Posted by Rick James.

A couple of years ago, I was working with the 14 European offices of an international NGO family on better collaboration. It should have been relatively straightforward. The offices were overflowing with good ideas as to how they might cooperate more, ideas that had been around for many years.

But far from being models of collaboration, the offices were actually isolated. Instead of making the most of each other’s strengths, they were spending their time duplicating efforts and reinventing wheels. The problem was not a lack of ideas; it was a lack of trust and will to change.

Dancer supported by armsAll relationships stand or fall on trust. Leaders’ relations with their followers depend on trust. Good relations between departments depend on trust. Healthy partnerships between organisations depend on trust. Trust is the ultimate root and source of influence. Trust is not something soft and woolly. It is a hard core and highly cost effective asset that you can create and also destroy.

The price of mistrust

In his book, The Speed of Trust[1] (2006), Steven Covey says low trust takes a great toll on organisations, as well as on individuals’ lives. Low trust between people slows everything down. People who don’t trust each other negatively interpret each other’s words and decisions. Individuals and organisations fail to work together even when cooperation would be advantageous to both sides. Low trust leads to increased bureaucracy, duplication of effort, disengaged staff and publics, and political manoeuvring among leaders.

Covey says the answer to the question ‘Do you trust your boss?’ is more predictive of team and organisational performance than any other question. He also points out the positive dividend of trust. A 2002 study revealed that shareholder return in companies where staff have a high level of trust in each other was almost 300 per cent higher than in low-trust companies.[2]

What is trust?

Trust is a ‘psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behaviour of another.’[3] Academics who have researched this concept in depth[4] see it as a multi-dimensional phenomenon which has at least three or possibly four core elements:

  1. Competence – The collective ability to carry out what is planned (knowledge and skills)
  2. Benevolence – Genuine priority concern for beneficiaries; not self-interested
  3. Integrity – Adherence to a set of moral principles acceptable to the other party
  4. Predictability – Reliability or consistency, which reduces uncertainty

Trust is not simply a belief – it’s also a decision which results in an action. While trust is a universal phenomenon, different societies are more trusting than others.

Genuine trust is not naïve; it is based on performance. It is not about being gullible and should involve rigorous analysis. Healthy trust is not blind trust. 

Do our partnerships build trust?

If trust is so critical, to what extent do our partnerships explicitly try to cultivate trust? Or do we just take it for granted and then get disappointed and disillusioned when we are let down?

What do we talk about in our partnership meetings? Do we focus on why and how we work together? Or do we concentrate mostly on financial reports of the project? I remember a staff member from an international NGO complaining to me that when the government cut funding, she and her colleagues felt their partners abandoned them. But she went on to say, ‘I suppose if we have focused exclusively on budgets and reports, we should not be surprised to be treated like bank managers.’

Our obsession with getting the numbers right for our own donors means that instead of rewarding integrity (honesty and openness), we inadvertently provide incentives for concealing the truth. Our monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems may actually undermine trustworthy behaviour – as my colleague Nigel Simister likes to say: “M&E systems promote lying!”

Cultivating trust in partnerships

Here are three ways in which we can cultivate more trust in partnerships:

  1. Openness in admitting mistakes. Five years ago, I was facilitating a meeting between an African organisation and their European funders, which had recently stopped funding the organisation due to allegations of corruption. There was a completely new board in place that was in the process of trying to remove the tainted director. This director still wanted to put forward a new proposal for the next five years as the organisation was bankrupt, without any money to pay staff salaries. The funders would not consider any further support until they had been able to explain how they felt about what had happened in the past. They wanted to hear the new board’s response.It was only when both parties had time and space to express their emotions and the board made a heartfelt apology for the corruption that they were able to begin to restore the trust that had been lost. Genuine apology can transform relationships.
  2. Doing what you promised. The fastest way to build trust is to make and keep commitments. We judge ourselves by our intentions; we judge other people by their behaviour. However, intentions don’t count for much. (Fewer than 10 per cent of us keep New Year’s resolutions). What counts is consistent behaviour, results, and track record. Good words have their place but what you do has a far greater impact than what you say.
  3. Challenging each other. We trust those who are honest with us. It helps us realise a healthy relationship is between equals; it’s not a situation where one party is completely dependent on the other. Obviously, cultural factors influence how this takes place, making cross-cultural understanding critical.

We need to remember too that the more powerful agency has to go first in this game of trust. To cultivate trust in partnerships, it needs to set an example by admitting mistakes, doing what it promises and challenging others appropriately.


Image credit: Jean-François Chénier. Used under creative commons licensing.

[1] Covey, S (2006), The Speed of Trust, Simon and Schuster, New York

[2] Wyatt, W (2002) Work USA study.

[3] Rousseau, D et al (1998), ‘Not so different after all: A cross-discipline view of trust’, Academy of Management Review, Vol 32.2, pp 393-404

[4] Dietz, G (2006), ‘Measuring trust in organisations’, Personnel Review, Vol 35, No.5, pp 567-588

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