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The Future of Work Issue

‘Operationalize’ the 3 pillars of trust to make your firm future-fit

Collaboration can drive stellar results. Here’s how to operationalize trust to make collaboration consistently successful—now and in the years ahead—even as the macroeconomic climate changes.

Words by Stephen J Bronner

Illustration by Jordan Bogash

A high-performing team can be compared to a delicious cake. When the ingredients mix well together and are then put to work in the oven, the result is a fulfilling treat. But as Shane Snow tells The Workback, the cake must have the right mix of ingredients. At work, that can translate to people who take different approaches to solving a problem.

“If you have people who think differently, they can combine their different ways of thinking and see things that no individual could see,” says Snow, author of Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart. “There have to be debates, discourse, interaction, and respect for viewpoints that aren’t common.”

You might think of it as a corporate “team of rivals,” to borrow a phrase from author Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about the cabinet of American President Abraham Lincoln, but the outcomes can be similar. Trust and mutual respect are the most critical factors in building a team like this. Trust like this is fostered with technology that creates transparency and unites groups with different goals to the overarching company mission.

How building trust connects to revenue

Snow says that a combination of ideas lies at the heart of successful teams, but those ideas can only be allowed to mix if there’s trust. After all, people can’t do their best work within an organization if they don’t trust their colleagues, managers, or leadership. 

With many knowledge worker jobs going hybrid, an even greater emphasis has been placed on trust and its effect on the hard factors of business, like revenue growth, deals closed, and efficiencies created.

“Trusting employees are 260% more motivated to work, have 41% lower rates of absenteeism, and are 50% less likely to look for another job,” write Ashley Reichheld and Amelia Dunlop, co-authors of The Four Factors of Trust, in MIT’s Sloan Management Review.

A study by Paul J. Zak, neuroscientist and author of Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies, also reveals that companies that boost employee trust enjoy many benefits over those that don’t. Zak’s recommendations to increase trust are giving people discretion in their work and sharing information broadly.

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“It’s not about being easy on your employees or expecting less from them,” Zak concludes in the paper, published in the Harvard Business Review. “High-trust companies hold people accountable but without micromanaging them. They treat people like responsible adults.”

What exactly does trust encompass? Snow points to the three pillars on which trust rests:

  1. First, people show their trustworthiness by proving their competence or ability. You can trust me because I’m great at my job.

  2. Second, they show they’re worthy of trust by staying true to their word. What I say I will do, I will do.

  3. The final pillar of trust, which Snow says is the most important, is benevolence. I will prove that I’m trustworthy by doing right by you even when things go wrong.

“Therefore, the biggest piece of advice that I’ve ended up giving clients and friends running companies has been to find ways to prove that you care and to get other team members to prove that they care,” he says. “One of the best ways to tap into this is via 1-on-1 attention. That kind of leadership will get an organization through tough times of disruptive change.”

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With the importance of trust in mind, there is good news for the business world: According to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, 78% of employees trust their employer. Based on a survey of 7,000 people across seven markets, the study finds that when people feel trusted by their CEO, they trust the company back in kind. The opposite also proved true.

Below is an interview with Snow on how to cultivate trust to achieve business goals and productivity now.

How will focusing on trust help a business leader increase revenue or reduce cash burn?

Research has demonstrated that trust has a measurable correlation with business results—internally and externally. For example, there is great work on how high-trust companies outperform the S&P 500. In my estimation, one of the key reasons is that it’s easier to have hard conversations about important topics if you have a trusting relationship.

A leader sees a problem and can address it directly and without resistance—if the team they’re addressing believes that the leader has benevolent intentions for them and can be counted on to look out for a greater good than their own personal outcomes.

Can you provide any examples of companies that built trust at scale and improved productivity because of it?

I worked with the C-suite of one of the big pharmaceutical companies involved in the rush to release a Covid-19 vaccine. Rather than trying to build relationships with each of the thousand employees at the company, each manager focused on building one-on-one relationships and positive trust loops with their direct reports.

These leaders trained those reports to do the same with their reports. If you have a group of people who believe in everyone’s good intentions, that everyone will be benevolent or kind to them, that’s psychological safety. It’s hard to do that directly with 10,000 people, but it’s possible with six to 12 people.

How else has collaboration at enterprise-sized companies—those with 2,000 or more employees—changed in the last three years?

There’s the mistake of creating all-or-nothing-style policy changes all at once, like we’ve seen with companies mandating full returns to the office. I tell the story of how I was transferred to a school that had this rule of no climbing trees. It wasn’t just when you’re on school grounds—no climbing trees at all while you’re a student at this school.

My immediate reaction was, “Now I want to climb trees.” Second, I hated the administration of the school. It’s easy at a big company to create policies that create that reaction in people. If someone doesn’t understand the reason for the procedure and thinks it treats them like they can’t be trusted, the company immediately instills resentment.

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Trust and psychological safety take time to brew. —Shane Snow

What skills should leaders focus on for the future success of their teams?

One of the many soft skills leaders and managers need nowadays, more than ever, is the ability to deliver bad news thoughtfully and kindly to the individual. It’s essential for leaders to show that they care and to try to help set people up for the best possible long-term outcome despite the bad news.

This is all important from a moral standpoint, but even if you’re thinking from a purely pragmatic standpoint, the way a business delivers bad news will be seen by everyone, not just the recipients. That will affect how much they trust your decisions in the future. If they see you being benevolent, they will be more likely to be forthcoming and think of you as a good leader.

What are ways for business leaders to codify trust at the organizational level?

Trust and psychological safety take time to brew. So rather than a big build-up to some one-time trust-building extravaganza, leaders can best develop trust and psychological safety through micro-inclusions daily. Look for micro-opportunities, in the words of the legendary Keith Yamashita, to show people you care, you can be counted on, and you want to include them. 

Extend your hellos in the elevator to everyone, not just your friends. Ask different people for their opinions on things you’re thinking about—not just the people you always go to. Call on people in meetings. Randomly check in with individuals over the team chat to see if you can help them. Send complimentary notes to people’s managers when you’ve observed their employees being great. These small things add up.