Trust culture in the company

// by Uwe Rotermund
Agile Consulting, Leadership Development, Organizational Development, People & Culture

Establishing a culture of trust within the company is a strategic management task.

Trust is more than a concept or an attitude; it must be actively built and cultivated. Most institutions address the great importance of trust between employees and with customers in their mission or vision statements. Few, however, have defined the cultivation of a culture of trust as a process and a management task. In his article, Uwe Rotermund makes the case for treating trust consistently as a management task and pursuing it systematically and sustainably.

Trust is a process

Trust is the beginning of everything, as the saying goes. In fact, in describing a recipe for breaking out of the complexity trap  in my book, I also chose the ingredient "trust" as the basis for the other 7 ingredients "responsibility," "decisions," "agility," "mission statement," "performance orientation," "information," and "role clarity" that build on it. Almost every company will have mentioned the term trust in their mission statement or values and vision statements. However, naming and defining this substantial value is only the beginning of a multifaceted process to establish corresponding structures and routines. Postulating trust is a necessary "nobrainer"; systematically establishing and managing trust is one of the most challenging and important leadership tasks in an organizational culture.

Performance orientation is an intrinsic motivator

Frederic Laloux's masterpiece "Re-Inventing Organizations" describes how modern organizations organize and manage themselves. Laloux focuses on meaningfulness, wholeness and autonomy. From my entrepreneurial experience, I like to add performance orientation as an intrinsic (!) motivator. With the aspect of autonomy, we have already arrived at the question of trust. Autonomy and self-organized work can only succeed in a trusting environment. A motivating performance culture can also only develop in the trust that employees want to perform because it is worthwhile for them - and not just financially. After all, performing well and receiving appreciation for it is a basic need for many people. In the industrial and administrative culture, this has often been corrupted by extrinsic performance incentives.

Trust is a practice

Before we get to trust-promoting attitudes, strategies, structures, routines, and behaviors, let's first clarify the term. Wikipedia states:

"Trust refers to a certain kind of subjective, even emotionally colored, conviction according to which one sets up one's behavior; by this, trust is also a practice (a system of action). Trust in another person involves beliefs about that person's bona fides and future courses of action: One expects that this person will be helpful to one or, in any case, will not harm one. Trust, therefore, engenders cooperation. Here, the trusting party makes aspects of his own well-being and security dependent on the behavior of the cooperating partner, thus also takes a risk with his trust."

Trust obviously has a lot to do with positive expectations, and this is helped by agreements, compliance with which promotes trust and prevents mistrust.

With regard to the trust of managers and employees, it is therefore highly relevant that they create clarity with regard to their mutual expectations and develop reflection routines for this purpose. The employment contract or job description on the one hand and the management mission statement on the other can be a helpful first step, but they are by no means sufficient. In my practice, the following tools and personal best practices have proven useful in clarifying mutual expectations:

  • Description of expected leadership behavior using the anonymous Great Place to Work® questionnaire on supervisor behavior.
  • Participatory development of a business plan for each team with clear outcome expectations and descriptions of actions
  • Participatively developed Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to guide the actions defined in the business plan.
  • Monthly team retrospectives
  • Transparency on all key performance indicators (Health Metrics) and on the important projects and measures, e.g. via Kanban Boards
  • Regular 4-eyes meetings between employee and manager with feedback along agreed expectations

Measure trust management

Once this first step of clarifying expectations is successfully done, the next step is to manage trust in the organization, thereby fostering a resilient culture of trust and corporate culture. To do this, I recommend using standard management procedures, namely setting quantitative target values, regularly measuring their achievement, analyzing deviations, participatively addressing the causes of the deviations, and finally measuring again whether the interventions helped to achieve the targets.  While this all sounds very formal and thoroughly organized, in my experience it is the necessary complement to the good intention or attitude of living and exemplifying trust culture.

What might a good management system for fostering a culture of trust in a company look like? Possible measurement points for the quality of the trust culture are anonymous surveys of employees - e.g. via Great Place to Work® ,  Kununu Scores , ratings from 4-eye interviews of employees and supervisors and the turnover rate per management area. The measurements should be part of the regular monthly company controlling in the form of Health Metrics and OKRs. All employees of the company should know at any time via traffic light function how these key figures stand. This makes it clear that trust culture is a real key performance indicator. In the case of yellow and red traffic lights, these must be clarified and commented on unvarnished by top management. It is then necessary to understand and eliminate the causes of the trust disturbance in cross-hierarchy workshops. Here, top management is called upon to take consistent action. The next measurement cycles will show whether the measures are effective.


Motivating employees to provide feedback

The challenge of closely measuring indicators of trust culture through surveys is to avoid employee survey fatigue. It is the ongoing task of managers to convince everyone that participation in surveys is the foundation of trust management and that everyone is making a real difference by participating. And, of course, it is necessary for managers to stay in close and intimate communication with employees away from surveys and to show themselves as trustworthy on a daily basis.

Uwe Rotermund
Chief Empowerment Officer / CEO

noventum consulting GmbH

Münsterstraße 111

48155 Münster

+49 2506 93020

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