Trust: By Design

Earlier in my career at the U.S. State Department, I made several diplomatic trips to Israel and the West Bank while working on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While there I had a chance to get to know one of our security officers appointed from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)–let’s call him Colonel Cohen. Remarking at how well structured and safe our security detail was, I asked about team building within the IDF. His answer has stuck with me. “Trust is the most crucial element of effective leadership,” he explained, “and therefore, of successful teams.” 

He explained that the IDF is not about “command and control” (a common military phrase), but “command and accountability.” A leader is accountable for results or outcomes, but they cannot really control how said result or outcome is produced. Sure, they can put certain elements in place to create structure towards a result, but ultimately, their people and teams would need to figure it out on their own. This precise military system functioned ultimately on trust. 

Yet how many of us are required to work with those we do not–or cannot–trust? Most of us would raise our hands. Indeed, many of the professional skills we know that we must master when moving into leadership positions are the negative dynamics or office politics associated with power and leading people. We know that trust is the basic glue of society, from economic markets to legal systems. We trust every restaurant we eat at not to poison our food. We trust drivers not to swerve into our lanes. Look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: safety needs, love and belongingness needs, even esteem needs are all built on trust. Yet have you ever worked for an organization that recognized people for being trustworthy? Likely not.

If we need trust as part of the social contract, we quite obviously need it to run successful teams, and successful businesses. Yet the question is not just how to build but how to make a business case for it too. What are the metrics we should use to measure–and deliver–trust? 

“Trust is the most crucial element of effective leadership, and therefore, of successful teams.”

- Colonel Cohen



Trust is a complex concept that includes cognitive and emotional elements. It is a belief or confidence that you have in another (person, being, institution) to act reliably in a manner that aligns not only with your expectations, but also your values, and interests. Your trust in another entity is then a rational assessment and an emotional response. 
Maybe this is why I often see leaders effectively throw their hands up when asked about trust, as though it is a magical thing that appears and vanishes somewhere between leaders or managers or teams or stakeholders. It’s easy to know when it has been broken but harder for people to imagine how to recuperate it, or build it. 
But there are many ways to design trust into the infrastructure of your company. You could: provide flexible work arrangements, promote open and transparent communication, empower employees with autonomous decision-making authority, invest in learning and development opportunities, encourage and reward innovation for junior staff, create shared responsibility across various levels, introduce feedback and input channels designed to build each other up rather than tear each another down. These and many other actions live at systemic levels. They are at any leader’s fingertips to deliver to their company. 
Beyond the enterprise-level systems to build trust, there are millions of other ways to ensure trusting relationships with reports, peers, and leaders. Engage in open and honest communication, delegate responsibilities to others, listen actively, acknowledge each other’s expertise, encourage collaboration, demonstrate empathy, provide constructive feedback in a respectful and helpful manner, share credit where it’s due, recognize the efforts of others, respect boundaries, celebrate differences, give others autonomy, address conflicts and disagreements in a constructive and respectful manner. And most importantly: be reliable and accountable. 


A couple years ago, I was working with a client known in the market as a very stable, consistently performing organization. Yet behind the scenes they were rotting. Caving to external pressures, the organization had set truly impossible goals for its employees and looked the other way when its people began to engage in unethical behaviors to meet these marks. Forced to choose between a customer’s best interests and a commission, promotion, or frankly termination, employees most always chose to keep their jobs to the detriment of the customers they were serving. 
Over the course of my time with the client, we focused on trust. Not just rebuilding trust across the organization and creating a more healthy culture, but also designing a unique way to measure trust as a performance metric: rewarding the types of trustworthy behaviors the organization needed. Of course, we revised the goals that were set for the organization beginning with the C-Suite and the board. 
While business goals and profits are incredibly important, if the strategy to achieve those goals is flawed–or worse, illegal–then it will ultimately all fall apart. Here are some ||examples of the metrics and processes we put in place to promote and reward trustworthy behavior: 

An ethical leadership award given out annually to recognize employees who exhibit strong ethical leadership and trustworthy behavior

Incentives for reporting unethical and/or illegal behavior to promote a culture of transparency and trust

Performance bonuses tied to ethics and integrity (directly tied to one’s performance evaluation)

Recognizing those who live up to the organization’s values and who exemplify those values in their day-to-day work through a variety of channels, such as peer nominations.  

Trust is the most critical aspect to creating high performing teams and a healthy culture. If your organization prioritizes ethical behavior and trust and then integrates those principles into your culture, values, and employee rewards and recognition strategies, you will be well on your way to creating high performing teams that achieve business goals and objectives. Furthermore, your people will be happy and fulfilled in their work and teams and it’ll be much easier to attract, develop, and retain your top talent (top = not just great performers, but great trustworthy employees). This, in turn, will become the foundation of three critical elements to your people strategy: the Employee Experience (eX),  your Employee Value Proposition (EVP), and organizational culture as a whole. 


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