I’ve Got Your Back: Trust at Work

Trust at WorkA fellow blogger, Charlotte Erdmann, recently wrote that the future of work will be more flexible and more networked. She’s right on.

What caught my eye in her article was the word “trust.” Charlotte mentioned it three times. No wonder: In a world in which information flows much more freely and people collaborate more frequently than in the past, trust is essential.

Unfortunately, trust is also elusive. Over the past several years, I’ve worked with a variety of clients on issues such as strategy, change, and leadership. It doesn’t matter what I’m overtly doing with the client. Trust always comes up.

One client said that business units don’t trust each other and work at cross purposes. Another said that individual contributors don’t trust the leadership team. A third fretted that so many inconsistent messages were being sent by the organization that trust in the company had eroded. Different situations, different challenges, all related to trust.

Why do we have such a difficult time with trust at work?

There are three reasons, I think. First, your colleagues reflect on you in a much deeper and more intimate way than in the past. It’s no longer just your name associated with a project or initiative. It’s your name plus a list of collaborators. If they don’t carry their weight, you are in trouble. To address that, in some companies, like Microsoft, people are appraised on their ability to work with colleagues.

Second, we’re not used to thinking about trust, as this article, “The Four Trust Principles,” explains. We’re used to putting our heads down and getting the work done. Who has time for the slow work of building a relationship when there’s a report to write?

Third, we’re not used to being trustworthy on such a large scale. These days, we’re beholden not just to our bosses, but to a complex network of individuals. We need to think, not just about making our boss look good, but about making sure our coworkers, partners, customers, and other members of our business ecosystems get what they need to be successful.

Trust in the Digital World

These days, we have to build relationships with people we have never seen, and and work via email, conference call, and shared work spaces. There’s no water cooler. We don’t get the cues we usually rely on, like body language, hallway conversations, and information from others, to help us gauge a person’s trustworthiness.

It’s a challenge that digital entrepreneurs have taken up enthusiastically. Companies like TrustCloud now offer services that measure people’s trustworthiness online. They take into account things like longevity (how long you’ve been online) and endorsements (what people say about you) to create a trust score. The higher the trust score, the more trustworthy, according to TrustCloud.

I’m not sure that this will do the trick (even though TrustCloud flatters me with a good score). Sure, TrustCloud will tell you whether I’ve reneged on an eBay purchase, but will it tell you whether I’ll do a good job? Watch your back? Act as a partner and not a competitor? Tell you the truth without spin?

TrustCloud and its peers might work for online transactions like purchasing, house swapping, and bartering. But I don’t think it cracks the trust code for those of us who need to work closely with and depend on others.

What do you think it takes to build trust in the wired world?

Originally published on Future of Work Enabled, 10/3/2012.

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