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The Organizational Trust Index™
as a Window into Organizational Culture

Trust is the foundation of all human interactions, and the cornerstone upon which high-performing organizational cultures are built. The Organizational Trust Index™ was developed by the Breckenridge Institute® as a method for measuring the level of trust in an organization and the degree to which an organization’s culture is either motivated by trust or driven by fear. Managers have two choices. They can either consciously build organizational trust, or they can allow day-to-day issues, ineffective communication, and misperception to erode trust and develop a fear-based culture. The six perspectives of the Organizational Trust Index™ can help managers evaluate the level of trust in their organization, determine the degree to which their culture is either motivated by trust or driven by fear, and provide a step-by-step process for building a culture that is based on trust.

Trust is often thought of in terms of individual people and one-on-one relationships, for example we trust our co-workers, direct reports, or our boss. But organizational trust means that we trust the organizational structures, systems, and culture within which we work. Unlike trusting individuals, the interdependent actions and interactions of structures, systems, and culture can reach a level of combinatorial complexity where the “system” takes on a life of its own and almost no one can change it. As one manager remarked to a direct report’s request for more resources to better serve customers, “I know you’re disappointed in this decision Jane, but our system just doesn’t allow us to do what you want.” The degree to which managers or staff members either trust the structures, systems, and culture within which they work, or fear them, is a “window” into the underlying patterns of behavior, belief structure, and tacit assumptions of an organization’s culture. The Organizational Trust Index™ consists of six perspectives: Truth, Integrity, Power, Competency, Teamwork, and Communication.

What managers and staff members believe about how the six perspectives of trust manifest themselves in the day-to-day operations of your organization exists invisibly just below the surface of consciousness. What we believe about the six perspectives can be made visible by repetitively asking the question “why” in the face of organizational issues. For example, “Why do the managers consistently fail to share information, so the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, even though they know that it negatively affects the overall performance of the organization?” The answer might be that managers are territorial so they don’t share information easily. The next question might be, “But why are managers territorial and why do they fail to share information even when they know it’s in the best interest of the organization?” Is it because they want to retain their own power? Do they view others as being incompetent to get the job done? Do they have different core values than their coworkers? and so on. The underlying causes and motivations of ineffective organizational performance are often traceable to an interlocking set of beliefs, tacit assumptions, and patterns of human interaction that emerge from the six perspectives of  the Organizational Trust Index™.

Driven by Fear or Motivated by Trust

While some managers believe that fear is a necessary part of achieving goals and objectives, researchers from Abraham Maslow to W. Edwards Deming have warned against the subtle, but profound, effects of management-by-fear (rather than trust) and the devastating affects that fear can have on establishing or maintaining a high-performing organizational culture. Deming argues that fear makes people afraid to share their best ideas; expand their capabilities and skills; admit mistakes; suggest process improvements; question the underlying purpose and reasoning of decisions or procedures; or even to act in the best interest of the company (W. Edwards Deming, Out of Crisis, MIT Press, 1992, pp. 59-62). Managers and staff members fear: a) being the object of real or perceived retribution, b) being passed over for promotion, c) receiving lower performance ratings, d) looking uninformed or like a trouble-maker, e) being assigned to “grunt” work, rather than the more visible projects, and f) being seen as not having sufficient intellectual horsepower to advance beyond one’s current position. Fear ultimately leads to padded figures, distorted measures of performance, and the tendency to sanitize, spin, and reinterpret what’s really going on in an organization as information moves up through organizational levels to top management.

Maslow argues that while each of us has a deep need to know the truth about our capabilities, strengths, areas for improvement, and blind spots, many people fear (or even evade) knowing the truth about themselves. Fear undermines our courage to speak up, our confidence in our professional abilities, and over time fear erodes our self esteem. While most managers want to know the truth about what’s really going on in their organization in terms of milestones, processes, delivering on commitments to customers, and employee perspectives, these same managers often fear, resist, and evade knowing the truth (the brutal facts) about these same issues. Maslow argues that enlightened managers genuinely want their employees to know the truth of what’s going on in the workplace (everything relevant to their situation) and that, “…knowing is good for them, that the truth, the facts, and honesty tend to be curative, healing, to taste good, to be familiar…”, (Abraham Maslow, Maslow on Management, John Wiley & Sons, 1998, p. 20).

