6 min read

How to Build Greater Organizational Trust

How to Build Greater Organizational Trust

The issue of trust in the workplace can make or break an organization’s culture. If you do not cultivate the kind of growing trust that creates enjoyment, unity and productivity, then your organization will slowly, steadily weaken from within.

The alternative is a clear, logical path for growing a vibrant, grounded kind of organizational trust that is now helping to transform hundreds of churches and ministries throughout the U.S. and beyond.

What is at the core of this approach? I want to give you a short, simple overview that introduces you to the “what, why and how” of building the kind of trust that can cause your people to thrive, your culture to flourish and your organizational impact to climb.

What is organizational trust?

The definition of “trust” that we use at the Best Christian Workplaces Institute comes from the International Association of Business Communicators:

[callout]Trust is the organization’s willingness, based upon its culture and communication behaviors in relationships and transactions, to be open and honest, based on belief that another individual, group, or organization is also competent, open and honest, concerned, reliable, and identified with common goals, norms and values. [/callout]

We like this definition because it reflects the communal aspect of trust, a culture of competence, honesty and reliability along with good communication and common vision.

In his excellent book The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey describes trust in basic terms:

Simply put, trust means confidence The opposite of trust –distrust – is suspicion. When you trust people, you have confidence in them – in their integrity and their abilities.  When you distrust people, you are suspicious of them – of their integrity, their agenda, their capabilities, or their track record.  It’s that simple.

Trust is a feeling one person has for another person’s capability and reliability supported by their past actions. By completing the BCWI Employee Engagement Survey, churches, organizations and businesses can know a true, accurate degree of organizational trust between the leadership of an organization and the employees.

Leaders realize after understanding the accurate level of health in their organizational culture that “truth is your friend.” As many leaders have experienced, truth is a key to building trust because it removes suspicion and improves team effectiveness.

Why is trust so critical to a flourishing culture?

Covey creates a very compelling image when discussing the importance of trust in organizations.  He puts trust into a very simple formula:

? Trust = ? Speed ? Cost

Increased trust among coworkers produces increased speed of efficiency and a decrease in cost because they are able to get more things done.

The inverse is also true:

? Trust = ? Speed ? Cost

An environment with little or no trust among coworkers leads to a decrease in speed of efficiency and an increase cost because less gets done.

As an example, I remember working with an organization that had significant trust issues. During their leadership team meetings, progress and change had slowed because one team member accused a colleague of skewing results to make his department look better. Suddenly, the leadership team had to focus their attention on proving they had not done something wrong to a hostile department head, instead of working to improve their organization and serving their ministry recipients.  This never would have happened in an environment based on trust. Bottom line: Work productivity increases significantly in a high trust environment.

How can an organization build a trusting culture?

At BCWI, we have found three commitments outlined in Robert Shaw’s book Trust in the Balance to be highly effective in creating and sustaining effective levels of trust.

1. Lead with character

In order to earn organizational trust, the leadership needs to fulfill their obligations and commitments. Promises and good intentions are not enough; trust requires competent performance that fulfills expectations.

The track record of achieving results and following through is crucial. A company we work with has trouble with this. One of their core values involves intentionally cultivating diversity. However, they released their international recruiter with no plans to replace him with a person of color. Their actions were inconsistent with a key core value. This has negatively impacted their culture of trust.

To go back to Stephen Covey’s ideas on trust, he gives three ideas on how to improve results and develop trust through actions:

  • Shift focus from “doing activities” to “achieving results.” The language people use should not be “I called the customer” but rather, “I made the sale.” Allow employees to come up with creative solutions to achieve results.
  • Expect to win. Then the self-fulfilling prophesy will work in your favor. Covey notes, “The principle is simply this: We tend to get what we expect – both from ourselves and from others. When we expect more, we tend to get more; when we expect less, we tend to get less.”
  • Develop the strength and stamina to finish strong. It will say plenty of things about your character, especially in an age where quitting is a strong tendency. Even if something looks like it’s heading south, or in a direction you did not intend, stick with it to the end and see it through.

