Are You Up For An Experiment?

I was reading a feature story about Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube in Sunday’s NYT’s Business Section when I came across the phrase, “living in a crisis of trust…” attributed to Marc Benioff, Chairman of Salesforce. It got me to thinking.

My work resonates with this phrase. It’s nice to hear that the Chair of a major company is also grappling with this issue. I truly think we are living in an era where the concept of trust has and continues to erode. I ask you, without trust what do we as a people have?

I am not sure if there is an agreed upon definition of trust in the English language. My Macbook Air’s dictionary says the verb to trust means: “to believe in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of.”

At the core of my mentor’s work, Dr. Elliott Jaques was building trust inducing work systems. As many of you know, his body of work known as Requisite Organization informs much of my organization development consulting. In the Revised 2nd Edition of Requisite Organization, A Total System for Effective Managerial Organization and Managerial Leadership in the 21st Century he defines trust as “the ability to rely upon others to be truthful and to do as they say, and to follow established rules, procedures and custom and practice.” I love this definition. Its specificity is not only helpful to employed people but allows for dialogue on clarifications and applications to specific aspects of work.

The erosion of trust in large work systems is attributed to a confluence of many factors. Some fairly recent like the steady decline of employee engagement, the impact of the home mortgage debacle and recession on working people, and the spark that may have ignited it all traced back to the late 1970’s when Milton Friedman’s article articulating corporations’ primary responsibility was investor returns. The Friedman article was latched onto by Wall Street and is only now being touted as having a deleterious impact on corporate America and our society as a whole.

Lack of trust breeds discontent, uneasiness and puts workers off balance. This goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Security is at the base of his pyramid.

Below are some suggestions for you to experiment with both privately and with your teams.

  1. On a scale of 1-10 where do you peg the level of trust in your organization?

  2. On a scale of 1-10 where do you peg your own level of trust in your group?

  3. At a staff meeting ask everyone these same two questions. Assure them their response to Q1 will remain private, unless they choose to share it. Then ask them to write down anonymously and hand in for tallying, where on the 1-10 scale they think the organization falls (Q2). If you feel courageous, ask them to indicate where your group falls.

  4. Have a member of the team talley Q2 parts 1&2. Post on a whiteboard or large easel pad and encourage reflection.

  5. Set rules for responding. Like using a talking stick for example. Ask everyone who would like to say something to say something. But at this time do not allow rebuttals. Only allow questions of clarification.

  6. Ask people to think about what they hear overnight and over the next few days, and jot down some notes for themselves. At the next staff meeting ask people to share.

  7. Ask people to suggest ways to move the score, moving the needle to 10.

  8. Do this exercise with your team on a quarterly basis.

This exercise is intended to help you begin a constructive dialogue with your staff and perhaps get an honest reading of what people think about the company and your unit; to move forward and to BE their best. Ask people to share concerns; and have someone chart responses on a whiteboard or large easel pad. Ask for suggestions to improve.

Building trust is no easy task, but it is essential to a well functioning workforce be it under ten, in the hundreds or thousands. Trust is earned. It can erode in an instant, requiring months or even years of rebuilding over time. I’d love to hear how you did.