore, when evaluating trust, always consider the situation.

And, in turn, trust can influence the following factors:

  • Quality of work. If there's a strong degree of trust within your organization, projects are executed faster, project costs are lower, collaboration and engagement are more common, and energy and excitement are higher. Without it, execution is slower, communications poorer and costs higher. Therefore, having a trusting corporate culture and building a trusted network outside the organization is extremely important.
  • Communication. In a high-trust relationship, you could say the wrong thing, and people could still understand your meaning. In a low-trust relationship, you could be very precise in explanation, and people could still misinterpret what you mean. Therefore, trust is extremely important, because it influences the amount of detail or context our conversations demand.
  • Perceptions of ability. We all think we can do things that perhaps we can't—or do poorly compared to others. We should not blindly trust what people say about their abilities. Exploring evidence that confirms skills is more important and effective. You might do this by looking at a person's experience and past performance. You might ask for a testimonial from someone who has worked with that person.

The trust assumption failure

Too many people simply assume that people trust them—that they don't have to prove their trustworthiness to anyone. This is not necessarily true. In most cases, in fact, we must proactively establish trust and improve our trusting relationships with others.

Think of the problem this way: We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions. And others judge us the same way. So we must increase those behaviors that will improve trust quickly (even through small commitments). These small commitments (theirs and ours) will determine the level of trust between parties.

Furthermore, I've also heard people say that once trust is lost, it can never be recovered. That, too, is not always the case. No matter how low the trust level is, you can improve the level of trust in your relationships by using certain methods to create more trusting environments. You can even use some of these methods in conflict situations.

Yet in the midst of interaction with various people, forgetting to focus on generating trust can be common. Therefore, you may wish to step back and think about it more deliberately from time to time. I have worked on this and developed a measuring system that has worked for me.

Guides for developing trust

When developing trust, work from the "inside out." Begin with yourself, then evaluate trust at the team, organizational, and market levels. Here are a few checklists to get you started—questions you can ask yourself to evaluate the degree of trust in your relationships.

Personal trust

Recall the importance of the meritocracy in an open organization: You have to know—and be honest about—what you can and cannot do, and you must make sure other people know that. If someone misjudges your capability, the open organization will suffer. So ask yourself:

  1. Do others see you as trustworthy?
  2. Does what you say match what you do?
  3. Can you be trusted to honor the things you intend to do?
  4. Can you do what you say you can?
  5. What is your performance history? Do you achieve the results you promised? Do your associates?

Relational trust

To assess trust at the interpersonal level, consider the following:

  1. Be transparent—How open with information are you? How open is your associate with you? Is the level acceptable to both of you? This is particularly important for uncomfortable topics. In situations with low levels of trust between partners, these topics are often avoided and problems persist.
  2. Demonstrate respect—Do you demonstrate that you care and respect your associate? Does he or she demonstrate care and respect for you?
  3. Correct mistakes—This is not just an apology. It is correcting a mistake. It is action that makes the situation normal and then moves it forward. Are you and your associate doing this? It can increase loyalty.
  4. Give credit—Regularly giving credit to others builds trust. Are you and your associate doing this?
  5. Deliver results—Do you do what you say? Does your associate? Doing it builds trust.
  6. Improve—When you learn something and offer a new service to someone, you become a valued partner to them. Surprising someone with extra value will strengthen the trusting relationship.
  7. Confront reality—When there are problems, it's best to quickly and openly discuss them—with courage, responsibility, awareness and respect (even though it is difficult). How much is this being done in the relationship?
  8. Clarify expectations—Both people should make their expectations as detailed as possible. Plans should be discussed and agreed on (possibly in writing as well as in conversation).
  9. Be accountable—By taking as much responsibility for the relationship as possible, you can strengthen trust. Also, confirm that others know what they're expected to achieve. Again, accountability by both parties is extremely important for trust to build.
  10. Listen first—Try to learn the other person's thoughts, experience, and point of view. Then, you will know why others do what they do and a more trusting relationship can develop.

Organizational trust

At the organizational level, trust is a factor of these concerns:

  1. Integrity—Does the organization need rules to maintain integrity? If a company's people have high integrity, rules are unnecessary.
  2. Intent—Are the goals balanced among all stakeholders (shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers, affiliates, etc.)?
  3. Capabilities—Can the organization do what it says it will? Does it even know where its limitations are? They must be exposed to their associates. There may be embarrassment, but trust can be maintained.
  4. Demonstration—Does the organization show trust to its own employees, customers, investors, suppliers, etc.?
  5. Incentives—Are there systems that give reward for building trust within the organization regarding sharing information, collaboration and decision making?

Market trust

Finally, within a whole market sector, you should consider the following points:

  1. Brand—Are your customers loyal to the company brand? In terms of quality, delivery, value for money, safety and after-sales service, does the public trust the organization?
  2. Reputation—This is a valuable asset or costly liability of an organization. It should have a system in place to protect that asset.
  3. Market research—A study could inform an organization what is expected of it to increase its reputation.
  4. Social responsibility—A global organization will thrive in society if it is honest in what it says, is open with the public, corrects its mistakes voluntarily and keeps its promises.

This system for evaluating trust might be very helpful when making major investments and determining comfortable risk levels in your organization.

Trust makes it all easier

Trust is one of the factors that has made my career easier over the years. As I have built a trusted network worldwide, I found that getting things done has become far easier and faster. This did take time, however, and there were mistakes. Fortunately, those mistakes were small—and great learning experiences.

In my experience in the automotive industry (and now the construction cutting tool industry), I have found that it can take as long as a decade to really feel the value of trust, both professionally and personally.

Trust is one of the factors that has made my career easier over the years.

A personnel manager once told me that he asks himself one question (privately) when determining whether he should hire someone: "Can I give this person the keys to my house and ask him to look after my wife and two daughters while I go away on a three-day business trip? Yes? No? I don't know? If I don't know, I have to ask more questions or get more references." That is how important trust is among employees in his company.

So here's a question: Do you simply say “I don't trust someone"? Or do you say, “I don't have enough information regarding that person's ability, integrity, situation or attitude to determine if I can trust them. I'll probe for that information before I decide"? Let me hear your thoughts and examples.

About the author

Ron McFarland - Ron McFarland has been working in Japan for 40 years, and he's spent more than 30 of them in international sales, sales management training, and expanding sales worldwide. He's worked in or been to more than 80 countries. Over the past 14 years, Ron has established distributors in the United States and throughout Europe for a Tokyo-headquartered, Japanese hardware cutting tool manufacturer. More recently, he's begun giving seminars in Japanese to small Japanese companies wishing to expand both... more about Ron McFarland