This is the first in a 4-part series on trust. Trust is critical for organizational success yet is at or near an all-time low both within many organizations and the world at large. In this series, CEO Jeffrey Saltzman dives deep into the issue, exploring why trust is on the decline, what we can learn from global employee survey norms, and what organizations must do to improve the trust within their organization.
When trust in a person, group, or organization is high, the resulting behaviors can manifest themselves in many ways. Recently the beloved Sesame Street Muppet Elmo posted, “Elmo is just checking in. How is everybody doing?”. The outpouring of responses, many of them emotionally fraught with people clearly looking for a shoulder or Muppet to lean on, was significant. People wrote about climate change, losing their jobs, general life stress and much more, with even celebrities and President Biden weighing in. The three-year old Elmo has been a staple on Sesame Street now for 44 years. Many of those who responded to his question grew up with Elmo and he has been a consistent factor in their lives and, most likely, their children’s lives over the years. Even as people have changed and aged, Elmo was unchanging and dependably the same. Elmo’s predictability of behavior and dependability is a component of building trust, and the honest outpouring of emotion from people who trust Elmo gives a view into what at least a portion of the public is experiencing at the moment.
When one looks at the world today, with its deep divisions and partisanship, it’s clear that trust in people, groups, organizations, government, and societies at large has certainly taken a beating. The levels of trust today that exist broadly across society are low, and yet people have a need to be able to put their trust into someone, into something, even if it is only themselves. It is a human trait. So, without broad levels of trust across society, people put their trust in their spouse, their family, their tribe, the organization they work for, or their political party. And they expect those they trust to look after their interests, sometimes without critical analysis of the actions of those they trust.
[Read More: Building Trust Within Organizations, Part II]
Maya Angelou famously stated, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” She was of course correct, maybe more so than she knew.
The best predictor of future performance when it comes to behaviors is past performance. It is better than any personality or ability testing. It is better than interviewing. Simply stated, what a person has done is in the past is likely to be repeated in the future. That can be a somewhat depressing thought, especially given current world events. It would imply that there is no hope for a better future for mankind. Terrorists will always be terrorists. Autocrats, dictators, and wanna-be dictators will not suddenly embrace democracy.
And that bully in the corner office? Well…don’t hold your breath.
But as scientists we must remember that prediction always has confidence limits, plus or minus values. Predictions don’t imply certainty. Models are approximations of reality, not reality itself. The best models fit the real world pretty closely. Those tend to be models of a physical reality. Models of human behavior, psychological and sociological models, are tremendously more complex with many more variables and permutations and have large error terms with much uncertainty.
[Read More: Building Trust Within Organizations, Part III]
When we examine employee survey results and year-over-year trends and we see either a large improvement or decline in a set of scores, it is very commonly due to a change in leadership. Leadership really does matter. Yet this is not always the root cause of major change. As it turns out, when sufficiently motivated, people can sometimes change. But we have to work hard to make that happen and even harder to make it stick long-term.
What approaches can be taken to change behaviors and attitudes, to make the untrusting more trustful? How can any organization change the way it is viewed to become trustworthy?
[Read More: Building Trust Within Organizations, Part IV]
Given both the importance yet decline of trust, we are launching a series of articles exploring the antecedents of trust and how to create trust, in a person, in a group or a larger organization. As always, feel free to reach out to discuss the topic in more depth. Check references here.
Jeffrey Saltzman is the CEO of OrgVitality, and an Associated Fellow at the Center for Leadership Studies, School of Management at Binghamton University. He is credited with driving technological improvements now commonly seen in the survey industry, creating a business model focused on scientific rigor and business practicality while aiming for bottom-line results. He is the co-author of Creating the Vital Organization: Balancing Short-Term Profits with Long-Term Success, among other books.