Cultivating A Trusting Culture

Businesses, non-profits and government agencies behave something like living organisms. They are not alive but neither are they lifeless. In the eyes of the law, companies are considered people, albeit in a limited and legalistic way. In a more fundamental way, your organization is alive in the sense that all of the people who are part of it make it alive. Through the official structure and tacit knowledge, the company lore and water cooler gossip shared by all of the members, this multi-faceted mental model is your organization’s culture.

Foundations Of Trust Built On Bedrock

The heart of a positive and trusting culture comes from the core values that everyone shares as members of the organization. Where values are deeply held cultural norms three things will be apparent:

  • Good Will: Values provide the affirmation and validation of intentions of the organization, internally and in the marketplace and among its peers.
  • Ethical Behaviour: These values will steer members to do the right thing and to do it the right way.
  • A Shared Frame Of Reference: They set the benchmark by which to judge actions and decisions made within the culture.

Culture is an intangible part of every organization, and the character and form of culture cannot be dictated or controlled by wishful thinking. It is one of those things that emerges on its own and can only be marginally altered by the wishes of the bosses. A culture can be healthy or unhealthy depending on how clearly the values are understood and how well you live up to them.

Aligning Words And Actions To Build Trust Between Teams

As trust plays a role in the effectiveness of teams, so it plays that same role in the culture of your organization holistically. A lack of trust will lead to a sense of alienation among your members, and suspicion and counterproductive rivalry between teams. You need to have congruence between the leadership’s words and actions and the sense that you can trust they will be followed up by actions.

For genuine trust to flourish, there must be consistent alignment between your words and actions. Your words and actions must also be directly aligned with your stated values as the members of your culture understand those values. Just as it is human nature to be sensitive to incongruences between words and actions, misunderstandings lead to the loss of trust. From early childhood we learn to suspect trickery if the slightest air of falseness or contradiction is apparent. When misunderstandings arise in cultures where there is a significant level of trust, members will assume good intention and seek clarification. In low-trusting environments, the same situations are likely to increase defensiveness or escalate into broader conflict.

Walk The Walk To A More Trusting Culture

If your role as a leader requires that you change the culture for the better and make it more trusting, you will be facing a challenge of self-awareness as much as leadership. You will have to learn to walk the walk in such a way as to appear to do so authentically. If you wish to lead your organization to higher levels of effectiveness and success, the most effective path is to clarify the shared values and demonstrate alignment in your actions and words. Communicate and clarify and above all forgive; as a leader you must hold yourself to a higher standard and model the way before you can expect to have high levels of trust throughout the culture.

Trusting cultures are based on deeply held values, clear understanding and alignment with words and actions. Leaders cannot change cultures overnight. Increasing the level of trust in a culture takes patience and determination and persistence. With wisdom and intense effort, you can create change that brings values into alignment and nurtures a more trusting and positive culture.


Johnson, Craig T. Meeting The Ethical Challenges of Leadership: Casting Light or Shadow. Edition 3. Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2009.

Senge, Peter M. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday, 2006.

Thompson, Arthur A, A J Strickland, and John E Gamble. Crafting and Executing Strategy. 17th Edition. New York, New York: Mcgraw-Hill/ Irwin, 2010.


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