5 practical ways leaders can build a high-trust culture in the cyber-physical age

5 practical ways leaders can help build a high-trust culture

Trust is essential for organisations to succeed in the cyber-physical age, according to Anthony Mitchell, who explains that people, structure and environment are key to building a high-trust culture

There is a persuasive business case for cultivating a high-trust culture in your organisation. Research tells us employees work harder, are more motivated and engaged, and have greater job satisfaction, which results in higher employee retention and lower overheads. However, low-trust organisations are often encumbered by 20th century business models, where regimented organisational designs, cultures and ways of working hinder productivity and morale.

So, how do you create a high-trust culture in your organisation? First, know your starting point.

Low-trust cultures supress innovation and perpetuate fear. You might believe that existing processes and systems are good enough, or that there simply isn’t enough time to experiment with new ideas. You might feel that changes to processes or people increase the risk of error, and find yourself erring on the side of caution and convention. There is often a sense of emotional detachment between employees and the organisation, which is worsened by infrequent engagement with the leadership team. There might also be an increasing propensity for gossip, blame, animosity or unproductive competitiveness. Employees are likely to have little influence over their own work hours, and flexible working arrangements are rare or discouraged. The result is low employee commitment to the organisation, a disinterest in the success of the organisation, and lack of job satisfaction. Employee retention is concerning.

High-trust cultures, by contrast, foster creativity, autonomy and motivation. There is limited antagonism, hierarchy and competition between different business areas and levels, and employees focus on collaborating to create the greatest impact for the organisation. There is a blame-free culture. Feedback is provided and solicited regularly, and in all directions throughout the organisation. Employees are highly engaged and feel supported to take calculated risks and learn from ‘fast failures’. There is a focus on, and consistent investment in, helping teams and leaders achieve their full potential. Flexible working options are frequently adopted, and technology is in place to support these options. Relationships between employees are largely positive and there is a genuine appetite for helping and watching others succeed. Employee retention is healthy.

“Low-trust cultures supress innovation and perpetuate fear”

What does this all mean? The bottom line is that without a high-trust culture, organisations hinder their capacity to succeed, especially in the cyber-physical age. Here are five practical steps leaders can take to create a high-trust culture, and increase levels of employee empowerment, engagement, collaboration and innovation.

Create a psychologically safe culture
Psychological safety is a hallmark of trust in organisations. It was also top of Google’s Project Aristotle findings into what makes a great team. One of the best ways to establish and maintain psychological safety is to role model behaviours that inspire this environment. Openly embrace your mistakes and frame them as learning opportunities. Give and ask for feedback often, and encourage healthy, constructive debate in the workplace. Promote a culture of growth, and ensure that ‘failure’ in the interest of creativity and innovation is not penalised, but leveraged as an opportunity for improvement. Fast failures, particularly via small, safe-to-fail experiments, will expose some of the most effective learning opportunities for teams and organisations. Finally, encourage active listening. Limit phone use during meetings, ask questions to encourage critical thinking and increase information sharing, and repeat key pieces of information to demonstrate your understanding and interest in what is being said.   

Trust your people
Treat your employees like adults. Trust that there was a reason they were employed in the first place, and have confidence that they possess the skills and knowledge to create impact. Foster autonomy and support employees to nominate preferred projects or shape their roles around specific development goals, interests or strengths. Use recommendations instead of commands to guide your teams, and build accountability by encouraging open, honest dialogue between employees, teams and leadership. Don’t have all the answers, and give your team time and space to determine solutions on their own. Finally, introduce flexible working arrangements, which have been shown to increase productivity and reduce stress.

Communication is key
Poor communication, particularly around issues like organisational values, vision, and change, can be detrimental to a culture of trust. Employees experience increased levels of trust when they understand how their role aligns with organisational values, and how they can contribute to the organisation’s vision. Incongruence between these can lead to anxiety and uncertainty, and ultimately, a decrease in productivity. As well as communicating important information about the business, involve employees in decision making to foster engagement and reinforce perceptions of value. Align your people to a common purpose by communicating the ‘why’.

“Poor communication, particularly around issues like organisational values, vision, and change, can be detrimental to a culture of trust”

Invest in your people
Employee development is the single most important investment your organisation can make, not least because it contributes to a high-trust culture. In fact, Bendelta’s Potentiology research found that unless your organisation enables employees to feel the strongest sense of autonomy, mastery, growth, purpose and connectedness, you are probably leaving out at least 30 per cent of potential performance every day. Give your employees the opportunity to learn outside of their comfort zone and become empowered to use their judgement, be more creative and take initiative. As well as investing in the development of your teams, monitor where your top 10-20 per cent of talent is being deployed, apply them to your priority business challenges and fast-track their development. Facilitate regular and meaningful evaluations, invest in ‘snackable’ learning opportunities and upskill your leaders to maintain a high-trust environment across the entire organisation.

Organisational design
Strict hierarchies and siloed ways of working prevent collaboration, invoke fear and diminish trust. Organisations should move from ‘hierarchies’ to ‘networks’ as a basis for organising, communicating and collaborating. Mimic low levels of hierarchy substantively, by avoiding classic middle management roles and fostering self-managed teams, and symbolically, through activity-based workspaces, open-plan offices and strong engagement between and across all levels of the organisation. This type of collaborative workplace will not only reshape project management and R&D, but also enable a ‘wisdom of crowds’ approach to decision-making, heightening employees’ perception of trust, and fostering encouragement for experimentation.

Trust is essential for organisations to succeed in the cyber-physical age. Without it, employees will lack the resilience and agility required to effectively overcome challenges and change. By focusing on your people, structure and environment, you will be one step closer to reaping the benefits of a high-trust culture.

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