Running a business on trust - what I learnt

By giving trust to your team, you'll reap the rewards

Teams with relationships based on trust absolutely rock! I know because I’ve had the privilege of working with a team like this. We out-performed all our competition, we punched well above our weight, we featured in Deloitte’s Top 50 fastest growing companies for 5 straight years and at the same time we had a total bucket load of fun.

I’ve taken a hard look at this environment to understand how the company developed and retained such high performers. A key foundation was trust. Trust, however is a buzz word that easily rolls off the tongue. What was important was how we built trust and more importantly how we didn’t destroy it.

Giving trust

When we employed a team member, there was a baseline level of trust between the individual and the organisation. From that baseline the trust could either spiral down or it could amplify up.

Building trust (amplifying) was actually quite simple and I can share in 3 words how we built it. ‘We gave trust’. I also learnt there were strong forces working in the opposite direction to literally prevent us from giving trust. These forces came from long standing corporate ‘norms’ designed to minimise risk to the business.

A real example presented when one of our team was diagnosed with leukemia. He needed extensive time off work for treatment and he soon used up all his sick leave, annual leave and paid time off entitlements. The treatment was ongoing and it was unknown if he would ever return to work. The corporate norm told us to cut off the risk and stop paying his salary as it saves the business from potential loss. Instead, we made a decision to keep paying and allow him to accrue annual leave debt. Fortunately for all involved, he eventually made a full recovery and returned to work.

At the time, I didn’t realise the message that our decision sent to the entire team and it wasn’t about extra leave. It was more powerful than I ever imagined. It sent a message that we had our teams back when times got hard. That we were prepared to do more than the minimum corporate requirement. It showed we trusted the individual to stay with us while he paid off his annual leave debt.

This and other examples taught me that by doing more than was required by corporate norms, by taking a bet on someone, in return they become determined to prove you right. I also learnt that every now and again we’d get burnt by someone who abused the trust. We moved these people on quickly, recognized they were a minority and did not punish everyone by adopting a default position of distrust.

Corporate norms can erode trust

Conversely, when a business uses corporate norms to guide all decisions it is possible to quickly build an environment that the team considers grossly unfair and trust can plummet through the floor. In its simplest form imagine a team member that consistently puts in extra hours to finish tasks to make customers happy. One day, the team member asks for half a day off to pick up a sick child and they’re instructed, per policy, to put in a leave form. It’s immediately perceived as unfair because the team member gives discretionary effort but in return, receives no discretion from the company. It immediately breaks the trust that had been accrued in that team members mind that the company would look after their fair request. The response is likely to be an unhappy team member that will go out of their way to finish at 5pm from that day on.

We need to remember that trust is not just a scale of 0 to 100, it can go into negative too. When it goes into the negative, we have the opposite of trust which is described as disbelief, doubt and uncertainty - the characteristics of horrendous work environment that I would never want to be a part of.

Back to my previous experience, team leaders and managers would often refer to our HR Leader for policy guidance, this put her in the best position to catch these types of decisions. Our HR Leader Christine was awesome. She completely understood this trust equation and was pivotal in amplifying a culture of trust in our team. And as I said…. Teams with relationships based on trust absolutely rock!

Original version published on hrmonline.com.au