Luke Blair: Trust is the key

Is the public sector trusted more than the private sector? Or vice-versa? Who should be trusted with public services? Is the profit motive more powerful than the public spiritedness?

Luke Blair: Trust within an organisation is vital
Luke Blair: Trust within an organisation is vital

The truth is, it depends which example you look at, which service is concerned, and who is running it.  One can provide pretty good arguments, evenly balanced, on either side.

Of more relevance perhaps, especially for those who ‘own the brand’ of public and private sector organisations, is how trust is embodied within the corporate body itself, how this is reflected in how that organisation is run, and how this relates to success.

A recent study by Harvard Business School established that maximum of just over two thirds of people in the organisations studied actually trusted management.  In the worst case scenario, this fell to a mere 30 per cent.

Not surprisingly, organisations with these lower levels of trust were less successful at strategy, and at implementation.  After all, if you don’t trust those leading the organisation, why would you strive to put into practice what they are preaching?

As a communications leader, why would you confidently put out messages from a chief executive if you distrusted those messages?  The correct advice in this situation surely would be to try to persuade said CEO to change his or her tune.

Equally, leaders or managers who do not trust their staff – typically, those who exhibit blame culture behavior and seldom recognise or reward success – are less able to motivate, to enthuse, to drive difficult policies forward.

Much depends on how you define trust.  For some, it is a willingness to make oneself vulnerable to another, despite uncertainty regarding motives.  That is why the classic test of trust is to fall backward, unsupported, and rely on a stranger you may have only just met (typically at a corporate awayday, for example) to catch you.

Vulnerability also implies taking risks, and a manager who truly trusts their team is one who gives permission to take risks.  It is true that those risks need to be carefully weighed and assessed, but no decision is without some risk, however safe it may seem.  

Of course, not only different organisations but different cultures approach trust in a different way. Studies have also found that building trust within an organisation requires conscious effort to influence behaviour in the right way – among managers and leaders in particular.

Successful organisations are those that have built a culture of trust, based on a myriad of factors – including everything from corporate awaydays to boring but trusted processes which provide assurance in a given situation – but which ultimately exemplify that trust in the way their senior managers behave.  Trust is as much intuitive, based on feeling and instinct, as it is empirical, based on process and track record.

Interestingly, in that Harvard study, levels of trust in management directly related to one pretty obvious measure of success – the more trust there was in an organisation, the more successful it was financially.

That may not be the principal measure of success in the public sector, but we have all worked in offices where trust is at a low ebb.  And, by and large, they are not successful organisations.

Luke Blair is a director at the London Communications Agency.

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