Trust isn’t easily measured, but invaluable

  • Tue Dec 24th, 2013 1:19pm

By James McCusker Business 101

Building trust within your organization is critical to success. It is also cost-effective.

So why don’t we do it?

To start with, it isn’t easy. It is something that isn’t generally covered in business school courses or management books, so you might think it is unimportant. Trust is difficult to measure, and in this time of “analytics” that pretty much finishes it off as a priority item for top management. The General Social Survey team at the University of Chicago has shed light on the trust issue by tracking its trends through forty years of changes in American social and economic organization.

Thanks to the consistency in the way they have pursued the question in polling Americans we do know that the level of trust in our society had been declining steadily for the past forty years. In 1972, when the survey began, about half of Americans trusted other people. By 2012, only one in three felt that way.

The decline has serious implications for those who are on the front lines — not just the police, the first responders and the teachers, but also those responsible for the day-to-day functioning of our economy: the managers.

We spend a great deal of money on defenses against external security threats. In reality, though, internal security is more likely to be a problem and cause losses than most external threats. The internal structure of a business organization, however small or large, is based on trust.

Most workplace trust is based on mutual expectations of behavior. In its simplest form, management expects that workers will show up and do their jobs; workers expect to be treated fairly and paid regularly.

A good bit of the behavioral expectation package “comes with” both workers and managers when they first walk through the door and join the organization. If workers expect management to cheat them at every opportunity, this will affect their behavior.

If managers expect workers to shirk responsibilities, tell lies, and steal anything not nailed down and under surveillance, this will affect their behavior, too. If either or both workers and management distrust each other the combination will lead to less productive relationships, ineffective problem solving, lower profits, and lower life expectancy for the business.

The marked decline in trust and expectations is affecting all companies. If half of all Americans feel that way then, on average, half of your new workers and managers will feel the same. If employers don’t do something to change their views after they are hired, this deteriorating trust will have a negative effect on the way businesses are run, their productivity, and, ultimately, their future.

Fortunately, businesses do not have to simply accept that negative effect and the downslope that it brings. Equally important, businesses don’t have to tackle the difficulties of measuring trust directly. As a practical matter they can instead change the things they can control which destroy trust. That will change attitudes and the trust levels will improve.

Some firms routinely send workers to team-building exercises and motivational seminars to get individuals to trust each other and generally raise the level of trust in the organization. Only rarely does this have a lasting effect.

Instead, the first thing that business owners and managers should do to change things is to emphasize the importance of trust in their employment screening.

Job applicants at any level should be trustworthy and any negative information on that subject should be pursued and resolved.

The second thing that should be done is to recognize that trust has only one friend in this world: truth. If you want people to trust you, and the organization, then lies, falsehoods, fictions and obfuscations — no matter how clever you might think they are — have no place there. That means you don’t lie to your workers and you don’t tolerate any manager that does.

Once you have established that environment in the management team, you can then demand the same level of truth from all workers. Mistakes are understandable, lies are not. It is as simple as that.

Building trust after that is a step-by-step process that moves the workplace from an adversarial environment to one that is very different from the world outside. The first outward sign you may notice is that people no longer seem to have time for Internet games or social media’s endless coffee break. That is when the energy level of an organization begins to rise and previously empty words like teamwork and excellence start to seem real and possible again.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and small-business consultant. He can be reached at