Trust is trending, or should I say the lack of it is. A recent New York Times (NYT) article displayed as front page news America’s lack of trust in government and business leaders.  Not that long ago in October 2019, Airbnb was exposed for its lax rules on customer screening, which ended in several mishaps, most notably a shooting that killed five in one of their rented homes.  Needless to say, those owners weren’t very happy and the general distrust in the company’s policies is becoming widespread.  

It seems every company I visit these days makes it a point to showcase just how important trust is to their business models. Google, Salesforce and Linked-in among others rely largely on customer trust that they will protect privacy and data.  Without it, there is no business (a prime example is Facebook’s data scandal, fined over ‘inappropriate’ sharing of user’s personal information). Many of these companies hold similar corporate values and trust is at the center.  It is that important and that fragile.

The first time I heard about the importance of building trust in a business setting was when I was 24.  I was a bit surprised when my then new boss, the CEO of a small outplacement family firm, began to speak about it. As a true mentor, he taught me – trust is THE key ingredient of a healthy working relationship.  He then took a paper and started drawing.  “Trust is like a house”, he continued, “you have to build it brick by brick” (in Denmark we build brick houses). “Imagine the bricks are your own integrity, honesty and accountability. The bricks are the foundation – build it rock solid! Building a solid house takes time – just like building trust takes time. When we build relationships, take the time, create the foundation, build it upon integrity, honesty and respect. Because as soon as you disrespect, lie, don’t fulfill your promise, it falls apart, and that takes seconds!”  It seems so obvious, yet, it can be so elusive.

Here is the challenge in today’s working environment.  With a fast-paced, constantly changing, gig economy, do we still take the time to build trust, one brick at a time?  Do we still have the time?  It seems the further we speed things up the further we remove ourselves from each other and the whole process of building trust. I believe this is true for corporate and customer relations, but it also holds within the company , between managers and employees. 

Recently, I took part in our company leadership fundamentals program. Everyone had to take a moment to position themselves either to the left or the right of the room, depending on whether our first instinct was to trust others or not.  I was startling to see the results; we were split 50/50 across the room!  I identified and still identify with the group that trusts. It’s in my nature to empower and trust in the talent we hire. But to my surprise this was only half of the vision of the company.  

I’m Danish and grew up in Denmark where trust seems to be built into everyday society; into the very ether of relationships.  Visible in its simplest forms; such as obeying the rule of law, admittedly to a fault sometimes.  We generally trust our government and we even trust each other enough to leave our new-born babies in the stroller outside restaurants on busy Copenhagen streets as we go in and enjoy a meal.  It may sound crazy, but this is the norm in Denmark.  Trust in people and society for me was the pervasive norm when growing up. That evidently carried forward, but not everyone has the same childhood or experiences, nor do we all come from the same country or culture and each of these criteria leave a mark on how we approach building trust and how we trust others. 

That’s what came out during that leadership program.  Each of us have different experiences and perspectives when it comes to trusting others.  If trust is the intangible that allows for a healthy and productive work space, the basis of customer relations, then we should be spending a lot more time building it, shouldn’t we? 

Perhaps, we need to turn time and our relationships upside down; perhaps our customers should be our co-creators? Perhaps our employees should be our mentors? If we shift perspective, perhaps we can refocus and allow for real profound relationship building to take place and make it as important as financial KPI’s, sales KPI’s etc? I recently tested the “customer as co-creator” idea by inviting one of our key end users, a long-time customer to be involved in the innovation process within our organisation.  The experiment was led by one of our top managers and it was the first time we ever tried such a thing. Believe me, it took time to get people to let their guard down to, and to…trust.  Trust this customer would behave ethically once in our inner circle, trust in our own employees that they wouldn’t do something that would frighten the end-user away. Multiple levels of trust were operating all at once. In the end, the experiment proved fruitful; it allowed one of our big customers, we innovate for, to ‘innovate’ with us and be a part of the process, targeting our energies through instant feedback, but also building trust between us and them through their participation. We somehow became one. So, if we trust, even the notion of ‘selling’ changes.

If the base of the foundation of intra-organisational relations is trust, then setting the example must start at the top.  Top managers must believe in the talent of all employees, if this isn’t the case then maybe it’s time to rethink the recruitment strategy.  If you don’t trust your own employees, how can you trust that your business will succeed, how can you trust that they will build trusting relationships with your customers? A non-trusting organisation leads to fear, disempowerment, and lower performance. 

Yet, too vertical of a hierarchy can set the tone for a culture of distrust as well. 

Working through unnecessary levels of middle-management and bureaucracy stifles the organisation.  In this sense, flattening hierarchies pays a trust dividend between more equalised employees that helps to create an organisational culture that is more collaborative, innovative and cohesive.

So, although the pace of change in society continues to speed up –competition, technology, economy – building and maintaining trust still takes time.  It can’t be 3D printed or grown in a laboratory. It requires human contact, working on integrity, honesty and respect.  It may require us all to rethink where we put our priorities, to push pause sometimes, to take a breath and to do some ‘slow-business’ to ensure the foundation is in place, brick by brick. 

In order to start building trust in your environment, you can start by contemplating the following actions:

  • Ensure time spent networking is recognised by the business as key to building trustful relationships
  • Create workshops allowing leaders/employees and even customers to get to know each other, personally
  • Recruit only people whose values relate to your organisation’s values
  • Be consequent in your promotion strategy
  • Prioritise face-to-face communication (even virtually) when meeting with teams or newcomers (before opting for email/slack etc…  )
  • Reduce team size to smaller units of maximum 150 – the magical ‘Dunbar’ number within which employees can all know one another, share commitment to goals and values and relationships are still ‘human’ – beyond this number, those dynamics drastically change.