How to Create High-Trust Organizations

March 15, 2019 Nicole Dingley

“So,” I concluded cautiously. “What does everyone think?” I scanned the room of 30+ managers and braced myself for the naysayers. I was sure they were out there, ready to pounce.

I lead a Customer Success team that’s been in place for a little over a year. Once our sales colleagues close a deal, the team’s Specialists step in to strategically manage and support our customers. Sounds like a simple and efficient workflow, but the truth? The organizational transition to this tag-team approach was a challenging one for all stakeholders, full of classic change management issues. As I stood in front of my peers that morning, having just shared a plan for the Specialists to take over a critical customer initiative, I was prepared for a healthy dose of blowback.

“It sounds good,” a regional manager replied, nodding agreeably. I paused. Had I heard her correctly? “A lot can change in a year. The trust is there now, and it just wasn’t before.”

The Benefits of Trust

While I suppressed a jubilant twirl in response to her comment, the research shows that I’m not alone in celebrating the benefits of a trust relationship in a professional context.  According to research done by neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak, people at companies with high levels of trust report 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, and 40% less burnout. 

I spoke to Dr. Robert F. Hurley, author of The Decision to Trust: How Leaders Create High-Trust Organizations, to take a deeper dive. He describes trust as a form of “social capital that enhances performance between individuals or groups.” 

What Determines Trust in the Workplace?

Dr. Hurley said that an individual’s decision to trust is impacted by two types of factors: internal and situational.  Internal factors include one’s tolerance for risk, self-confidence, and level of power. People with more power have “the luxury of assuming proper intentions.” When one believes that she can control an exchange, she is more optimistic and likely to trust.

Situational factors vary across changing circumstances. For example, we are more likely to trust people whom we perceive to be similar to us and with whom our interests closely align. We are also influenced by our perceptions of the other person’s benevolent concern and competence to do what they promise. Trusts relationships are fluid; they can have little (or everything) to do with the other person and everything (or nothing) to do with the situation. 

Long term, the network of individual trust relationships create a company’s culture of trust.  So how can today’s companies and leaders foster a trusting culture? Dr. Hurley recommends the following practices. 

Five Strategies for Becoming a High-Trust Organization

  1. Create aligned goals, with accompanying aligned interests and incentives. When cross-functional teams work on a project together, there must be agreement on what success will look like for both the customer and the company. 
  2. Encourage common values. You and your colleagues may not go to the same church or donate to the same charity, yet when it comes to corporate values, there should be a shared sense of identity; a pride in what you do, the value you bring to the customer, and the company’s brand identity.  Without this, Hurley asserts, “People don’t play nicely because they don’t care about the reputation of the company.” 
  3. Intentionally build relationships outside of your usual networks. This allows for new trust bonds to be formed in dynamic ways and diminishes fear of the unfamiliar. Trust is a relationship concept, and each job exists within a network of professional relationships.
  4. Support a learning culture that emphasizes competence, candor, admitting mistakes, customer-centricity and doing the right thing. People need the opportunity to try and fail with transparency in a nurturing environment. 
  5. Ensure candid, clear, and timely communication across stakeholder groups. Ongoing communication is needed to keep relationships strong. Colleagues rely on each other to share more than surface information, such as the rationale behind a team realignment or the real reason a colleague doesn’t approve of an initiative, so they don’t feel surprised, or even worse, deceived. 

Even when the above strategies are well executed, it’s important to remember that building and earning trust in the professional world takes time. So the next time you find yourself in a room of the usual naysayers who suddenly accept your plans with ease, recognize it for what it is: proof of hard-earned trust. 

About the Author

Vice President, Wiley //

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