Trust. How to Inspire Your Most Powerful Competitive Edge

Confucius told his disciple Tze Kung that government requires three things: weapons, food, and trust. If a ruler can’t hold on to all three, he should give up the weapons first and the food next. Guard trust to the end: “Without trust, we cannot stand.” From Confucius and Plato to the present day, the nature of trust has been a fundamental question in philosophy and central to the discourse on human nature. Despite that long history, there was little emphasis on understanding the importance of trust within organizations until the 1960s.

From the advent of Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management through most of the 20th century, companies developed detailed procedures for virtually every process and role. External industry dynamics were relatively stable, and internal silos grew strong when rewards and promotions depended on individual business unit performance. This well-structured world made monitoring and control of people straightforward, with loyalty being rewarded and trust being a valued character trait but playing a minor supporting role in the organization’s functioning. Since then, global competition, the Internet, and the decline of hierarchy and bureaucracy have dramatically altered the role of trust at work.

Trust is the most powerful and least understood leadership ‘soft’ skill in today’s business world.

Today, there is an insatiable need for both speed and a highly adaptable workforce adept at creating and managing change. Global networks of Millennial and Gen Z teams are replacing layers of Baby Boomer management, and the explosion of remote workers has all converged to make trust a significant contributor to the success of organizational transformation and performance. Yet, despite the crucial role of trust today and in the future, making trust measurable and actionable remains an enigma for most corporate leaders. The good news is that behavioral science provides a solution to the puzzle.

Trouble with Trust

Jay was excited about his appointment as the change management lead for his division. Jo, the head of the Program Management Office, was also excited about the new initiative, and she was a little nervous about having several new change managers on her team. From experience, Jo knew that first-time change managers would need constant feedback and coaching – especially around the people challenges of change.

After the program kickoff, Jo met weekly with the division change management leads to get regular feedback on progress, issues, and how their teams were coping with the stress of balancing workloads and the changes. Jay always assured Jo that he had a great relationship with each team leader and that their teams were doing well. But over the next few months, Jo began to see signs that all might not be well on Jay’s teams as several key performance indicators began slipping close to the ‘danger zone’ when missed dates started to impact the overall program schedule. She became concerned that Jay’s assessment of the team leaders was overconfident and decided to set up skip-level meetings with all the team leaders.

During the skip-level meetings, several team leaders confidentially told Jo that they were unsure if they could trust Jay because they didn’t believe he was fully transparent in his progress updates. They questioned if he was putting his career aspirations ahead of the project’s success by downplaying issues and then pushing them to put in extra hours to close the gaps – with little concern for the impact on their families and other commitments.

Jay could feel the blood draining from his face and had that sinking, “kicked in the gut” sensation as Jo gave him the feedback from her meetings with the team leaders. Jay didn’t hear much after, “they’re not sure that they can trust you,” as his focus shifted to mounting his defense. Jo listened carefully as Jay explained his point of view on working with the team leaders and gave his assurances that there were no serious issues. From her expression, Jay could tell that Jo wasn’t convinced. He came away from the meeting feeling stressed and dejected and couldn’t help feeling betrayed by the team leaders and unfairly judged by Jo. With his confidence shaken, Jay found himself constantly wondering who said that they didn’t trust him. He found himself trapped in a frustrating cycle of micromanaging, chastising himself for it, then justifying it, telling himself that with so much at stake, if people didn’t trust him, he had no choice but to stay in all the details.

More Than a Character Trait

From childhood, most people learn that trust is an essential quality and virtue. Each of us has a deeply embedded sense of what trust – or a violation of trust – feels like, and we place it at the top of what’s important to us in our relationships. People put a high value on being seen as trustworthy and assume that because they see themselves as trustworthy, so does everyone else. But few know the extent to which people trust them, and even fewer try to find out.

But there is more to trust than just being an admirable character trait. It is also a biological catalyst that triggers the release of potent neurochemicals like oxytocin that fire up the brain’s reward system. Oxytocin acts as a volume dial, turning up and amplifying the positive feelings and experiences associated with greater trust. The behavioral dynamic that allows us to harness the power of trust as a catalyst is people’s expectation vs. experience.

The expectation vs. experience dynamic is powerful because it is foundational to establishing trust at the individual, team, and organizational levels. When expectations are high, and our experience consistently meets those expectations, oxytocin and other reward neurochemicals make us feel good and want to repeat the experience. However, when there are persistent gaps – when experiences fall short of expectations again and again – relationships deteriorate, and trust is diminished or destroyed. Reward neurochemicals are blocked and replaced with cortisol, norepinephrine, and others, causing us to feel stress and disengaged.