2. Cultivate consistent integrity

At first blush, achieving results and integrity look to be the same.  Both are about lining up actions with words, but integrity encompasses and surpasses achieving results.  The key to integrity is consistent honesty in actions regarding everything a person or organization does.  Integrity is a characteristic, one that inspires trust.

Integrity inspires trust. It’s consistent honesty in actions regarding everything a person or organization does.

At Compassion CanadaBarry Slauenwhite has integrity by casting a vision for the company’s culture and then enforcing it relentlessly.  He demonstrates trustworthiness and demands it in his employees.

Part of creating a culture of trust is his attitude toward mistakes.  Barry encourages employees to take initiative and recognizes that sometimes ideas flop. But at Compassion Canada, people aren’t afraid to make or take responsibility for their mistakes. Mistakes are crucial to growth, and Barry can point to progress his ministry has made because of what they learned from their mistakes.

Another key to integrity is transparency in communication.  At BCWI, we toot the communication horn repeatedly because it is so essential to the health and vitality to an organization. A few tips for trust-building communication:

  • Keep employees informed right away; as soon as there is a whiff of something coming down the pipeline, employees need to know about it.
  • Keep the communication going both ways: collect feedback at monthly meetings and have department heads collect suggestions and ideas from their people.

All of this communication allows employees the freedom to voice their opinions and see their ideas being acted upon.  This creates a strong sense of trust in the organization and allows them to increase their productivity. Healthy communication reveals the critical need of fostering mutual trust. This widely beneficial outcome comes to light through the BCWI 360 review process, designed to align a leader’s behaviors and skills with the organization’s needs.

3. Demonstrate concern

Leadership has a big responsibility to make sure everyone feels genuinely cared for. They need to express care and concern for each individual employee, for the interdependent work group or department, and for the organization. Employees are not mindless automatons. They want to develop positive relationships with their superiors and coworkers. And they must have faith that the people they trust are taking their best interests to heart.

Often, staff do not see their leaders on a regular basis. As a result, it is easy for staff to feel their leaders do not care about them individually. Personal touch in individual and small group settings is important for trust to thrive throughout an organization.

Barry Slauenwhite is a great example of staff care, as he meets one-on-one with each member of the leadership team once a month. Over coffee, or lunch, they talk about their personal lives, intentionally developing a trusting work relationship. Then they move on to business, providing stronger accountability.

At Joni and Friends, President Doug Mazza writes notes of thanks, congratulations and birthday cards. He wants every employee to feel like they are treated with the dignity of people who are made in the image of God.

Earning leadership through trust

To create trust in an organization, all three commitments, above, must be developed and cultivated with intentionality and determination. Let me be clear: Creating a culture of trust does not mean that conflict will not happen. When conflict does arise, it can be addressed (and hopefully resolved) without tearing down what has been built.

Healthy, trusting environments learn to effectively navigate conflict. Needless personal attacks are off the table, as healthy give-and-take of differing opinions help develop more effective ideas. This can create higher levels of trust and productivity and do wonderful things for your church, or ministry organization.

Building greater organizational trust can begin right where you are—listening to a colleague, following through on a personal commitment, or gaining new inspiration and encouragement from a respected leader.

One such person I’ve admired is Bill Robinson, President Emeritus of Whitworth University. Bill talks about making trust deposits as a way to build high levels of organizational trust gradually and consistently over time. As he puts it, “I earn leadership only if people trust me and rely upon my judgment.”

For seventeen years, Bill made trust deposits in his relationships with faculty, staff, students, parents and donors at Whitworth and as a result, the University flourished. Bill’s consistent, admirable behaviors form the backbone of trust: results, integrity and concern for others.

It’s no coincidence that Jesus himself exemplified these qualities of trust. By consistently demonstrating Godly character and compassion, Jesus earned the trust and devotion of his followers. Let us seek to do the same. Like Bill, I believe leadership is earned through trusted words and actions demonstrated over time. The Lord we serve can be our model. Because, as Bill likes to say, “The ways of Christ work.”

Additional Resources

In this helpful, valuable video from Global Leadership NetworkAl Lopus (President of BCWI) takes one minute to share three primary ways a leader can build trust in a healthy workplace. Click here to watch.


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