Building a High-Trust Culture

by Andy Wood on September 12, 2011

in Enlarging Your Capacity, Five LV Laws, Leadership, Life Currency, LV Cycle, Principle of Increase

Picture a couple of goldfish in a cartoon.  Only instead of a fishbowl, they’re holed up in a blender.  One looks to the other and says, “The stress here is killing me!”

We had that cartoon at a place I used to work.

We also had that kind of stress.  We never quite knew when somebody might show up and punch “Puree.”

Morale was hard to come by in that environment because we presented one set of values to the public, but lived by a different set behind the office doors.  Information was available only on a “need to know” basis, and most people, most of the time, didn’t “need to know.”  Accountability ran down a one-way street.  Underlings were accountable for everything, including their email accounts and their bank accounts, while “leaders” answered to no one.

Oh… did I mention that this was a church?

Nobody trusted anybody, but we all trusted God.  All the while the demons were trembling as we battered down the gates of hell…

… and played hunker in the bunker with each other.

Compare that with an environment where people actually trust their leaders because they never fear being ambushed.  A place where authority is respected, but questions or even challenges are welcome if presented in the right way.

Picture a place where nobody gossips about what somebody else is doing because everybody knows what’s going on.  A place where, when anybody fails to live up to the ideals and values of the organization, they have the guts to accept responsibility and apologize… yes, even the leader.

Picture a place where teamwork flourishes because the person on your left is confident that you and the person on her left will do your part so she can do hers.

Picture a place where conflict is high-spirited and solution-focused because nobody takes it personally.

This isn’t Shangri-la, friends.  It’s simply a high-trust culture, and it is achievable.  It happens in some of finest organizations everywhere.  But it does take some work and some leadership to see it happen.  And from leaders, it requires integrity, transparency, and accountability.


Every team, every organization, every profession is built around certain stated values.  That includes honesty and ethical codes, but much more.  Companies routinely say they are committed to people as their highest asset or to superior customer service.  Blah blah.  But what takes place behind closed doors?  When the executive or strategic-level team members get together, do they use those values as the guiding principles for making decisions?  When the employees get together and no customers around, do they actually reward and encourage “superior customer service?”

Integrity means consistency.  If I’m the CEO and I serve the values of the company, I can expect all employees to do the same.  If I hold myself to the ethical standards of the organization, I can hold others to it as well.

Integrity is boring.  After all, it’s safe and predictable, and there isn’t much about safety and predictability that’s all that riveting.  But what most people don’t understand is that the most exciting adventures are created around boring people and boring machines doing boring stuff with integrity.  Just ask anybody at NASA or Disney.  There are some places you don’t want to make headlines.


The dictionary definition of transparency is, “capable of being seen through, without guile or concealment; open; frank; candid.”

Nothing communicates trust like transparency.  Yes, knowledge is power, and ignorance is bliss.  But here’s the irony of power – in organizational settings, you don’t lose it when you give it away. That’s what the whole principle of empowerment is all about.  By sharing information, the leader empowers constituents and increases his or her own power in the process.

Ambush-level surprises are fatal, and people trust what they can see and understand.  And leaders aren’t doing any favors trying to spare people the discomfort of knowing what’s going on, or sparing themselves the discomfort of being open and honest.

But since we live in such an emo-laced world of pseudo-honesty and TMI, let’s be clear about the kind of transparency that cultivates trust.  I’m talking about being open regarding the direction and decisions that will impact members of the organization – particularly their future.  For the most part, they don’t care about your feelings, vulnerability, or issues at home.  They do care, however, if you are making decisions, professionally or personally, that can affect their future.  And they care even more if you are transparent with others, but not with them.


I’ve spent a lot of time here on various levels.  Leader accountability is the leader’s proactive acceptance of responsibility, public disclosure of actions or communication, and explanation of beliefs, decisions, or actions.

Breaking that down, what it means is that accountable leaders accept the responsibility inherent in the leadership role.  In other words, they don’t blame somebody else when something goes wrong.  They publicly disclose – first to constituents, then to the general public – what they have done or said, including their mistakes or failures.  And they explain to their constituents what they believe and why they have taken the action they have.

All of this starts with a fundamental belief absent from many leaders – that they actually are accountable to employees, volunteers, or people in lower levels of the organization.  So let me be clear:  If you are not accountable to people who work for you and with you, then they don’t trust you.  Period.

Accountability doesn’t mean perfection – far from it.  It means an ability to explain what you said or did, why you said or did it, and how you will respond to the results of those words or actions.

Sooner or later accountability gets annoying.  Most leaders want action and the ability to decide something quickly.  And when the missiles are flying, or the heart monitor just flatlined, that’s no time for a focus group.  But there is time later for a debrief.  For explanations.  For questions.  It makes you wiser and the organization stronger because they trust your leadership.

What to Do When Trust is Breached (and it probably will be)

Start over.  Accept responsibility and consequences, if necessary.  Recommit yourself to the principles of Integrity, Transparency, and Accountability.

Apologize – admit your mistakes and ask for forgiveness.  But recognize that forgiveness is given, but trust is earned over time.  Lost trust can be regained, but it will take time.  And integrity.  And transparency.  And accountability.  And more time.  And integrity.  And transparency.  And accountability.

Yes, integrity is boring.  Transparency is risky.  Accountability is annoying.  But the resultant trust they generate is exciting.  Empowering.  And incredibly fulfilling.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Lynda Dearman January 27, 2014 at 10:09 am

Very stabilizing ideal. As people mature in their walk with Christ the breach of integrity is inevitable however I do like the steps outlined to regain it. The effort to regain integrity becomes a ‘matter of the heart.”

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