Mutuality and trust are key to lasting, sustainable relationships

In developing Gagen MacDonald's online leadership community, I've interviewed some of the most admired and inspiring executives and business and academic thinkers.

In developing Gagen MacDonald's online leadership community,, I've interviewed some of the most admired and inspiring executives and business and academic thinkers.

A major theme echoed in these talks is how the most effective leaders cultivate a sense of purpose in their organizations by engaging and empowering their people around a shared vision.

The cultural and bottom-line benefits of this are compelling. As the 2012 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study found, firms with high sustainable employee engagement had average one-year mar-gins that were three times higher than those with low engagement.

I find that most organizations have a mission statement. But how many really have a shared purpose, a heart-thumping, toe-tingling rallying cry that gets us out of bed in the morning? Not many.

When I ask myself why, I think back to a report a few years ago co-authored by The Arthur W. Page Society and the Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics called The Dynamics of Public Trust in Business. It's a rich document and very germane to this issue because trust is key to any productive relationship, whether in our personal lives or in business. It's hard to feel a strong sense of purpose if we don't trust one another.

One section of the report gave me a new way to think about something many of us intuitively understand. It noted that the dynamic most helpful in building real trust is mutuality. In other words, we are more likely to trust someone if we believe he or she shares interests similar to our own.

When mutuality is not possible because our interests are inevitably in conflict, trust can still be developed if people feel there is a fair balance of power. If that is absent, trust safeguards are imposed such as regulation, legal contracts, and labor unions.

Kaiser Permanente, the nonprofit health plan provider, excels at creating mutuality and striking the balance of power with its employees and labor unions. When I asked Kaiser's president and COO Bernard Tyson how that worked, he said they have forged a strong labor management partnership based on mutual interest and respect that has allowed them to effectively work through difficult issues. Kaiser's mission is internalized by nearly 200,000 employees and physicians. That is the result of Bernard and others at Kaiser creating the space for every employee to act upon their leadership. This is a striking example of truly productive labor relations.

Maril MacDonald is CEO and founder of Gagen MacDonald.

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