Seven effective ways to build a culture of trust

If you want to build a business that is purposeful and sustainable, a business where people feel safe to think out-of-the-box and one that can withstand the inevitable storms and thrive under pressure, you have to consider the culture in your business.

This is according to Eddie Eng, a principal consultant at Rohei, Singapore. ‘Rohei started with the mission to inspire hope, joy, courage and purpose in the global workforce. But we knew we first needed to practise what we preach, and set out to build a culture of trust in our own organisation. Without trust, our mission would not be authentic, nor sustainable,’ explains Eddie. 

He gives seven effective ways to build a culture of trust:

1. Be intentional about building trust

Culture is built either by design, or by default. Whether intentionally or not, we are building our organisational culture every day through our words, actions and decisions. 

Even if you have a great business strategy, if the organisational culture doesn’t support it, your team will struggle to implement the plan and your strategy will not succeed. Good strategy is important but without a good culture, implementation is limited.

When people visit your offices and comment that your culture is open and inviting, they aren’t referring to the furniture or the facilities. They are referring to their ‘people experience’. Culture is carried by people and is determined by the quality of relationships. This means that the foundation of a culture of trust is trusted relationships. These relationships need to be authentic, vulnerable and safe, even when the situation is stressful or uncomfortable.

Let me illustrate this by way of a personal example. Four years ago our founder, Rachel Ong, approached me to consider a change in my career trajectory. At that point I had been heading up the training team for six years, but she wanted me to consider switching lanes from management to a specialist function. I wondered if people would think I had done a poor job in leading the team, or that I wasn’t valued in my current role. What if people thought this was a demotion? To be honest, I was struggling with my own ego and insecurities. Rachel and I had intentionally built a strong trust relationship over the years however, which enabled me to override my initial defensive reaction. 

When there’s trust, we don’t need to second guess the other person’s intention. When there’s no trust on the other hand, we easily imagine the worst and can seriously misinterpret each other. So in trusting Rachel I followed her lead and today I coach and support senior leadership teams through critical times in their organisations. If I stayed in the management track however, I would not have been able to facilitate these high-impact interventions.

2. Understand the trust equation

Let’s take a moment to understand the concept of ‘trust’. What would a trust equation look like? Trust equals credibility (how skilled you are), plus reliability (how consistent you are), plus safety (how emotionally safe people feel when they are with you), all three taken together and divided by your level of self-interest. Take a moment to reflect on these four trust factors. Which do you tend to focus on most, and which do you tend to neglect?

Recently we were exploring this trust equation with a culturally diverse, global leadership team. The MD wanted to find out from his leadership team how well he was doing in these four trust factors. During the session, the facilitator asked: ‘Is he a credible leader?’ There was an immediate response: ‘Yes, he is a very credible leader, a man of excellence, who is highly skilled in his work.’ The facilitator then asked: ‘Is he a reliable leader?’ The answer came: ‘Yes, he is very reliable. He always exceeds his responsibility, he always delivers results on time.’ Describing his level of self-interest, they confirmed that he was other-centric, and constantly looking out for the interests of the business unit and the company. But when they were asked: ‘Is he a safe leader?’ there was a long, pregnant pause. Everyone was silent. Finally the HR director responded: ‘We are afraid to talk to you about the issues we are dealing with, because you react too quickly and do not listen to our perspective. You immediately take matters into your own hands, and we keep having to deal with the unnecessary conflict you create.’

The MD realised that even though his leadership team knew he was credible, reliable and had their best interests at heart, he was not a ‘safe’ leader. This affected their emotional well-being and work performance. He realised he had to focus on listening in order to understand, not listening to act. He had to become more patient in talking matters through with his leadership team, inviting their feedback, and communicating his intentions more clearly. Eight months later, the overall business unit’s performance improved tremendously, and they even managed to save a technical manufacturing plant by rebuilding its leadership team.

3. Embrace feedback as a gift

We need to realise that feedback is not a threat, but a gift. Giving and embracing feedback is a powerful tool to build trust into relationships, to create an emotionally safe culture, and to increase our own (and others’) skills and maturity.

For example, Matthew joined Rohei in the role of a trainer. He had been trained as an accountant, and after he facilitated a workshop for the first time, he felt so discouraged that he wanted to quit. I encouraged him by telling him that as a first timer, he did exceedingly well. Yes, there were some parts where he could improve, but that he has two qualities that makes him a great trainer. First, he cares deeply for people, and second, he desires to be better. I told him that with these two qualities, and by embracing feedback as a gift, he would do very well in his role. Thankfully, Matthew worked hard to leverage his strengths, and actively asked for feedback in order to learn and improve. He still keeps a file containing the feedback he receives from clients and colleagues. Today, he is one of Rohei’s most sought-after trainers.

4. Unleash the power of affirmation

Never underestimate the power of affirmation and appreciation. It is easy to point out what is wrong or lacking in what we do, but paying attention to what is right builds a culture of trust. Deep down, every human being desires affirmation. We all need someone to believe in us. To build a culture of trust we must saturate it with affirmation and appreciation. This creates the safety for us to speak freely, to grow, to restore people, and to rebuild communities. Will you be that person who affirms others’ strengths and potential?

5. Take ownership of your behaviour

Sometimes our behaviour negatively affects people or teams without us even realising it. It reminds me of a quote from Steven Covey: ‘We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions’. The price a leader must be willing to pay is to take ownership of their behaviour. To restore relationships, we as leaders have to be willing to be humble, to apologise, and to change our behaviour, so that we can build and protect a culture of trust.

6. Be a peacemaker, not a peacekeeper

The value of a culture of trust is that it gives you the courage to be vulnerable and to take risks. Often we avoid having uncomfortable conversations and rather sweep issues under the carpet and settle for fake harmony. We ‘keep’ the peace by being nice, but the price we pay is the slow erosion of the culture of trust.

Don’t be a peacekeeper, be a peacemaker. This is hard, because it means we must be willing to initiate that tough conversation. We make peace by caring more about the other person than our own comfort. We make peace by listening deeply to understand, rather than fighting to be understood. When we do that, we discover the beauty of honouring people and results.

7. Honour both people and results

A culture of trust honours both people and results. As a sustainable organisation, we know that we need to achieve results, but the way in which we achieve those results matters. Let’s not achieve one at the expense of the other. A culture of trust includes both the people and results. When we work hard to honour people in the way in which we achieve results, that’s where regeneration takes place.

Building a culture of trust is a journey, it takes time. But if you take the time to intentionally build a culture of trust, it will give you the influence to transform your organisation, and even to reframe the narrative in your nation. A culture of trust restores people, repairs a society, and rebuilds an economy. Let’s start today, one relationship at a time.


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