All I need is the air that I breathe

Ian Marchant was formerly Chief Executive of Scottish & Southern Energy for over 10 years and remains an advisor to a number of energy related companies. He is the Chairman of Aberdeen’s John Wood Group, non-executive Chairman of the Nova Innovation Ltd and Chairman of Maggie’s Cancer Charity. Ian is also Chair of the Advisory Board for the Centre of Energy Policy at Strathclyde University and a visiting Professor with the business schools at Edinburgh and Durham universities.

These days all we hear about is post-truth, alternative facts and fake news. These are all symptoms of a breakdown in trust throughout society. We don’t actually realise how important trust is to our modern way of life. Whenever we buy or use something we are placing a high level of implicit trust in the whole supply chain that led to the product in our hand. Even when we sit down we are trusting that an unknown furniture maker did a good job on our chair. As Warren Buffet said “trust is like the air we breathe, nobody really notices, but when it’s absent, everybody notices”.

Businesses obviously need to earn the trust of their customers and we see lots of examples where that trust is forfeited. However, what interests me is that within organisations there also needs to be high levels of trust. I was reminded of this by an article in the latest edition of the Harvard Business Review by Paul Zak.  In it he says “that building a culture of trust is what makes a meaningful difference. Employees in high trust organisations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay longer with their employers than people working at low trust companies”

I am particularly interested in what organisations can do to increase internal levels of trust. The article I just mentioned lists eight things including recognise excellence, give people discretion in how they do their work and induce challenge stress. This got me thinking about my version of the eight things that organisations and their leaders can do to build internal trust. Some are similar to those in the article and some are quite different but they are all based on my experience, both good and bad. Here they are.

Understand each other. All too often we dive into tasks and projects without really understanding the motivation and character of our colleagues. This doesn’t need to be a lengthy process but time spent early on in building confidence in each other is rarely wasted. One simple question I’ve used with a new team is to ask everyone to say if they had the chance, what Olympic sport they would represent their country at.

Build on shared values and purpose. I believe all organisations should be clear about why they exist and what values they aspire to. If these key foundation stones are in place then it is easier to build trust.

If in doubt, communicate. Often trust is undermined by rumours or leadership trying to ignore difficult issues. Frequent communication that is both transparent and authentic and that tackles the good and the bad is a key component of a high trust organisation.

Working on shared challenges. If you look back I think you will find that you trust those people who you have worked with on challenging projects and tasks. That embedded trust lasts for years and years even if you don’t see the team very often. If you want to build trust going forward then give people challenging but achievable tasks they can work on together.

Build a shared history and stories. When we are with old friends we often remind each other of stories in our shared past. Organisations are no different. I remember when more than 400 colleagues from all over the country took part in the Maggie’s Bike and Hike in the Highlands. The many stories from that single event were told for years after.

Deliver on commitments. Management and leaders have to do what they say they will and delivery needs to be real not cosmetic. As commitments are made and delivered on then trust builds. This may seem obvious but still needs saying.

Celebrate and share success. Good news does tend to get well publicised in organisations but don’t forget the small and hidden successes and make sure that credit is liberally shared around. As one of my favourite quotes from Lyndon B Johnson goes “you can achieve whatever you want as long as you don’t mind who gets the credit”

The tone at the top matters. If the board and senior leadership of an organisation don’t trust each other and don’t demonstrate that in their dealings with the whole organisation that message soon spreads.

So, those are my eight tips for building trust within an organisation. They aren’t rocket science and in many respects are obvious but I believe that building trust in our complex organisations requires conscious effort and common sense otherwise we will find ourselves short of breath to use Warren Buffet’s analogy.

This article was originally posted on Ian’s blog.

Further Reading:

Dave Landrum on Premier Radio’s Leadership File