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Books for those in ministry organizations who desire to take their leadership, teams, governance, and ministry effectiveness to the next level.

28 Nov '10

Building High Trust Organizations

The issue of trust in organizations is a complex one. It cannot be demanded but it can be cultivated. It may not be your current culture but it can become your future culture. Cultures of trust do not happen by accident: rather, they are built over time with a series of intentional practices that if lived out by the senior staff (and others who are willing) can impact the whole organization in very positive ways. Because trust is one of the key requirements for healthy interactions, collaboration and common mission, this is one aspect of culture that cannot be ignored.

One of the givens in building cultures of trust is that mistrust is often the bias that people have toward leaders. Our very political system was deliberately created to prevent leaders from having too much power with a system of checks and balances. Unless one reflects on the difference in ethics and commitments of Kingdom living (in the church) from what we experience in the world we forget that relationships that have been transformed by the Holy Spirit and which exhibit the fruit of the Spirit (however imperfectly) are fundamentally different than relationships where the Spirit is not present. We need to remind people that the qualities of love and unity are the very qualities that set us apart as God's people and that means a high regard for one another and a bias toward trust and love rather than mistrust and distrust.

When I am called into troubled churches to help them identify areas of dishealth, address them and chart a plan to move toward greater health there are often significant areas of mistrust that have their genesis in bad decisions, poor communication, fractured relationships and poor behavior. All of these will breed mistrust like a virus and must be identified, repented of, talked about, and new behaviors agreed to. This must always start with leaders owning up to ways in which they have contributed to the current mistrust, asking forgiveness where necessary and committing to new behaviors that will build trust. The rest of the congregation will rarely rise above the practices of its leaders so they set the stage for what will be.

One of the fundamental lessons I have learned over many years of leadership is that the fostering of an open, candid, atmosphere where any issue can be put on the table (as long as it is not a personal attack or with a hidden agenda) goes a long ways toward fostering trust. Mistrust grows where issues cannot be discussed because everyone knows they are off limits. On the teams I lead we have a "no elephants" policy. An elephant is something that cannot be discussed but everyone knows the issue is there. Once the issue is put on the table it is no longer an elephant, simply an issue to be negotiated through. The more elephants you have the less trust you will have. The fewer, the more trust you will have.

And that goes for me as a leader. I recently had a senior leadership meeting where some of my team felt free to criticize how I handled part of the meeting. Whether I agree with them or not is immaterial - the fact that they felt free to share their views is. I had to remind myself that I have nothing to prove and nothing to lose so as long as we can dialogue without defensiveness (on my part) we come to a better understanding. If I were to go defensive, the discussion would most likely start to shut down which would be a trust buster rather than a trust builder.

The degree that a team or group can express itself candidly (without personal attacks or hidden agendas) is a barometer of the trust level within the group. Robust discussion requires a high level of trust which is why many groups never get to that level of team. Leaders set the stage for this because directly or indirectly they either encourage and allow such robust discussion or shut it down. Thus the senior leader of an organization or team has a huge impact on the level of trust that is developed in an organization. Threatened leaders will never be able to build high trust organizations.

It is a helpful exercise for leaders and groups to discuss together what practices are trust builders and what are trust busters - agree that you will work toward eliminating trust busters and toward making trust builders a part of your organization.

For instance, trust busters include:
  • Not keeping one's word
  • Not being honest and open
  • Refusing to admit mistakes when wrong
  • Taking credit for the work of others
Trust builders include:
  • Keeping our promises
  • Being open, honest and candid (and diplomatic)
  • Keeping short accounts in relationships
  • Giving credit where credit is due
It is an instructive exercise to white board "trust busters" and "trust builders" and identify areas where your team could minimize the busters and maximize the builders. It gives you a common vocabulary for developing a culture of trust and eliminating practices that do the opposite. It may feel a bit scary but a nothing to prove, nothing to lose attitude is at the heart of a culture of trust.

Trust is build one promise, one conversation, one dialogue, one relationship at a time. No matter where you are today, your church or organization can become a high trust organization with intentional attention and some changes in behavior.