The truth is, being the leader of a healthy organization is just plain hard. But in the end, it is undeniably worth it. - Patrick Lencioni
Earlier this week I wrote a blog post called Trust & Leaders: Warmth or Strength? citing a recent research study on trust and leadership. I decided to follow up with one of the authors and take a deeper dive into the impact of trust on organizational health.
Peter Glick, PhD is the Henry Merritt Wriston Professor in the Social Sciences at Lawrence University. As a Visiting Professor of Management and Organizations, he co-designed the first course on diversity management at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. Dr. Glick co-developed award-winning theories on benevolent sexism and the warmth-competence model, recognized as a “breakthrough idea for 2009″ by the Harvard Business Review. Tested worldwide, both models are among the most highly cited theories in social psychology. www2.lawrence.edu/fast/glickp/
Question: Peter, why is trust important to organizational health?
Without trust, organizational costs go up and effectiveness goes down. Trust breeds commitment and motivation among an organization’s members to accomplish the organization’s goals. Without it, leaders need to exercise heavy-handed control and surveillance to make sure that others perform their roles, creating a downward cycle in which trust erodes and organization members have little enthusiasm for their work. Although a trust-poor organization may get by when technology makes it possible to track key work outcomes, mistrust pits subordinates against leaders and prompts counter-productive behavior (e.g., evading work, pilfering, etc.). When people view the organization as untrustworthy, they feel exploited and, therefore, justified in pursuing self-interest rather than organizational goals.
Question: What role do business schools and executive education programs play in building trustworthy business cultures?
Business schools and executive education programs play an important, but necessarily limited role in promoting trustworthy business cultures. What business schools and exec ed programs can do well is to make the strong case that leaders cannot be effective over the long haul unless they promote genuine trust. By emphasizing research and focusing on teaching cases that establish the crucial role trust plays in securing organizational commitment, business schools can get the message out. Ultimately, however, organizational leaders are the ones who have to carry it through by behaving in ways that promote trust (and not just the appearance of trustworthiness).
Question: Do we have a trust crisis?
I think we do! And it is likely to be a perpetual one unless leaders work consistently and diligently to promote trust in their organizations. Here’s why: It’s not that leaders today are less trustworthy than leaders of the past, but in contemporary culture they face more scrutiny than ever for several reasons. Trust thrives best in small, close-knit groups where people interact with each other over the long haul and accomplishing group goals is integral to personal well-being. This is the environment where humans evolved – tightly knit groups where working hard for the group enabled the individual to survive and thrive. In our contemporary environment, such long-term, interdependent relationships are rarer. As a result, we are generally more skeptical about leaders and their motives, both in politics (where personal attack has become the modus operandi) and business (in which short-term profit motives too often trump building long-term trust).
Second, any misstep now blows up on the internet or social media. Combine general skepticism with increased scrutiny and trust becomes hard to build and maintain. For example, Microsoft CEO Satyep Nadella’s recent comment that women should trust the corporation to recognize their talents rather than asking for raises elicited a firestorm precisely because women have learned not to trust that companies will reward them for silently doing good work.
Question: What one question did I forget to ask?
Why is trust so easy to lose?
Leaders need to understand that trust is a precious commodity that is hard won and easily lost. Why is that so? Think about the contrast between establishing trustworthiness and competence (the two fundamental dimensions in how we perceive people, as established in my joint research with Susan Fiske and Amy Cuddy). When people doubt your competence, successfully performing a difficult task, landing a big account, or pitching a great idea can overcome others’ doubts. By contrast, think of what happens when people doubt your trustworthiness — how can you prove they are wrong? Although you can prove your abilities, if I doubt your motives, then anything you do can be interpreted as manipulative, part of a plan to gain my trust only to exploit me. Consider this scenario: you overhear a person who has always been nice to your face tell a demeaning lie about you behind your back. Will you ever trust that person again? Probably not. We all understand that untrustworthy people have strong incentives to seem trustworthy: “con man” is short for “confidence man” because you can’t “con” another person unless they are confident that you are trustworthy. Therefore we take a single instance of untrustworthiness as indicating another individual’s “true colors.” Once trust is lost, it is extremely difficult to gain it back.
Thank you Peter for your valuable insights on organization trust. Please keep us posted on any new research on the subject.
Barbara Brooks Kimmel is the Executive Director of Trust Across America-Trust Around the World whose mission is to help organizations build trust. She is also the editor of the award winning TRUST INC. book series and the Executive Editor of TRUST! Magazine. In 2012 Barbara was named “One of 25 Women Changing the World” by Good Business International.
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