How do you build organisational trust?

It takes years to earn but only moments to shatter. Peter Mills provides his top tips to build organisational trust

How do you build organisational trust?

Business Strategy


It takes years to earn but only moments to shatter. Peter Mills provides his top tips to build organisational trust.

Wouldn’t it be great if every employee in your organisation felt comfortable enough to approach their manager and was able to TRUST them? Is it possible?

Yes, it is, but only where there is systemic trust. Systemic trust is trust in the whole managerial system. It is the ability of every employee to believe in the organisation through its quality of leadership, consistent application of sound managerial practices and people systems. It focusses on employees trusting the organisation because all managers use the same people management framework and are held accountable to and act consistently with the values, systems and practices of the organisation. It does not therefore rely on personalities or politics.

When faced with issues of trust, organisations often focus on managers and how to ‘fix’ them. However, issues of trust and work performance are often embedded in other parts of the organisation.

Two areas that impact systemic trust are an organisation’s design and its systems of work, each of which impact the working environment for all employees.

They also impact a manager’s ability to perform their people management role effectively.

1. Organisational design

Effective organisational design builds trust by providing clarity, clarity of work and clarity of working relationships. Structure provides the shared understanding of the accountability and authority that exists between people on how work is organised and delivered.
Poor horizontal design can result in:
  • Too many divisions
  • Unclear accountabilities and authorities between functions
  • Duplication of effort
  • Employees having multiple managers.
This in turn impacts the ability of people to work together and can lead to:
  • Undermining of others
  • Work arounds
  • Empire building
  • Job protection
All of which undermines trust.

In addition to the design itself, common issues of trust often relate to the alignment of work in the horizontal structure:
  1. Touchpoints between functions can be a source of conflict. For example, where does the accountability and authority for work start and finish for Marketing to Sales or to Service?
  2. In corporate functions such as finance or HR typical questions are:
    • What is the role of the specialist function?
    • What are the specialist function’s accountabilities and authorities for strategy, systems design, systems use and governance?
    • How do they integrate with manager accountabilities and authorities?
  3. With technical specialists and planners in departments, typical questions relate to their accountability and authority to work with others in their team. Can they advise, monitor, coordinate, audit, and what does this mean?
When looking at the vertical structure:
  1. Where there are too many levels, work becomes too confined. In such circumstances managers lack freedom to think. Accountability for outcomes becomes confused and it is not clear who has authority. Work will not be challenging or satisfying.
  2. If a role operates at the same or similar level of complexity as a direct reporting role, the unique value add of the manager role will be unclear. Direct reports may skip a level in order to have issues resolved.  Authorities and accountabilities will likely be blurred and fuzzy, yet everyone is really busy. Internal politics will be intense.
  3. If a work level is missing there will be a lack of traction in getting action. Managers may not articulate strategy, goals or tasks at a level of detail for their direct reports to action. Objectives become unclear as there is no context and little prioritisation. The manager will often have to dip down to fill the missing work level. This is unsatisfactory for all parties.
In each case organisational design and role design create an environment where conflict can occur and trust is diminished. This is not the fault of the people involved. It is a predictable outcome of a dysfunctional working environment in which people are trying to do their best but are unable to do so.

2. Systems of work

Systems of work are the organisation’s policies, procedures, forms and information and communication technologies.

Systems of work:
  • Operate all day, every day. Unlike the manager they are ever present. As processes are repeated, like habits, employees eventually get used to them and act according to their requirements – ‘It’s the way we do things around here’.
  • Reinforce legislation, policies and what is valued in the organisation. 
  • Embed required behaviour in processes
Systems of work critically influence the ability of people to do their best work and when well designed, they are a key contributor to shaping constructive working relationships and building trust. Common conflict points are where:
  • Handover points are not clear.
  • Incorrect or incomplete inputs are received from others that delay or impair work.
  • The system does not do what it is supposed to do.
  • The work outputs are not used or not trusted.
  • The system is adjusted with little or no consideration for those who work in it or those who rely on the system’s outcomes.
  • Accountabilities and authorities for the system or within the system are unclear.                                                            
All these issues have the potential to cause frustration, friction and conflict which diminishes trust.

While trust and fairness must be built into all systems of work, it is essential for people management systems. People management systems must ensure fair treatment and support quality of leadership.

For example, building the requirement for a next level review of a direct managers’ assessment of their team members’ performance effectiveness or remuneration review improves the fairness of the system. This in turn improves trust in the process and trust in the organisation.

Identifying issues of trust and work performance is complex, as root causes are often embedded in the organisation’s working environment. What is required is a holistic and integrated approach to people management. An approach that integrates the roles, accountabilities and authorities of managers at all levels with those of team members and specialists. An approach that considers the whole working environment, from:
  • Strategy implementation to assigning a task.
  • Organisational design to role design.
  • Systems of work to continuous improvement.
  • Workforce capability to individual capability
This is the environment of all employees. This is the environment that impacts managerial effectiveness. It is the environment that can build trust or destroy trust.

Peter Mills is a business consultant and director of The Leadership Framework. He has over 30 years of experience in human resource management in a range of industries, including engineering, manufacturing, investment, petroleum and IT. He has led hundreds of team members in their leadership journey and believes it’s time to get back to basics.


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