Trust is the key to creating high-performing teams that deliver superior business results and experience greater well-being.

In retrospect, Jay did have a choice. He didn’t have to stay mired in micromanaging. By seeing and treating trust as both a character trait and catalyst and being intentional about managing his team leaders’ expectation-experience dynamic, he could have caught and closed the trust gaps early. Instead of creating doubt, division, and resistance, Jay would have kept people fully engaged in accomplishing the program goals. They would have been more productive and experienced greater well-being.

“Sounds good!” you say… but how?

Unleashing the Power of Trust isn’t Rocket Science

Trust has been a topic of leadership and team research for over 60 years. Scientists have consistently found that trust plays a vital role in determining an organization’s ability to affect change and deliver exceptional results. Operationalizing trust – making it measurable and actionable – is the key to unleashing its power as a catalyst that fires up the brain’s reward system and turns it into a scalable and sustainable competitive advantage. During my research and work with elite teams, I uncovered three habits that extraordinary team leaders develop to lay a foundation of trust and create a cohesive team. These habits became the centerpiece of my Fast Trust™ methodology:

  • Aligning personal values to team and organizational values – and using them to assess behavior and guide change.
  • Motivating each team member by connecting the purpose they find in their work with the skills they need to achieve that purpose and giving them the freedom to pursue it.
  • Coaching inter-team and cross-team behavior to create and sustain trust.

Diving deeper into behavioral science, there is one habit that is the key to operationalizing trust in an organization – coaching team behavior. This habit is made up of three elements. It is by mastering those elements that leaders create the trust, energy, and synergy that develops people into a team of teams across an organization. Those elements are:

  • Regularly measuring trust (expectation vs experience) on and between teams and understanding any gaps.
  • Having teams use the data and insights from measuring trust to make it actionable – working together to close trust gaps by nudging new behaviors.
  • Tracking how effectively team leaders and their teams create and sustain trust (meeting expectations) and strengthen relationships on and between teams.

Unleashing the power of trust isn’t rocket science, but it is behavioral science. Learning to harness trust as a catalyst is perhaps the most powerful and least understood leadership ‘soft’ skill in today’s business world. It is the key to creating high-performing teams that deliver superior business results and experience greater well-being. Yet, too few organizations treat trust as a leadership competency that can be developed and measured.

By going back and rewriting Jay’s meeting with Jo, we can see the power of trust as a catalyst for behavior change. In this timeline, Jay has mastered behavior coaching, so his reaction to Jo’s feedback is to say that while he feels his behavior has been trustworthy, he acknowledges that he has created a trust gap. Jay immediately sits with his team leaders to identify the root cause of the gap – Jay is taking on all the data gathering and reporting for the division, and it’s overwhelming. They agree on a simple behavior change. In the future, at the monthly update, Jay will provide Jo with a summary, and each team leader will present their report. Instead of that “kicked in the gut” feeling, Jay feels like the leader-coach he aspires to be and a hero for pulling everyone together as he enjoys an oxytocin-aided smile.

The Future of Trust

We live with constant, rapid change and transformation, and the need for speed and a highly adaptable workforce who are adept at managing change is only going to grow. Trust as both a character trait and catalyst is vitally important for people to thrive in such a dynamic environment.

The future of trust is operationalizing it – measuring it, making it actionable, and advancing it as a leadership competency essential for turning vision into reality. Your business likely has innumerable metrics focused on every dimension of a transformation program. But what about trust? High trust is what enables diverse groups of people to come together as a team of teams and realize their full potential as they strive together to achieve a goal. As people become adept at building trust, closing trust gaps, and breaking down organizational silos, there is less resistance to change and better execution. And there is the biological bonus that the brain chemistry triggered by trust enables behavior change to scale and stick.

By unleashing the power of trust, you make an investment that will deliver an exceptional return. When leaders throughout your organization can say, “Trust is high and this is the data,” you will have created a sustainable competitive advantage vital to the future of your people and organization.

Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
The leading expert on trust and team dynamics, Jeb has nearly 30-years of experience leading change in global roles at F100 companies and tech startups. His background has given him a broad understanding of the people, leadership, and cultural dynamics required for successful change and growth. Jeb’s work as a behavioral scientist is at the forefront of advancing trust in organizations. His hallmark is helping leaders turn vision into reality by partnering with them to develop a high-trust cohesive team of teams. A two-time author, Jeb holds a Doctorate in Organizational Leadership and has written over 70 articles on the behavioral dynamics of leadership and team development.









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