The Elements of Trust

Trust/network depiction

Trust. Trust is so important to organizational success. Trust is what teams are made of. Why is it, then, that trust is so hard to understand, build, and sustain? I think I know the answer.

What I’ve come to appreciate over the 20+ years of consulting to credit unions and other organizations is that trust is not one singular concept, but a concept made up of three distinct elements. Miss any one of the three, as organizations frequently do, and trust cannot exist.

So what are these three elements of trust?

Elements of Trust

Element One: Morality – Morality is typically defined as the “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.” To trust someone means that you believe the person in question can distinguish between what is right and wrong, and will make the appropriate choice to do what is right the majority of the time (or ideally all of the time, but to err is human as Alexander Pope noted).

Element Two: Competence – Competence is typically defined as the “quality or state of having sufficient knowledge, judgment, skill, or strength.” To trust someone means that you believe the person in question has the knowledge, skill, etc. to do their job well – and that you can rely on that competence (especially important if their job output is necessary for the completion off your own).

Element Three: Alignment – Alignment has two common and relevant definitions: “place or arrange things in a straight line,” and “give support to a person, organization, or cause.” To trust someone means that you believe the person is both arranged in the same “line” as you (or, is marching in the same direction), and shares in your basic desire to do what is best for the organization as a whole.

Missing Elements

When trust is absent or seems hard to come by it is usually because of a problem in one of more of the three areas above. Trust may be absent because someone on the team has made a morally questionable decision. Or perhaps a team member has taken on a new role and they are working to develop competence on-the-job – meaning they aren’t fully developed yet and are making mistakes. Or, perhaps a team member interprets strategic direction and organizational results in a way unique or different than other team members.

Any one of these three issues breaks down trust if it exists, or makes it hard to develop trust if it doesn’t exist.

Building & Strengthening Trust

So how do you build trust? There are certainly a lot of business books offering strategies for developing trust in an organization, and I can’t argue with the prescriptive advice given in many of them, but truth be told it isn’t a complicated endeavor to build trust. It just takes dedicated work in each element area – on the part of the organization as a whole, and on the part of the organization’s individual members.

For the organization where trust is a desired state, there must be “structures” in place that nurture and/or intentionally develop each of the three elements. With regard to morality, the organization may need to define what is right and wrong in the specific context of the organization, and then train on these principles of morality, so that people in the organization are more clear on behavioral expectations. Yes, you may need to state the obvious – for example, that engaging in untruthful activities is unacceptable – but you’ll benefit in doing so for this reason: recent corporate shenanigans (Wells Fargo, anyone?) prove you cannot count on unstated common sense to establish acceptable, morally-appropriate behavioral standards. Better to be intentional.

With regard to competence, the organization needs to ensure that job roles and responsibilities are clear, and that people who are put into jobs are trained in advance to handle the stated roles and responsibilities. Now on that last point – a caveat: most people are not 100% qualified when taking on a new job. Organizations should recognize that in a formal way, making it clear whenever a new person is hired or promoted that organizational grace is extended for a period of time while that person gets up to speed. The organization then needs to make sure that person is given proper support during that timeframe so that the colleagues can build “trust” in the competency of the new hire.

With regard to alignment, the organization needs to ensure that its strategic plans and direction are clear, and that every employee can put those plans and directional expectations into their own “correct” words. On that last point, it is only when people articulate strategy and direction in their own words that misalignment can be identified in advance of actual actions or decisions exposing misalignment. In other words, absent strategy articulation the only time an organization will know it is misaligned is when the actions of individuals in the organization are at cross-purposes with those of other team members. When misalignment is exposed in that way, trust erodes.

For the individual that wants to be trusted in an organization, or that desires to build trust with others, personal proactive ownership of each element of trust must be taken. With regard to morality, the individual must learn the organization’s moral standards, and adhere to them (or leave if the organization is morally bankrupt).

With regard to competence, the individual needs to intentionally develop skill for the current job, but also prepare for the next job if promotion is desired. As a side note, we find it fascinating that so many people who desire to be promoted spend so little time learning what that next job really entails. We’ve met a lot of aspiring CEOs, for example, that have no clue how to work well with a board of directors. You want to be a CEO? Find a way to learn the ins and outs of board relationships – before you get that top spot.

With regard to alignment, the individual needs to seek out leaders (more specifically the direct supervisor) and request feedback on that personal, “in my own words” articulation of strategy and direction. Incidentally, for credit unions using the Policy Governance model, the CEO does this regularly by drafting “policy interpretations,” which are then used by the board to assess the CEO’s judgement in the context of the board’s policy (strategic) guidance. If it’s good for CEOs to do this, why not others?

Make a Commitment

Most organizations find that trust can be hard to develop and sustain, but we believe that is only true when trust is an ambiguous concept lacking formal, consistent organizational support. If this describes your organization here is what we recommend: commit to the development of the three elements of trust, and back them up. You’ll see trust build – guaranteed.

Have questions? Want to talk about this? Feel free to give us a call to discuss. You can schedule a complimentary 30-min discussion using our online scheduler here:

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: