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Creating Trust in Organizations


Explanations > Trust > Creating Trust in Organizations

Values and culture | Interdependence | Role and process clarity | Goal congruity | Visibility | Consequences of transgression


The way an organization is designed can have a significant effect on the trust that is engendered within its walls. Organizational elements that affect trust include the softer side of the house, including values and behaviors, as well as the organizational structures such as hierarchies and processes.

Values and culture

Values are the ‘unwritten rules’ of how people interact including as shoulds and shouldn’ts, musts and must nots, rights and wrongs, and things which are important and unimportant. Values are unwritten in that we all have them and they are reflected in what we actually do, rather than any written set of company values. Writing them down is a good thing only to the degree to which these are communicated and supported by the company hierarchy.

Written sets of values are not new, as evidenced by the Christian Ten Commandments. This overarching ruleset has influence trusting behavior for many centuries.

Values which support trust are those which encourage interdependent working and support of others just because it is the right thing to do. Trust may be explicitly mentioned in company values, along with themes such as ‘focus on the customer’ through which people can legitimately request things of one another and trust that they will support activities that are working towards these common goals.

Values which act to reduce trust are often those which emphasize individual excellence and financial goals above any statements of trust. Where people are rewarded more for the achievement of individual rather than group goals, this divisive encouragement is likely to lead to non-collaborative and untrustworthy behavior. Discouraging such overt actions are the broader social rules, including what remains of historical social values.

Other cultural factors also may also support or hinder the trust rules that are set up by values.


Where people are interdependent they require things of each other. The dynamic for reciprocity is thus set up by the complex task environment and the limitations of time, skill and control that the individuals possess. To do my work I need your help. Fortunately, you are in a similar position so we can engage in mutually satisfying value exchange.

Where dependence is a one-way street, there arises positions of vulnerability and power, where the powerful can take advantage of the vulnerable almost on a whim. Power behavior in organizations often involves delays and ‘not now’ can easily become a technique of deliberate sabotage. Even when the powerful are well-intentioned, as most are, pressures of work lead them to prioritize dependent people off the scale, thus leading to unintentional sabotage (which is of little compensation to the dependent person who is losing out).

Role and process clarity

Where people’s jobs are clear, it is easy to determine who is responsible for what, who controls what resources, and consequently where you need to go for dependent actions and whether the person you are depending on is obliged or interested in helping you.

An unclear role leads not only the requestor but also the person being asked to be uncertain as to whether the requested action should be undertaken. Similarly, where processes are unclear or unstated, especially in their boundary points where work touches upon other people, then the uncertainty can make decisions arbitrary and based more upon individual rather than organizational need.

This does not mean that all jobs and processes should be defined down to the nth level. It does, however, mean that for trust to occur, decisions points and criteria must be clear. Factors such as clear values and limited interdependence can simplify such situations.

Where fewer people need to be trusted, the problems of trust are immediately focused although if such designs result in single authorization points, these can easily become bottlenecks rather than open highways.

Goal congruity

Where I have one objective and you have another, my asking you for help is not likely to get a positive response. If, however, we both are working to the same strategic plan which is clearly communicated to us all, we have a point of commonality through which we can work together. I can trust that what you do is not likely to be diametrically opposite to my activities, and that when you make a promise, because we are working on the same thing, you will keep to your word.

Goal congruity is not the same as role and process clarity, although they are closely related. The goal marks the end-point and gives the overall direction, whilst roles and processes are methods of achieving the goal. In situations of uncertainty, goals (like the higher-level values) help us to make agreeable decisions.


Where trust is given and it is clearly visible that the person being trusted is acting in a trustworthy way, the feedback enables confidence in that trust to be rapidly increased. Much trust comes through communication. If I ask you to do something and you regularly give me updates of progress along the way, my imagination is

The corollary is also true. Where the actions and results of people’s decisions and behaviors are hidden, and where there are other structural factors that encourage untrustworthy behavior, then the temptation to manipulate others is higher. When, however, the actions and their consequences are visible to those who can and will act to punish transgressors, then untrustworthy behavior is significantly discouraged.

Visibility can be reduced by such as functional barriers, where requests are sent to a department rather than to a named person. Similarly where the ‘process’ or equipment or ‘management’ can be blamed, the true source of untrustworthiness can be concealed. It can (and often is) also be hidden through unwritten social rules, where ‘I won’t question your incompetence if you won’t question mine.’

Consequences of transgression

If I trust you and you fail to meet our agreed actions then what happens? If there is nothing else I can do, if there are no consequences for you as a result of this failure, then why should you worry? A system that has no punishment for trust failure

Punishment can take two forms. Formal punish may happen if I go to your manager and complain that you are not acting as you should. The consequences of this can then range from a mild ticking off from your manager to expulsion or even legal action, depending on the severity of the transgression. Much punishment, however, is informal and social in nature. Social punishment can include being gossiped about, being ostracized or being verbally abused, any of which can be extremely uncomfortable and professionally damaging.


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