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What is trust in business (and how do you build it?)

Do you trust your colleagues? Do they trust you?  Simple questions that are loaded with significance.  In theory, it’s easy to agree that trust is important.  But in practice, it can be really hard to embed trust into your company’s everyday working culture.

There’s a huge crisis in trust globally. In 1976, trust in the media was at 76%.  Today it’s at 32%. Trust in office communications is at an equivalent all-time low. And, with only 19% of millennials believing that ‘most people can be trusted’, it’s not looking set to improve any time soon.

If there’s a problem with trust in your company, know this. It’s likely to be costing you the most money.  Lack of trust is corrosive, causing fragmentation, division and unhappiness. Productivity drops along with levels of engagement.  So, if you’re serious about growing your business, you need to get this sorted quickly. You won’t get anywhere without trust.

So, what are we talking about here?  What is trust?

A standard dictionary definition of trust is ‘A confident belief in a person, product or organisation’.  When levels of trust are high, salespeople can sell products without any major concerns over prices. The customer has confidence in the company, product and person. But if one of these things is out of whack – e.g. if the product or company aren’t trustworthy – even the best salesperson in the world will find it hard to weave their magic.

Lack of trust will ruin a company’s ability to innovate. Staff find it difficult to be creative in an organisation where people are suspicious or negative. Fight or flight kicks in, cortisol rises and innovation goes through the floor. They’ve even proved this with lab rats who, at the slightest whiff of a cat, are unable to problem-solve their way out of a maze.

Trust is essential to high performing teams. Patrick Lencioni demonstrated this in his book ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team’. He highlighted that the ultimate competitive advantage is team-work but this won’t happen if there’s mistrust. One of my core beliefs is that a business is never better than its leadership team – it casts a really long shadow.  So, if there is zero trust at the top, there’s no hope of building a trust-based culture further down. Whether you’re a team manager, an executive, or even a CEO, you will never be a successful leader unless you can encourage followership. And no-one wants to follow someone they don’t trust.

Why are trust-based cultures difficult to build?

If you’re building a team and you’ve hired ‘A players’, these are often self-confident, personally driven, self-sufficient individuals. In the past, it’s likely they’ve worked in organisations that lack trust.  You know the kind. Sharp-elbowed, everyone out for themselves, winner-takes-all style cultures. By the time they’ve landed in a leadership role in your company, they’ve learned behaviours that are often combative with other staff.

So, why is it hard for them to change?  Because they need to learn to trust. And some of that trust is based on vulnerability. Being open about their weaknesses and mistakes doesn’t come easily. Corporate life has beaten into them that if you do this, the hyenas will smell blood and devour you. That’s why if you put together a team of high achieving people, you’re often going to have difficulty around trust.  They need to be convinced of the value of it.

As companies move from start-up to grow-up, they think they need to functionalise their teams. Once people are split into silos, it’s very easy for a ‘them and us’ culture to creep in, creating an absence of trust. What does that breed?  A fear of conflict. And so, just when people should be pushing back on each other, they instead have conflict avoidance. ‘Let’s not have this conversation about Jim because he gets twitchy when we talk about his weaknesses.’ A kind of artificial harmony or conviviality creeps in, where people appear to get along on the surface, but they don’t really.

Culture becomes characterised by ambiguity and a lack of commitment. People might have committed to something in public, but in private they know they’re not going to do it. Recognise any of this? It’s really destructive, leading to a lack of accountability and an inattention to results. As Patrick Lencioni showed, these are the behaviours of a dysfunctional team and they’re all rooted in trust, or a lack of it.

Different models of trust

Before you do anything, take a look at the different models of trust out there. It’s fascinating to read about them.  Back in the early days of my career, I was taught a ‘Three Cs’ model devised by Philip Gift, a naval academy graduate and helicopter pilot.  ‘Character, Competence and Communication’. The communication bit always left me puzzled. I wasn’t sure it completely fitted.  Then I read about Patrick J. Sweeney who studied soldiers in Iraq. He measured the characteristics of leaders who inspired the most trust in their men, coming back with ‘Character, Competence and Caring’. That made much more sense to me! It dovetails beautifully with the concept of radical candour and psychological safety – that sense that I’m going to be direct with you because I care.

