Trust: Effective Managers Make It a Priority

Last week, in describing how she has turned around Kraft Foods (KFT), Chief Executive Irene Rosenfeld highlighted the way the company has stepped up its marketing and spurred product development. But there's an additional ingredient that Rosenfeld mentioned, which far too many managers miss: inspiring trust throughout the enterprise.

As Kraft's restructuring has played out over the past few years, executives have made a real effort to be "straightforward, open, and honest"—even in the midst of plant closings and job cuts, Rosenfeld told the World Business Forum in New York. The strong sense of trust that this has fostered, she said, has "been a critical part of our ability to get things done."

Peter Drucker had a similar recipe for success. "Organizations are no longer built on force," he wrote in his book Management Challenges for the 21st Century. "They are increasingly built on trust."

No company, nonprofit, or government agency can "prevent a major catastrophe," Drucker added, "but you can build an organization that is battle-ready, that has high morale, that knows how to behave, that trusts itself and where people trust one another. In military training, the first rule is to instill soldiers with trust in their officers, because without trust they won't fight."

Plenty of businesses understand this, of course. Each year, the Great Place to Work Institute surveys tens of thousands of employees through its "Trust Index" and then extols those companies that offer extraordinary environments of "credibility, respect, fairness, pride, and camaraderie." Topping its latest roster are NetApp (NTAP), Edward Jones, Boston Consulting Group, Google (GOOG), and Wegmans Food Markets.

Lack of Trust Leads to Dysfunction The stunning thing, though, is how many companies clearly don't get it. Polls in recent years by Watson Wyatt, BlessingWhite, and others have found that fewer than half of all workers trust what senior management is telling them. Too many executives try to hide things or spin them.

And once trust is undermined, everything else is prone to unravel. Patrick Lencioni, the author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, points out that for any organization to be effective—with results driven by employees who feel truly engaged in, and committed to, their work—there must exist an atmosphere where people can air opposing views, even passionately.

But without trust—without people willing to be vulnerable to one another and admit their weaknesses and mistakes—that's impossible. "Conflict without trust is politics," Lencioni remarked during his own World Business Forum presentation.

Drucker, who warned against reaching quick consensus when tough decisions have to be made, would certainly agree. "There is a very old saying—it goes all the way back to Aristotle and later on became an axiom of the early Catholic Church: In essentials unity, in action freedom, and in all things trust," Drucker wrote. "And trust requires that dissent come out into the open, and that it be seen as honest disagreement."

How Managers Can Establish Trust As important as trust is, it's not easy to establish. It takes a while, which is why Drucker counseled companies not to thrust a brand-new hire into a major assignment. Even if this person is highly skilled, he or she won't yet have earned the trust of co-workers.

Wrote Drucker: "As Winston Churchill's ancestor the Great Duke of Marlborough observed some three centuries ago, 'The basic trouble in coalition warfare is that one has to entrust victory, if not one's life, to a fellow commander whom one knows by reputation rather than by performance.' In the corporation as in the military, without personal knowledge built up over a period of time there can be neither trust nor effective communication."

But how does one win trust as a manager?

In Drucker's view, it's crucial to be able to set ego aside and do what's best for the organization. "The leaders who work most effectively…never say 'I,' " he noted. "And that's not because they have trained themselves not to say 'I.' They don't think 'I.' They think 'we'; they think 'team'.…There is an identification (very often, quite unconscious) with the task and with the group. This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done."

Still, by far the biggest way to gain trust is simply to be consistent—to do what you say you're going to do, to act in ways that are in step with what you profess to believe in, to advance projects that are in harmony with the organization's mission and values. "Trust means that you know what to expect of people," Drucker declared. "Trust is mutual understanding. Not mutual love, not even mutual respect. Predictability."

Hypocrisy probably wouldn't rank very high on most managers' lists of the biggest missteps they could make. But it should. Your colleagues are watching closely. Trust me.

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