Paul J. Zak from his research, shared in a recent HBR article, “I’ve found that building a culture of trust is what makes a meaningful difference. Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working in low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance.”
So, there you have it. It’s simple. In fact, I think many of us suspected as much. A recent global CEO survey by PwC found that 55% of respondents believe trust is a threat to their organization's growth and future. And yet little seems to have been done, and studies by Marcus Buckingham and others in the field of employee engagement would suggest we have not seen significant improvements in these measures, either. While the theory of building trust is simple enough, its practice is hard. Programs ranging from Ping Pong Mondays to Craft Beer Fridays will not yield a high-trust work unit or company. The answer lies in a systemic application of the “art” and “science” of leadership.
It starts with the character of leaders. This is what makes it so difficult. Why does the concept of character matter? In a word, trust. “Trust works like the oil that keeps the engine of an organization operating smoothly. Like a business, an engine is a complex machine with many moving parts that have to work together and fit perfectly to produce power and motion. However, without oil as a lubricant, the friction from the moving parts of an engine causes the engine to overheat and blow up. The same thing happens with organizations. An organic friction results from the interaction of human beings within a business, a church, not-for-profit, or government enterprise. There must be a lubricant to allow the moving parts – the people – to smoothly interact without overheating. That lubricant is trust.” (from my book Lead with Imagination).
Professor Zak’s research further corroborates the effect of trust with a few numbers comparing the top and bottom performance quartiles, or high-trust to low-trust companies; 74% less stress, 106% more energy, 50% higher productivity, 13% less chronic sick days (what might this suggest for a solution to the high cost of healthcare for employers), 76% more engagement. This is compelling, but the number he concluded with, a surprise, is the employees who work in high trust organizations received 17% higher earnings. What? A healthier place to work and better pay?! This is a real and measurable competitive advantage in a hyper-competitive job market.
Venturing into this space of character and trust is sacred ground. Tread softly and move slowly. But here are some tips about how and where to start using both art and science, followed by a recommendation for further discovery. Start with asking a few questions of yourself. Challenging questions like:
- What am I doing to intentionally facilitate trust?
- Where are my behaviors inconsistent and causing damage to trust?
- Do I reward or punish honest feedback?
- Am I the obstacle to a culture of trust?
When it comes to the science, Zak’s research suggests two good starting places: authentically recognize and share moments of excellence, both publicly and privately, and share company information and strategy more freely. Recognizing goal achievement will require leaders to know and care what is happening with their people and take the initiative. Increasing information transparency will demand leaders be more consistent and clear with their communications and increase the frequency of it. Only 40% of employees report they are well informed about the companies “goals, strategies, and tactics.” The payoff is obvious and significant because people are the organization and its current and future performance.
Lastly, invest in yourself with some further discovery. Purchase a copy of Paul J. Zak’s book, Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies and Brian Paradis’s book, Lead with Imagination: Regaining the Power to Lead and Live in a Changing World. They will form a complementary and balanced approach to the “art” and “science” of leading and leaning into a high-trust environment. It matters, not only for results but it will make a difference in the health and happiness of your people.