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A Culture of Trust

Mark Mzyk | January 16, 2009

A culture of trust would be the ultimate corporate environment.  Just uttering the phrase brings to mind visions of the ideal work environment.  Fill in the blanks however you see fit, but for me it would be having a say in the projects I work on and being left to my own devices to determine how my projects are implemented.  In short, having the freedom to explore and work as I see fit, while achieving results.

What are the implications of a culture like this?  For one, it means everything has to be open.  All communication.  The fiefdoms that frequently come up in corporations couldn’t be allowed to exist, because as soon as they did, the culture would be destroyed.

More interesting though is that in such a culture everyone would have to be accountable.  No one could hide behind empty words or blame someone else.  Each person would be responsible for their failures as well as any team failures.  It brings to mind the motto of the Three Musketeers: “One for all, and all for one”.

Taken to it’s logical conclusion, what does accountability in a culture of trust mean?  It means that at any time if someone betrays the collective trust or avoids accountability they should be fired.

They should be fired.

Think about that.  I think everyone of us is used to feeling that we have job security.  Even if we slack off and perform poorly, it usually takes an act of God to get fired.  In a corporation that had a true culture of trust, this wouldn’t be the case.  There would be a revolving door as new people who failed to grasp the culture where let go.

However, those who embrace trust and accountability would have great job security.  They’re an asset to the corporation, so there’s no need to let them go.

Do any cultures like this exist today?  I suspect Google might be close, but I’m sure even they have their problems.  I agree with Scott Berkun that we suck at holding people accountable.  No one wants to be left as the person blamed for a failure.  In a culture of trust, having a failure on your resume wouldn’t be seen as an evil, so long as you accepted the failure and understood why it occurred.

Are we ready for this kind of culture?  Everyone’s knee jerk reaction is to say yes, but reconsider for a minute.  To be placed in such a culture would be stressful.  I’m not sure if people are ready to give up the stability of today’s general management structure for the more volatile one of a culture of trust.

A culture of trust would lead to more innovation and greater creativity; the rewards would be great.  It would rock if corporations made the switch.

Does any one know of a company that already has such a culture?  What other implications are there to a culture of trust?

2 Comments

  1. Comment by Chris:

    Mark, you bring up a great point. I do agree that there should be transparency and empowerment within organizations. But in your post you seem to move from talking about a culture of trust to talking about a culture of accountability. I guess you can argue that they are both one in the same, but I think a culture of accountability creates the stress you talk about. A culture of trust reduces stress, in a way. You would be more efficient with work and have the confidence to “just get it done” without someone breathing down your neck afterward.

    I do believe that a culture of accountability should permeate through all levels of an organization. Too many times those at the top level aren’t accountable for their mistakes and the individuals at the bottom get the boot.

    January 16, 2009 @ 09:11
  2. Comment by Mark:

    Hey Chris,

    I think that a culture of trust and of accountability go hand in hand. Accountability helps to establish trust and to re-enforce trust. I’m not sure you can separate one from the other.

    Accountability by itself doesn’t create stress: it’s unreasonable accountability that does. The accountability I’m talking about is that a person does what they say they are going to do and that there are reasonable expectations. Failure is okay and even allowed, since it is a learning experience. I would argue that failure is even encouraged, because then risk is promoted, with reasonable accountability.

    Accountability that leads to stress is when no failure is allowed. Then you have unreasonable expectations and that is when trust breaks down, because then the game becomes all about managing expectations and not about getting results. The employee commits to less than they think they can do because they don’t want to fail and then in response the employer or manager requires that they try to do more than they can handle, leading to failure and a vicious cycle begins where trust breaks down.

    I do agree that often times accountability doesn’t extend to the top level. How many managers are out there that are afraid of what their employees have to say about them, so they avoid all feedback from those they manage? That’s a tragedy.

    January 16, 2009 @ 10:15