A few years later, at a summit in Atlanta, I heard David Horsager speak. He’s done extensive research into trust and published a great book called the Trust Edge. His starting point is that including ‘Communication’ in the three Cs is a load of tosh. To his mind, where there’s a lack of communication, communication is not the issue. People are avoiding communication for another reason. Instead, he came up with ‘Eight Pillars of Trust’. No one pillar is more important than the other and the order is not particularly relevant. But if you focus on them, you’ll succeed in building a high trust environment.

So what are they? The first is ‘Consistency’. Whether good or bad, you need to show up the same way all the time. If you’re late, we trust that you will always be late. If you’re on time, we trust that you’ll always be on time. Ultimately, people know they can depend on you.

Second is ‘Clarity’ because a lack of trust is driven by ambiguity. I’ve used Horsager’s suggestions when I’m facilitating strategy days with my clients. If we’re deciding to make changes, I’ll ask, ‘How’? ‘How will we do this?’ And then I may ask, ‘How’ again and again until we drill down to a single thing that an individual can commit to today or tomorrow. Try it!  It works. Until you can achieve this level of clarity, you can bet that the change isn’t going to happen.

Third is ‘Compassion’, which is similar to Sweeney’s definition. This links with the Gallup Q12 measure of engagement (‘Someone in this organisation cares about me’). For me, it’s the link between trust, followership and employee engagement.

Fourth is ‘Character’. The way he writes about this, it’s almost my definition of culture. You don’t do the right thing because you want to, you do it because it’s the right thing to do. Even when nobody’s watching. It’s all about integrity really. But, because you can do the right thing and fail, the fifth pillar is ‘Contribution’. Attention to results is important. This is about trust in a business context after all and people need to know you’re making a worthwhile contribution.

Six is ‘Competency’ – people trust that you have the skills to do your job, both now and in the future.  This comes back to personal drive and links with Daniel Pink’s framework for self-motivation, namely ‘Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose’. It’s OK that you’re competent today, but unless you possess the drive to work on your skills, trust in your competence will decline over time.

Seven is ‘Connection’ – the idea that we’re better together. That teams can do more than individuals working alone. And the final pillar is ‘Commitment’. This is hard to teach and needs to be given the most attention. If you make a promise, you need to keep it.  Full stop. It’s so easy to say yes and then not follow through. And this can become a cultural thing.

What can you do to build trust?

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First off, decide on a model of trust and tell staff this is your primary focus. Start at the top with your executive team and spend time defining your values and the behaviours you want to see in your company. Make sure your top team are living these behaviours before you roll them out to the rest of the company. 

After this, communicate more widely and ensure that when you’re hiring, you’re asking questions that relate to your model of trust.  Good examples are, ‘When you were in your last job with nothing going on, what did you do?’ Or, ‘Have you ever broken the rules to do the right thing for your customer’. You’re looking for evidence that you can trust this person to do the right thing, irrespective of the bureaucracy in your organisation.

Make sure that team leaders are asking questions around trust on a quarterly basis. They need to ask themselves, ‘Knowing what I know now, would I hire this person again?’ Also, ‘If this person resigned, would I be sad?’ If they can’t say yes to these questions, then this person needs to go.  They’re not the right fit. Maybe this relates to the behaviours you’re seeking around trust?  

It’s important to reward and praise anyone displaying the right behaviours through schemes like Employee of the Month or bonuses. This will reinforce and drive aspiration amongst other staff. And where it doesn’t happen? You have to discipline it.

One of my key recommendations (which comes up time and time again) is to systematize trust so that it becomes embedded. This comes back to rhythms – daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly. What are we doing in our daily huddles to demonstrate our commitment today and tomorrow. Are we being honest about completion of tasks? At a simple day-to-day level, this will build trust. When people are helped through their challenges and stucks, they feel supported. Somebody cares.


Ultimately, if I look back at my time as MD of Rackspace and Peer 1, trust is about doing the little things.  Small things, done consistently, make the biggest difference. It’s hard work, but really worth the effort. At Peer 1, one of our values was ‘Every interaction matters’ which became our company strapline. Every time someone interacted with staff or customers, it had a positive impact. These are the everyday things that foster a culture of trust.

Written by business growth coach Dom Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here.

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