In Pursuit of a Culture of Trust

I have been reading some interesting research regarding the science of Trust from Dr. Paul Zak, professor of psychology and management, and director of The Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont Graduate University.  He writes that human beings are “constantly seeking the right balance between being wily of strangers and obtaining the value of interacting with them.”  He shows how our brains are wired for greater health, joy, generosity, productivity and well-being in relationships where trust is preeminent.

It doesn’t take long on this planet to “get burned”, betrayed, or let down by the people around us.  As a parent, you know how painful it is to watch this happen with your children.

One tendency, when feeling betrayed, is to become cynical, skeptical and put barriers up that cause us to look for the worst intentions and motivations from others.  I’ve been there and done that.  Not a pretty picture.  Letting go, forgiving, and moving back to deeper relationships of trust is the only option that makes sense for me.  Risky?  Sure.  No doubt, people will let me down again.  But I still have a choice; get bitter and cynical, or get better!  I choose the Get Better option.

On the other hand, being human, I am pretty sure I will let people down as well, even if it’s unintentional.  I am hoping the realization of the common human condition will help both of us forgive one another and try again for a better relationship.  I call it, “The Triumph of Hope over Experience.”

In organizations management too often thinks employees are out to take advantage of the company, to get away with doing as little as possible.  On the other hand, laborers have been known to become cynical and distrusting of management, thinking they are out to use and abuse them for the sake of the almighty dollar or to meet some goal.  Many of us bring these past experiences of betrayal to our new work environments to the point that we are preconditioned to be self-protective.  That preconditioning will shape the lenses through which you view things to the point that you are more inclined to see signs of betrayal and disloyalty over trust and humanity, thus reinforcing your cynical skepticism.  This could be a tough cycle from which to break free.

My question:  What might occur in an organization that is pursuing a Culture of Trust?  You see, Trust is the real engine of economics and economic transactions.  In a Culture of Trust people will still make mistakes, but when they do Radical Candor would prevail.  People would address these mistakes, directly, honestly, openly and respectfully in order to achieve a better outcome for all stakeholders.  We would see each other differently.  I would look to my colleague as someone who has the best intentions, even when I don’t see them.  I would work hard to get clarity so that I don’t make assumptions.  I would do my best to provide clarity to others so they don’t make assumptions.  We would have open and honest communication, a rarity in most organizations.  We would offer our best contributions.  We would listen to and value the contributions and suggestions of others, regardless of rank.  We would spread honor where honor is due, and do so un-begrudgingly.   We would celebrate successes.  We would move into mistakes and failures with intentions to improve rather than blame.

Some say that my vision for a Culture of Trust is a utopian fantasy.  Maybe.  But the alternative doesn’t do much for me.  So, I will continue to pursue this in the organizations I work with.   The one thing that I know for certain, is that in order to make progress toward that vision, each person has to begin by looking in the mirror.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where am I making assumptions?
  • Where am I being cynical or distrusting?
  • What conversations do I need to step into with more Radical Candor?
  • What conversations am I avoiding out of fear?
  • Who do I need to forgive so I can move on?
  • Who do I need to ask to forgive me for being out of line, so we can move on together?
  • Who needs recognition or encouragement from me today?
  • Who needs feedback and clarity from me?
  • How does the work I do have meaningful impact in the lives of others?
  • Am I finding joy in my work?

Try these questions on for a few weeks before you ask others in the organization to do the same.  Let’s see how this works out.  Could be fun.

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