Trust is the operating system of every organization and every relationship.

Think about that metaphor.

If the operating system on your computer is flaky, nothing seems to work right. Even if you have the best software programs, an unreliable operating system will cause you constant grief.

The same goes for the trust levels in organizations and relationships. Where trust is fragile, people are always looking over their shoulders. They’re reluctant to share information, collaborate, or accept accountability for results.

In low-trust environments, everything seems to slow down. Nobody seems willing to do much of anything without a lot of hoop-jumping and multiple approvals.

The flip side is a different world. Where trust is robust, people benefit from transparency. They comfortably challenge each other’s thinking. With high trust, teamwork is more of a reality than a hollow buzzword. Innovation is vibrant. Productivity tends to be strong and is typically more sustainable.

The issue of trust has become so front-and-center that bestselling books are being written about it and groups are being established to champion the cause. One such group is Trust Across America. In a nutshell, its mission is to help organizations build trust.

The group’s executive director is Barbara Brooks Kimmel. She’s also editor of the TRUST INC. book series and was named “One of 25 Women Changing the World” by Good Business International. I asked Barbara to share her thoughts on a range of questions related to trust.

Rodger Dean Duncan: The daily headlines are full of stories about trust-deficient people and organizations. The IRS scandal, the GM recalls, and Facebook’s privacy violations come to mind. What’s going on?

Barbara Brooks Kimmel: I don’t believe most people set out to be untrustworthy, at least I hope not!  Being trustworthy is about character. It’s more “nurture” than “nature,” and never too late for improvement. Character is really a lifelong learning opportunity for those with an open mind and a motivation to elevate it. With the right mentor, the right leader, the right boss, the right spouse, the right friends, character can be learned and perfected throughout life. There is no deadline for developing character.

The daily headlines being filled with stories about trust-deficient people? Well, that’s all about giving customers what they want, and apparently “bad news sells.” The major media outlets continue to favor bad news over good. Give them the “rotten apple of the day” and they are happy. Ironically, many people say they don’t trust the media.

I’d love to see a major media outlet step forward with balanced reporting. Who knows, maybe their ratings would improve.

But on a positive note, while we continue to read about the decline in trust, the information is usually generated via public opinion polls . and media hype! Ten years ago journalists and politicians were viewed as the least trustworthy, while nurses and military officers were seen as most trustworthy. Not much has changed. (See Gallup Poll).

Regarding GM and Facebook: Trustworthy leaders build trustworthy cultures. GM CEO Mary Barra admits GM hasn’t had that (trustworthiness) for years and I don’t believe and I don’t believe Mark Zuckerberg has ever made the claim that Facebook users should trust him. At least he’s consistent!

I’m not going to touch “trust in government.” I’ll leave that to someone with thicker skin! Suffice it to say, politics is a big barrier to trust.

Duncan: Gallup reports that 71% of U.S. workers are either not engaged or actively disengaged. What role does trust play in that?

Kimmel: Trust plays the “leading” role. But business leaders have yet to embrace the case for trust. Last week I did an exhaustive search in an attempt to find examples of corporate leaders proactively talking about trust without a crisis fueling the discussion.

This is what I was able to find:

Dennis Lally of PwC on Rebuilding Trust from Value to Values

Marillyn Hewson, CEO of Lockheed Martin, on The First Thing a New Leader Should Do to Build Trust

and finally, IBM’s CEO Visits China for Trust Building Talks

Rodger, trust doesn’t just magically happen. I firmly believe that trust starts with trustworthy leadership. It must be built into the corporate culture. Until leaders start asking themselves these questions that disturbing Gallup statistic will remain stagnant. And the board better get on the same page with its C-Suite.

I was joking with a colleague the other day about the people who read these books being the ones who need the advice the least. The good leaders strive to get better while most are, at best, mediocre and will continue to put out the fires and hope for the best.

Duncan: Fragile trust negatively impacts everything from a company’s revenue and market share to its brand reputation and even its profitability. Yet studies show that relatively few companies deal explicitly with trust issues. Why is that?

Kimmel: Well, I don’t want to sound cynical, but maybe it’s because it’s not a metric used in the compensation review for the C-Suite. Imagine if there was an annual trust review! A proactive approach to building a culture of trust, makes for great business long-term.  But apparently leadership still believes it’s better to put out the fire of the day, and react to the latest crisis, then to proactively build stakeholder trust.

Duncan: What are the two or three most important things individual leaders can do to earn and maintain the trust of their workmates?

Kimmel: Oh, that’s an easy one. I like to create simple models. I have one called the VIP Trust Model™. Think of a triangle with trust in the middle, values at the top and integrity and promises in each lower corner. The model can be explained as follows.

Trust Model 1Organizations and their leaders become trustworthy once trust is earned. This is accomplished via the following sequence of actions:

  • VISION & VALUES: Identify what the organization wants to achieve. Why does it exist and what does it stand for? Write a credo.
  • INTEGRITY: Identify, practice and communicate the moral principles and purpose of the leadership team and the organization.  Alignment is essential.
  • PROMISES: Ensure that leadership is held accountable for doing what they say they will do, and for regularly communicating the vision, values and promises to all stakeholders.

As my friend, colleague and former CEO, Bob Vanourek at Triple Crown Leadership likes to say “Put trust on the agenda to be discussed frequently.”

Duncan: At the organizational level, what does genuine trust “look” like?

Kimmel: Rodger, Trust Across America’s (evaluation protocol) contains 5 indicators of organizational trustworthiness and evaluates them in a way that is quantifiable and measurable. As far as I know, we are the only ones doing this. You can see the graph here. We call it a new trust framework.

Finally, aside from the fact that it’s simply the right thing to do, here are ten benefits of being trustworthy.

  1. Psychological well-being
  2. Meaningful friendships and business relationships
  3. Faster, more efficient decision making
  4. Greater personal effectiveness in groups
  5. Greater support for your decisions
  6. Career promotions
  7. Win/win opportunities
  8. Role modeling trustworthy behavior
  9. More time for creativity and relaxation
  10. More money in your pocket (people want to do business with those they trust)

This column by Dr. Duncan was also published by Forbes where he is a regular contributor.

Follow on Twitter @DoctorDuncan

Rodger Dean Duncan