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A Conversation with Robert Galford and Anne Seibold Drapeau


We all understand how trust broke down at Enron and Andersen, but how does broken trust manifest itself in the every day workplaces of smaller companies?

It happens when employees perceive that promises have been broken or people aren't playing fair, and management seems not to care about correcting it. The most obvious examples are seen when, in the course of political battles and finger-pointing between departments, managers ignore or minimize those very real conflicts between or among groups or individuals.

Why is trust inside an organization different from all other forms of trust?

Simply put, short of changing jobs, there's no escape from the relationships that make up your organization. If you don't trust your broker, your lawyer, or your rental car company, you can fire them. You can't easily fire your marketing department, the entire sales team, or all the people in a particular office across the country. Instead of giving up and moving on, you have to invest an enormous amount of attention in strengthening the relationships inside your organization.

How did you come to write this book and what gives you the authority to write on trust?

For many years we have taught executives about building trust with clients and customers. In the course of that work, it became increasingly clear that companies with trust inside their organizations were the ones who succeeded at building trust with their customers and clients. It also became clear that trust inside was sorely lacking at many levels and across many departments!

Why do you compare trusted leadership to a bank account?

When you manage trust over the long term, you accumulate deposits in your company's "trust bank." Where there is a history of trust, people are more inclined to give the company the benefit of the doubt in tough or questionable situations. Your account balance can provide a strong buffer that is worth the investment. You'd be surprised how quickly it can drop to zero, and how few withdrawals it takes before that happens.

What is the most common example of broken trust that you see again and again?

Breaking promises that never should have been made in the first place such as "There will be no more layoffs" or "This will not have an effect on bonuses." It's not an issue of malice; it's an issue of inattention…dangerous inattention!

What is the biggest mistake managers make when trying to rebuild trust that has been broken?

Trying to minimize a problem or put a quick fix on something that may not lend itself to a quick fix. Sort of like trying to cover a still-open wound with cosmetics. A common example of this is when, after a trust-breaking episode, an executive says, all too rapidly, something like "Well, we've taken care of that problem and we're sure it'll never happen again. Now let's all get back to work!"

If one member of a team has a dominating style or an outsized ego, how does this affect organizational trust and what can a leader do?

There are lots of us in business with " big" styles and "big" egos. But when they verge on the dysfunctional, people rebel, either overtly or quietly. The quiet rebellions are often the most dangerous. You have to know how to identify the whisperings, get the issues out into the open, and solve them quickly before mistrust spins out of control. As a leader, it's your job to keep those styles and egos (yours and other people's) in check.

You write that inconsistent messaging is one of the easiest ways to lose trust. What is the most common example of inconsistent messaging and its impact?

Again and again, we'll hear about a leader who shifts the priorities of the company or a department, apparently midstream, and without sufficient explanation to the rest of the company. If you're going to shift direction or change goals, you must let everybody know why.

Why is it so important to be fast when acknowledging a breach of trust?

If you let it linger, people wonder where their leaders are, and why they are ignoring it. Are they trying to cover it up or spin it? Are they paralyzed by it? Trying to deny or minimize the breach? Even if you don't yet have the answers, you still have to be visible and to be straight with people.

What leaders or companies are breaking ground today in trusted leadership?

It's less a question of breaking ground than it is of making trust an explicit part of leadership behavior, and doing one's best to perpetuate that. I see those efforts in large companies like National City Corporation, a large bank in the Midwest, and smaller places like Health Dialog, a company involved in improving health care delivery through better patient-physician communications.

How is today's economic slowdown affecting standards of trust in the workplace?

The most obvious effect is echoed in five simple words: "Will I get laid off?" When a company is desperately trying to stay afloat in hard times, sometimes people unite like never before in the fight for the company's well-being, while in other situations, the office becomes a survival competition where everyone is fighting against each other to make sure he or she won't be the next to get voted off the island!

What trust concerns should be heeded when companies implement performance reviews, incentive programs, and flexible work environments?

Five things:

  1. Consider whether your rewards criteria overvalue individual performance over success of the team. Otherwise you are bound to foster unhealthy competition.
  2. Set guidelines, not policies. Policies can come back to bite you when they're too black and white. And the more bureaucratic and political the policy, the greater the risk of losing trust.
  3. Just because you've explained a policy clearly once, be prepared to explain it clearly many, many times. People don't always understand it the first time.
  4. Don't install them unless you fully intend to maintain them, support them, and ensure compliance with them across the organization. Otherwise, it will hurt you more than it will help you in the long run.
  5. Try not to implement anything you might have to unwind later. It's hard to backtrack on these kinds of things. People take them too seriously.

What is the one piece of advice that all managers should try to remember each day in order to maintain trust?

Remember the Four "O's": Openness, Objectivity, Optimism. Ongoing.


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