It’s not just a fear of discovering our negative traits and characteristics, as Maslow explains, “To discover in oneself a great talent can certainly bring exhilaration, but it also brings a fear of the dangers and responsibilities and duties of being a leader and of being all alone” (Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, John Wiley & Sons, 1999, pp. 72). The bottom line is that fear kills curiosity, exploration, innovation, creativity, growth, high-performance, synergy, teamwork, and morale in organizations. Fear negatively impacts organizational performance in ways that are difficult or impossible to discover because it operates on autopilot, below the surface of organizational awareness, as an undiscussable Invisible Bureaucracy™.

Building Trust in Organizations

As mentioned previously, trust is the foundation of all human interactions, and the cornerstone upon which high-performing organizational cultures are built. The six perspectives of the Organizational Trust Index™ can help managers evaluate the level of trust in their organization, determine the degree to which their culture is either motivated by trust or driven by fear, and provide a step-by-step process for building a culture that is based on trust. But successfully changing a culture from being fear-driven to being trust-motivated requires a sustained commitment of time and resources on the part of management at all levels, and the momentum for creating and sustaining this change must start at the very top of an organization. It requires that all managers learn a new set of organizational, interpersonal, and cultural tools that shape their perspectives on how to run the organization. It also requires perseverance because as studies and field experience have shown, it takes between 18 months to two years per organizational level to create deep, sustainable change. Here are three steps for building a trust-based culture.

Step 1: Identify day-to-day operations, structures, systems, culture, and patterns of human interaction that are creating fear and undermining trust, and take them off autopilot. Remember that as a rule, managers and staff members do not consciously ask the six questions because they exist invisibly just below the surface of organizational consciousness. What managers and staff members actually believe about the six questions can be brought to the surface of awareness by repetitively asking the question “why” in the face of organizational issues. So why do managers consistently fail to share information so the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing even though they know that it negatively affects the overall performance of the organization? Why are managers territorial and why do they fail to share information even when they know it’s in the best interest of the organization? Chances are that the underlying causes of this issue are related to one or more of the six perspectives of the Organizational Trust Index™. In addition, when beginning the change process it’s important to remember that organizations are collective-cultural entities that are led, managed, and changed one person at a time.

Step 2: Reconfigure the organization’s structures, systems, policies, procedures, processes, and patterns of human interaction to consciously address the appropriate elements of the Organizational Trust Index™. First, consciously building a foundation of organizational Truth and Integrity where every manager understands: a) the business reasons for establishing organizational truth and b) why it is so important for employees to feel free to present the unvarnished truth about organizational matters and to question the reasoning, assumptions, and attitudes that motivate decisions and policies. One approach is to use Deming’s 14 Points to establish the cause-and-effect relationship between fear, ineffective organizational performance, and the bottom-line, e.g. his Point 8 is “Drive Out Fear” (Deming, Out of Crisis, p. 23 ff.). The organization and its managers must also commit to practicing “fair process” as a sign of organizational Integrity where evaluations of people and issues are based on facts and quantitative data, not “politics” and personalities. All managers must consistently model organizational Truth and Integrity by ensuring that their deeds follow their words, and by delivering on commitments. Over time as the organization holds managers accountable for modeling organizational Truth and Integrity in their day-to-day operations (external commitment), and managers’ personal values become increasingly aligned with the organization’s values (internal commitment) employees will begin to get the message that the organization really is committed to Truth and Integrity as the foundation of its day-to-day operations.

Second, the use of Power and Competency in the organization needs to be based squarely on the foundation of organizational Truth and Integrity. Managers at all levels need to ensure that they use Power fairly and effectively to achieve the organization’s purpose and goals and to positively influence people. Power should not be motivated by self-interest – a view that echoes Jim Collins’ notion of Level-5 Leadership (Jim Collins, Good to Great, Harper Business, 2001, p. 17 ff.). In addition, managers must be able to make tough choices and have the determination and resolve to persevere in the face of obstacles. They must demonstrate the fact that they are competent to lead the organization (they know what they are doing) and they must be clearly seen as having the capability and authority to lead. Over time, employees begin to get the message that managers really do use Power fairly and equitably, and that the organization knows what it’s doing and is capable of achieving its mission, goals, and objectives without compromising its commitment to organizational Truth and Integrity.

