Understand the power and pitfalls of trust

Trust is a potent force for good. Break it, and you and your business could suffer severe consequences.

Managing for profit by Peter Hughes

Trust “is the one thing that changes everything”, says author and motivational speaker Stephen Covey in The Speed of Trust. But if someone had to ask you to define ‘trust’, you might have some difficulty.

It’s a complex concept, often driven by emotion rather than good sense, and it doesn’t necessarily depend on the integrity or morals of the people who share it. Criminals often have deep trust in one another.

Perhaps the best way to define trust is to use an example: imagine having a friend or colleague who would never, deliberately or accidentally, consciously or unconsciously, take advantage of you.

Someone in whose hands you could, with complete confidence, place your entire situation – your status, self-esteem, career, and even your life. That’s trust.

The concept was drawn to my attention recently by US neuroscientist Paul Zak’s paper ‘The Neuroscience of Trust’. It reports on research that Zak and his colleagues undertook to confirm a neurological link between the levels of oxytocin, a hormone produced by the brain, and trust.

They discovered that the levels of oxytocin in the blood reflect the extent of trust sensed by the individual concerned.

But of far greater interest to me was the finding that an outstanding organisation always has extremely high levels of trust between its people.

We’ve always known that members of great teams trust each other, but here, for the first time, we have a quantitative measure confirming this fact.

Attributes of a high-trust business
What also emerged from Zak’s research were common characteristics in high-trust organisations:

  • Excellence was widely recognised and acknowledged;
  • Job targets were challenging but achievable;
  • People had wide discretion as to how they could carry out their job;
  • Employees were kept fully informed about the company and its goals;
  • Employees were given plenty of opportunity to build personal relationships with each other;
  • Management took a genuine interest in each employee’s professional and personal development;
  • Managers frequently asked employees for advice and help.

These observations provide important pointers for managers wishing to build up trust levels in their teams.

Broken trust
In contrast, the consequences of broken trust can be harsh. Here is a true story. Joe and Susan (not their real names) were pillars of the local community and were widely admired and trusted.

Joe’s large motor business was doing extremely well, and the couple had leadership roles in several local institutions, including the church and school.

Then motoring competitors arrived in town and Joe’s business started slipping. One of his garages burnt down and, because he had not kept up the insurance premiums, he was not covered for this disaster.

Under great financial pressure and with easy access to the ready cash they handled for the various community organisations, the couple ‘borrowed’ small amounts to pay their urgent personal debts. This became a habit and, of course, they were eventually caught out.

Overnight, the reservoir of trust built up over many years evaporated. Their business collapsed and the couple became virtually destitute. Five years later, their act of breaking trust with close friends and colleagues has still not been forgotten or forgiven, and perhaps never will.

High levels of trust enable people to move mountains. But if trust is broken, the results can be devastating. Trust takes a lifetime to build, but it can be destroyed overnight. Take care with it.