Trust and Culture

Key Takeaways 

  • Trust leads to better performance.
  • However, trust is a two-way street.
  • Building a strong culture can build trust and improve organizational efficiency.

The difference between successful and unsuccessful organizations often comes down to the ability to build a successful culture. Doing so increases efficiency and improves performance. However, this requires leaders to cultivate an atmosphere of reciprocal trust and communication. Successful leaders must not only have the trust of their subordinates; they must also show them that same trust.

For example, Claire Rapp’s recent work on wildfire management sheds light on the importance of trust and cooperation.[1] Fighting wildfire’s requires inter-agency cooperation between federal, state and local officials, who often operate in teams with multiple layers of management. Firefighting teams make strategic decisions about containment in an environment with both large uncertainty and risk, and they rely on each other for information.

In fire incident management teams, individuals often have both a supervisory role and a subordinate role within the team, which means that Rapp was able to collect data on both opinions of leaders as well as opinions of leadership and subordinates. In interviews with firefighters and management teams Rapp found that it was critical for operators to able to trust their supervisors, but it was also important for them to feel trusted by their supervisors.

The key to building that felt trust was communication. Operators preferred to work in environments where they were given a high degree of autonomy and opportunity to provide feedback. When supervisors were responsive and shared information, operators felt like they were contributing to decision-making.

Rapp notes that middle managers within the management teams had a high degree of trust in their supervisors due to open communication. They often then practiced that same communication with their subordinates because they assumed that their subordinates would value the same qualities in their management style that they valued in their managers. Thus, trust and information flow was improved up and down the management hierarchy.

This work highlights the key importance of multi-directional trust within an organization. It fits well with what we know about successful government organizations. In his groundbreaking work on bureaucracy James Wilson focused on the concept of thinking and problem solving. He argued that successful organization cultures were built around the identification of critical tasks. Once organizations could focus on overcoming particular obstacles, they could recruit and promote individuals suited to accomplishing their goals.

For example, Wilson points to the German army of the 1930’s as a case of successful bureaucratic organization. He argues that the Germans success in the early stages of the war was due not only to technological advantages, but to the army’s years-long commitment to encouraging independent thinking and problem solving. Officers in the army were often given broad goals and encouraged to operate independently to achieve those goals. The result was an army that could move quickly and adapt to a rapidly changing environment like a battlefield.

Note that this type of organization building requires attention to both recruitment and training. To build an organization with a strong culture requires finding people with the skills and style that fit your organization’s goals. At some point, you will have to be willing to trust these subordinates to operate independently and rely on their information and feedback.

You then must cultivate and train people to maximize that potential, which requires open, inclusive communication. Reward autonomy and independent decision-making, and value the feedback you get from within your organization. Giving people a sense of value and the feeling that they have input in decision-making increases their sense of value and trust in that decision.

This organizational effort pays off in efficiency. A high level of trust and a strong culture in an organization means that multiple units and operators at different levels can rely on each other. That trust, felt in both directions between managers and workers, breeds success and makes an organization easier to manage in the long run.

[1] Full disclosure: I served as the graduate faculty representative at Ms. Rapp’s successful dissertation defense. She will graduate with her PhD from Ohio State this spring.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.