Third, Teamwork and Communication must be built on the foundation of the first four perspectives of the Organizational Trust Index™. The organization should improve Teamwork by ensuring that corporate and departmental managers work as an effective “team” so the overall organization succeeds (they share a common fate where one cannot succeed without the other), and they coordinate their operations and decision-making to remove barriers to achieving the goals and objectives of the overall organization. Communication should be improved by insisting that managers communicate effectively with other departments so that key information is shared (the left hand knows what the right hand is doing), and that managers’ communication style is open and direct; e.g., they go to people directly to discuss problems, rather than involving others or feeding the “grapevine.”

Step 3: Intentionally migrate the new trust-based configuration of structures, systems, culture, and patterns of human interaction by managers back to autopilot using the four embedding mechanisms described below. An organization’s culture is created, solidified, and reinforced by these powerful mechanisms so they are key to making deep cultural change sustainable and building a culture of trust.

  • Primary Embedding Mechanisms: Informal rewards are the primary embedding mechanisms for reinforcing an organization’s culture because they define what people should focus their time, energy, and resources on. Not surprisingly, this is what actually gets done in most organizations. Informal rewards include: a) criteria that managers use to recruit, hire, promote, retire, and move people out of the organization, b) things that managers pay attention to and really care about, c) managers’ emotional reactions to critical incidents and crises, d) how managers create budgets and allocate scarce resources, e) managers’ use of their own visible behavior to teach direct reports how problems should (or should not) be handled, and f) criteria that managers use to allocate rewards and status. The key is for all managers to use these primary embedding mechanisms to consciously build trust, and to discourage (and ultimately eliminate) fear as the impetus for action.
  • Secondary Embedding Mechanisms: This includes things like an organization’s formal structures, systems, policies, procedures, and formal statements about core ideology (purpose, core values) and philosophy. These are the “formal” rules of the game for how things get done in an organization, and they often stand is sharp contrast with the “informal” rules of the game described above as primary embedding mechanisms. When trying to estimate how difficult it will be to build a culture of trust, there are three questions that are key indicators. First, how wide is the “gap” between the formal and informal rules of the game (primary and secondary mechanisms)? Second, how strong are the social sanctions against discussing the gap between the formal-informal rules publicly? Third, how strong are the overt and covert forces that will rise up to prevent positive change? As a general rule, the wider the gap and the stronger the social sanctions and opposing forces, the more difficult it will be to build a culture of trust.
  • Tertiary Embedding Mechanisms: The purpose of culture is to “teach” people how to “see” the world, and the third embedding mechanism is how this is accomplished. More specifically it happens through teaching, training, indoctrination, and interpretation about what day-to-day operations and the primary and secondary mechanisms actually mean within the context of the organization’s culture, e.g. how we do it, or see it around here. This is often the most difficult part of organizational culture to change directly because the tacit beliefs and assumptions upon which our beliefs are based emerge naturally (unconsciously) as the consequence of observing patterns of human interaction in day-to-day operations. The key to changing this belief structure is to focus on consciously building trust with the primary and secondary embedding mechanisms by narrowing the gap between them, and then the belief structures that compose the tertiary embedding mechanism will thaw then re-solidify in a new configuration naturally over time.
  • Repetition: Consistent, cumulative, repetition is the key to changing organizational reality. The day-to-day repetitive experience of the three other embedding mechanisms helps to migrate the elements of a new trust-based culture to autopilot operations and eventually organizational trust becomes the basis of day-to-day operations. The trust-based culture becomes like a “social mirror” that reinforces day-to-day actions and interactions, e.g. how it is around here.  In organizations that have built a trust-based culture, only people who reflect the characteristics of the six perspectives of the Organizational Trust Index™ are rewarded and promoted into management positions. The cultural norms, beliefs, and tacit assumptions of organizational trust become as unquestioned and autopilot as the ineffective norms of being driven by fear.

Bottom Line: Managers have two choices. They can either consciously build organizational trust, or they can allow day-to-day issues, ineffective communication, and misperception to erode trust and develop a fear-based culture. The fact is that fear kills curiosity, exploration, innovation, creativity, growth, high-performance, synergy, teamwork, and morale in organizations. It negatively impacts organizational performance in ways that are difficult or impossible to discover because they operate on autopilot, below the surface of organizational awareness, as an undiscussable Invisible Bureaucracy™. Managers at all organizational levels can use the Organizational Trust Index™ as a road-map to build a culture that is motivated by trust, not driven by fear.


Next Time
: The lead article in the May issue of the Pinnacle will describe, Ten Guidelines for Managers Who Want to Create Culture Change.

 

 
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