OWNER'S MANUAL

The Science of Building Trust

What makes your employees feel vulnerable and skeptical--and how to overcome it to build a higher-performing organization.
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Years ago I was one of a handful of people hired to help turn around a family owned and operated manufacturing plant that had just been sold to an investment group.

Early on we had a tough time building rapport with employees; they knew we were brought in to make major changes.

One day I was in a conference room with Jimmy, a bindery supervisor, and Randy, the manager of customer service and scheduling. Randy was part of the new leadership team. Jimmy had worked at the plant for more than 20 years.

Randy and I were discussing (read: whining) how hard it was to get employees to accept new processes, and Jimmy said, “That’s because they don’t trust you.”

“I know,” Randy said. “I’m doing my best to figure out ways to show my teams they can trust me.”

Jimmy replied, “Don’t waste time thinking about it. No matter what you try some of them will never trust you. You can’t figure out trust. You either have it or you don’t. Trust isn’t a science.”

At the time I thought he was probably right.

But I was wrong. There is a science behind trust—a science you can apply to almost every situation.

According to Robert F. Hurley, author of The Decision to Trust: How Leaders Create High-Trust Organizations, (and no, I didn’t ghostwrite it), there are 10 specific factors that form the basis—or lack—of trust. Hurley’s extensive research on decision-making shows we make decisions about trust based on 10 factors: risk tolerance, adjustment, power, situational security, similarities, interests, benevolent concern, capability, predictability, and communication.

Objectively assessing each factor—positive or negative, present or not present, etc.—makes it possible to determine how you can actively build trust in your employees and your organization.

For example, assessing two of Robert’s trust factors makes it easy to see why most employees were at first hesitant to trust us.

Risk Tolerance: People who avoid risk tend to need significant time and reassurance before even starting to trust someone.

The plant was certainly not the employer of choice in the area—pay was relatively low and opportunities for advancement relatively scarce—but even so the average employee had worked there for ten years. Employees stayed because they were comfortable and the sale of the plant had destroyed their sense of security. While a few people saw us and thought, “Hey, maybe he’ll give me a chance,” most thought, “I wonder what he’s going to do to me...”

Power: People with little authority and no recourse feel vulnerable.

The previous ownership was far from professional and their decisions often inconsistent, so most employees had learned to take advantage. As a result even entry-level employees felt a strong sense of power and control. When we arrived that sense of power disappeared. The last thing I wanted to hear was, “But that’s how so-and-so always did things,” because how so-and-so did things had taken the plant to the brink. Most employees had lost any perceived power and were unable to trust us.

Robert describes a number of other trust factors that were also at play; the plant was like a full serving of what he calls the "Decision to Trust Model".

But even though I didn’t fully understand the science behind trust, I still managed to do a few things right.  I knew employees were concerned about the future so I quickly determined which formal leaders were also informal leaders. (As you know, there’s often a huge difference.) I dealt with the risk factor by telling the informal leaders how critical they were to the future success of the plant, and proved I felt that way by expanding their turf and giving them broader decision-making authority.

While the book is based on years of research and testing to see how people actually make decisions about trust—and how all of us can influence those decisions—the biggest takeaway is simple.

When you put yourself in your employees’ place and consider their perspectives and their needs, you can easily determine the best ways to act and communicate so you can create an environment of empowerment and trust... and in the process build a high-performing organization.

Just make sure you use your new powers for good, not evil.


IMAGE: iStock
Last updated: Nov 18, 2011

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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