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The Organizational Trust Index as a Window into Organizational Culture

by Shain David
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The Organizational Trust Index as a Window into Organizational Culture

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.

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