Between Samsung explosions and Volkswagen recalls, FIFA’s racketeering and Wells Fargo’s fake accounts, some of the most recent corporate scandals have been mainstream events with far-reaching impact. They’ve not only clouded public perceptions of business, but also highlighted the pervasive mistrust underpinning interactions among corporate executives. Individual whistleblowers won’t bring about sweeping cultural change. We need leaders who will help whole organisations become vibrant sources of trust. 

Sure, leaders aspire to create challenging discussions that can move their organisations forward. But does the corporate culture allow them to do so without descending into personal attacks? The willingness to challenge is often undermined by an already existing absence of trust marked by politeness and defensive behaviour. 

There are 4 steps to developing and maintaining trust:

  1. Managers must recognise the symptoms of low trust levels

    These are often seen in how communication takes place. When meaningful conversations occur mostly on the side, or outside of the committee room, there’s a big indication something isn’t right. When teams consistently run out of time for discussion and debate because presentations are taking too long, perhaps it’s because time isn’t being left for them. Are executives simply pretending to listen, not pausing long enough for others to speak? Are conversations repetitive with executives restating their points of view?

    The relationships that are most likely to strengthen and build trust are those where disclosure and feedback are reciprocated.

    A seemingly polite atmosphere created by these behaviours could easily be perceived as respectful. It is common to find an absence of trust at senior levels because colleagues tend to avoid the real issues by defensively shutting down emotionally, not listening to others, and by creating a wall that prevents the sharing of information. Distinguishing politeness from respect is the first step in identifying an absence of trust.

  2. Initiate uncomfortable dialogue

    In teams where excessive politeness is the norm, this will be difficult. People may try to initiate uncomfortable dialogue at the end of a meeting, but dialogue is unlikely to get challenging at that time. No-one wants to leave a meeting on bad terms. Difficult conversations need to be initiated in the middle or even at the beginning of a meeting.

    They also need a defined space and time, as moving to another room and agreeing on a time limit will facilitate and contain a difficult conversation. Also, different spaces can break the scripted, polite conversations that often emerge among executives. 

  3. Encourage transparency

    More than allowing others to see information that is otherwise held privately, a deeper level of transparency is about actively sharing and revealing thoughts, emotions and beliefs that flow through our mind. Senior executives are usually good at keeping these private, and some believe it is the right thing to do. But it’s not humanly possible; everyone carries emotions with them that influence their perceptions and judgement.

    Suppressing emotions can trick us into thinking that there is no discomfort being experienced. To be sure, building trust requires an active disclosure of selected thoughts and feelings. We cannot disclose everything we think or feel.

    Another form of transparency involves giving feedback. For example, “I felt irritated with you when you said…” On the surface, feedback can be seen as a personal attack, and as such it is often avoided. There can also be a tacit collusion between executives not to criticise each other publicly. 

    The deeper explanation for the lack of feedback is the fear of rejection. When giving honest and direct feedback, both the receiver and the giver may feel rejected, even when the feedback is requested. Yet the relationships that are most likely to strengthen and build trust are those where disclosure and feedback are reciprocated. 

    If we actively make our feelings transparent through disclosure and feedback, we stay with one another through our feelings of rejection. If acceptance follows, we feel greater trust in the relationship, which is the key to maintaining the balance between the intimacy and tension needed for optimal productivity. It needs to be a gradual and reciprocal process. Sharing too much can overwhelm, and too little can breed mistrust.

  4. Keep difficult conversations ongoing and continuous

    While executives will need to move on and get back to the task, if a relationship is left ‘bruised’ or ‘raw’, it is better to acknowledge it and move on than pretend nothing has happened. It is also wise to come back to the conversation a day or a week later.

    As time passes, if expressed, most difficult feelings pass; and by coming back to the issue, you are signalling that you are still ‘with’ the person and not avoiding or dismissing them. You are showing them that they can trust you with the difficult issues, not just the polite ones.

With corporate failures often dominating the headlines, one has to ask how many could have been avoided if there had been more trust across management. Corporate leaders too often fall back on being polite or ‘civilised’ with colleagues.

In many cases, being polite creates the delusion of respect, but there is an absence of trust. By making themselves vulnerable with one another and by exposing some of the thoughts and feelings that they do not usually share, managers will be able to build trust, and with it, genuine respect and a better corporate world.