Cultivating Trust Within Organizations During COVID

The cornerstone or foundation of any human relationship is trust.  In a relationship it brings security, certainty and commitment.  The same is true within a company or organization where the benefits of a high trust environment include loyal employees that are motivated and, more efficient operations.  The foundation of trust is an intangible asset that managers can develop to increase economic performance and reduce risk within their organizations. How many leaders value this intangible asset and think about the consequences of not cultivating trust in their organizations? Professor Marco Tulio Zanini, in his session for the Action Mindset Module in the International Masters Program for Managers, (IMPM) demonstrates that if there is high institutionalized trust, companies perform more efficiently with less inherent risk in the decision making processes. 

In Trust A Company’s Main Intangible Asset, Professor Zanini states, “In companies, trust is an informal and flexible coordination mechanism that is critical for reducing risks inherent to several processes of organizational change and transformation, such as: mergers and acquisitions, growth management, alliance and partnership management, innovation, and competitive intelligence management. It reveals the quality of the organization’s leadership and the general willingness to face such organizational change and transformation processes.”[1]

Professor Zanini notes that managers should consider trust within three dimensions, the impact of national trust culture, organizational culture and trust within teams.   

Organizational trust and trust between employees and colleagues varies from country to country.   In a country where there is a low trust culture the consequences for organizations and management include bureaucratization, more signatures required, a focus on building power relationships rather than focusing on results and difficulties creating coalitions for win-win benefits.  There are real economic costs associated with such a low trust culture.  Each transaction has a higher cost than in a society where there is more trust and these costs must be taken into account as leaders manage within their national context.

The challenge for managers is to build or rebuild trust within their organizations and to institutionalize trust whether they are in a low national trust culture or not.  Finding a solution is even more complicated when dealing with employees, colleagues and stakeholders in a virtual world.

On a personal level we know that to trust is to put yourself at risk and in a vulnerable situation. As a manager, when we trust our employees to carry out what we require of them, we are expecting them to accomplish their work with reliability and with integrity.  If this trust exists,  less oversight is required, we receive more input and feedback from our employees resulting in more efficient decision making and innovation.  To build this trust then, managers must be prepared to give less oversight, give employees a sense of ownership and allow for honest mistakes.

It is important to have high institutionalized trust during times of crisis and when undergoing massive change.  These are times when managers need to trust their colleagues.   They need to know that their employees will provide accurate information and feedback quickly because they aren’t afraid of repercussions.  Better information leads to faster and informed decisions during a crisis, and when undergoing change, accurate data leads to more innovation and a decreased risk of mistakes being made.  In other words, there is a real cost to having a low-trust organization. 

Patrick Lencioni, in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of Teams: A Leadership Fable,[1]  talks about predictability-based trust and vulnerability-based trust.  Predictability-based trust comes from observation, vulnerability-based trust from getting to know one another.  How then, do managers get to know one another in a digital world?   In pre-COVID times employees might meet for lunch in a common room or gather together for special occasions either at the office or outside the office, there might be the opportunity to chat casually after a meeting when walking back to the office or pop in to a colleague’s office for a quick coffee and to catch up on a personal note.

These informal relationship building moments allow employees to form shared interests and acknowledge common values and improve the quality of their relationships.   Although more challenging during the pandemic, when most employees are working from home and meetings are online, there are a number of ways that managers can create the space for informal conversations to help maintain and cultivate trust within their institution.   The following are examples of ways to connect informally.

  1. Create an online after work social hour once a week, or encourage online coffee chats where no business can be discussed.  Create themes around hobbies, sports, cultural events where employees can share their point of view or an activity they enjoy. 
  2. For weekly office briefings and presentations, create some time at the end of the meeting where employees can forward a picture of something special in their life.  This can be voluntary and again based on themes such as a summer get away, favourite book or inspirational moments.
  3. For longer meetings or conferences where there are breaks throughout the day, create a “water cooler” room where those who return back to their computers before the next session can go and have informal discussions.
  4. Online training programs allows staff to learn from each other and possibly mingle during breakout sessions in smaller groups.  Programs can be skilled based or include wellness sessions such as Yoga classes, stretching classes and meditation.
  5. For meetings with long presentations, consider recording these before the meeting and opening up the time together for more discussion and interaction, breaking into smaller groups where possible.
  6. Recreate rituals that the organization celebrates.   If birthdays are celebrated with a cake, send one to the employee, have a ZOOM coffee to wish them well and send around an electronic card that everyone has signed.  If the whole office is celebrating, a box of cookies could be sent around or for an after work event a special cocktail mix could be sent to the employees’ home to be enjoyed during the event.
  7. If onboarding new employees, consider meeting for a walk outdoors or doing some activity, as allowed, that would provide a face to face encounter.
  8. When someone retires create an event to mark the occasion.  This is one time when it is easy to have former employees as well as current employees gather to wish the person well.
  9. Remember your customers, investors and suppliers.  To maintain relationships with your stakeholders, some of the ideas used for employees could be implemented.

The gestures may be small but in sharing concerns, frustrations and experiences everyone is putting themselves in a vulnerable position and in doing so trusting the other.  It is one step in employee engagement, having a motivated staff and building institutionalized trust.  

[1]Marco Tulio Zanini, Trust A Company’s Main Intangible Asset 2016. p. 17

[2]Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfuntions of Teams, Jossey Bass 2002

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