July 15, 2018

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Interview: Anne Drapeau on Organizational Trust

Anne Seibold Drapeau is Chief People Officer at Digitas and co-author of The Trusted Leader.

David Creelman spoke to Ms. Drapeau about how organizations build trust.

DC- I see two sides to the issue of trust for HR. As an individual, I want to be trusted as a manager but, more broadly, I'm concerned about trust across the organization.

AD- I'm glad you mention the distinction between personal trust and organizational trust because they are separate and leaders need to think about them differently. It is not enough to just have a population of trustworthy folks within an organization. You also need to build trust within the organization.

There are five key building blocks to organizational trust. We call them the five A's. The first is aspirations-what does your organization believe in and stand for. This includes its identity within the market place and also what the organization stands for in the way it treats people.

The second of the A's is ability-does your organization invest in the right things to be able to achieve its aspirations?

The third is actions. You can have great goals, you can have all the resources, but you have to get things done. You have to follow through and show you are serious about what you say.

The fourth A is alignment which has two perspectives. First, your aspirations, abilities and actions must all be aligned, but you also want to ensure that there is consistency over time. People need to recognize that the aspirations and goals of the organization are stable.

The final building block is articulation. It is great to have wonderful goals, invest in the right resources and have a strong penchant for action but if nobody knows about it you are going to have a difficult time building trust. You need to effectively communicate what the organization stands for, what it is investing in, and what it is doing.

We look at those five A's as the critical elements for building organizational trust and those are things that HR professionals can influence.

DC- What are some of the more specific organizational actions I might take?

AD- We advise organizations to first think about the employment value proposition. What is it that employees can expect in being a part of the organization? What are the criteria for success? What are the reward mechanisms? How are decisions made? Then in turn, what is it that the employees need to be willing to commit to the organization.

Once you understand what you stand for in terms of the employment value proposition, it is much easier to decide where to invest your resources. For example, it is much easier to make trade offs between senior level bonuses and raises for all employees if you have clearly stated aspirations around the employment value proposition.

DC- It seems your approach is to develop a framework for thinking about trust and that affects the specific decisions one makes along the way. That approach stands in contrast to saying, "Trust is a big issue. Let's create a Chief Trust Officer". Which brings us to the question, where does accountability for having trusted leaders lie?

AD- It ultimately lies at the very top of the organization. The most senior leaders need to be explicit about the desire to build trust. However, all leaders within the organization own the actual execution of creating trust. I have been asked several times about the concept of a Chief Trust Office and in my view it is very contrived. Trust isn't something you can force. It is like retention initiatives. Retention is the by-product of doing a lot of things well. There is no such thing as a pure retention initiative and likewise there is no such thing as a pure trust initiative. Trust is a by-product of a lot of things working in concert.

DC- So I see it coming back to the five building blocks you described which help an organization think about building trust. Can you give me some examples of what you do at a tactical level to build trust?

AD- It starts with a comprehensive strategic planning process. For many organizations their planning process is just a financial exercise, but it ought to include thinking about the strategic and cultural goals for the organization. It should address questions like, "What do we really want to accomplish in terms of the employee experience this year?" That will lead to other decisions around how you actually operationalize the employee experience.

You need to be aware of defining moments, those times where trust can be very rapidly built or very rapidly destroyed. Defining moments often occur when organizations are going through significant change such as a merger or when a company is considering discontinuing a product line. During those times people's antennas are very finely tuned to what they hear and they are finely tuned to the absence of information. Those situations, where people are feeling insecure, are opportunities for leaders to demonstrate their values.

For instance, in a company considering discontinuing a product, managers are not normally at liberty to discuss what is happening and rumours will fly. Leaders can take this as an opportunity to communicate in an honest way even if it is simply to say they are evaluating things right now and will provide more information as soon as they have it. This kind of thing has a remarkable impact on the organization. It gives people a sense that leaders are willing to confront issues openly. Unfortunately, leaders quite often take the opposite approach and, in a well-intended effort to preserve confidentiality, leave people in the dark.

It is in a situation like this that leaders have an opportunity to make large deposits to the trust bank. However, if these situations are not managed appropriately, they can be immediate trust destroyers and that can be devastating to an organization.

DC- I can see the importance of thinking through the issues in advance so that when one of these defining moments comes along people will be ready to handle it. A defining moment is the last point when you want to start thinking about these underlying issues because you have so much on your plate.

AD- That is absolutely true. If you have not been focusing on those building blocks of trust these defining moments can truly be devastating to an organization because you don't have any cushion of trust to draw upon nor do you have a framework of leadership behavior to draw upon.

I was struck by a story about an organization which lost a number of employees on September 11th. Despite all the chaos, there was never any question among the leadership team on what types of decisions they should make, what types of trade offs they should make, and how they should behave. They focused entirely on the well-being of their employees and their families. They knew exactly what to do, even though they had never been through a crisis like that because the values of the organization were so ingrained. I found that really inspirational.

DC- Are there any diagnostics that will let organizations know how they are doing in building trust?

AD- Any leader can evaluate if their goals are clearly understood. They can ask, "Am I communicating appropriately?" and "Have I made the appropriate investments to deliver on the things that I say I stand for?" Leaders need to go through that self-assessment on a regular basis.

We recommend leaders find at least one individual who can be a truth teller for them. These are people who you can rely on to give you the scoop on what people are really feeling. Despite their best efforts to be plugged into the organization, leaders are always a little bit sheltered from what people are really feeling.

DC- What do we do when things have gone wrong and trust has been badly damaged?

AD- There are several steps you need to take. The first thing is to recognize the intensity of the loss of trust. How deep is it? How broad? To what extent is it impacting the organization? Next you need to take a look at where that breach of trust occurred. Was this an issue between individuals or was it a broader issue of organizational trust? The third thing is just to get out there, acknowledge that there has been a breach of trust, acknowledge its impact on the people involved and make sure people know that you as a leader recognize that something has gone wrong. Then you can decide what you are going to do specifically to rebuild trust and you ought to over-deliver on any promises. Finally, make sure there is a feedback mechanism so you can detect whether progress is being made. This is a case where you may have to rely on those truth tellers I spoke of earlier.

DC- Do you have any closing comments?

AD- Organizations are having to make some difficult decisions about downsizing their workforces, yet they want to maintain a certain level of confidence and optimism. What works in situations like this is being as open as possible about the financial status of the business. Be open about the data that we as leaders are using to make decisions. Allow people to draw their own conclusions.

The company I work for went through a series of restructurings in recent years and the leadership remained very optimistic about going forward. However, you can't just say, "We feel optimistic, you should feel optimistic too." You can't tell people how to feel. So, we laid out the numbers and said this is why we had to make the difficult decisions and this is why we feel good about where we are and where we are headed.

People were able to draw their own conclusions. At the same time, we demonstrated a level of trust in their discretion and their ability to handle this information. By giving them that trust I think we, as leaders, received trust from the organization. That has been really critical in what has been a difficult transition time.

-David Creelman