1 Simple Behavior to Build Organizational Trust

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Building trust is critical to the health of any organization.  There have been numerous publications discussing the requirements for building trust.  Being authentic.  Listening.  Collaborative decision making.  Act with integrity.  Improving communication.  But what does that look like?  Because trust isn’t something you can schedule.  There isn’t an agenda.  In a world which reveres processes and cadences, building trust seems antithetical behaviorally.

Go to their Gemba.

I have found one simple behavior has a significant impact.  Walk around and talk to people.  Engage with them informally.

I first learned the impact of this behavior while working at HP.  As part of a multi-billion dollar company with 120,000 employees (at the time), getting things accomplished took more than just following processes.  It was imperative that ideas, especially significant departures from the norm, needed to be pre-sold.  Over the years of working cross-functionally with key partners, I subconsciously created a “route” through the various campuses.  Catching 10-15 minutes with key partners.  Asking questions.  Sharing ideas (even half-baked ones).  Exploring.

“All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”  – Friedrich Nietzsche

The results were remarkable.  Even controversial ideas were being accepted.  The more successful at gaining alignment, making quicker decisions, and growing the business I became, the more I doubled down on this behavior.  To be honest, at the time I was operating more on instinct than intent.  But the behavior became embedded.  And as my career developed I not only continued this routine, I began to encourage the organizations I was leading to mirror that behavior.

What was happening?  Why did this simple idea prove so effective at building trust?  I think there were three reasons why this approach has been effective.

First, the meeting is informal, casual, unstructured, (and really by default) authentic.  You are not only discussing the key ideas you want to explore, but you are engaging on many more levels.  You are understanding your partner’s world.  What are they working on?  What is their honest assessment of your idea, and how might they tweak it?  Even what is happening with their families.  You are genuinely understanding their perspective not only on this issue, but in general.

The second, is that it is happening in their space.  The act of going to them implies respect and genuine care.  You are taking your valuable time to go to them to seek wise counsel.  This small, but important act can quickly build relationship and trust.  This cannot be underestimated.

The third benefit is understanding their discipline.  Most of us like to “stay in our lane” at work.  Marketers talk with marketers.  Accountants to accountants.  By having informal conversations with accounting, manufacturing, supply chain and many more, I actually gained tremendous knowledge about what they were doing and how they were excelling at it.  This cross-functional understanding helped me both make better business decisions, and to more clearly understand their points of view.  This dramatically improved communications.  I had a colleague at Benchmade comment on my ability to foster cross-functional partnership.   “You already speak their language which gives you remarkable credibility.”  I speak their language because I created an opportunity for them to teach it to me.

This trust building behavior creates two critical benefits.

The first is speed.  When a team is communicating this way as a group, the speed of decision making increases dramatically.  They are already aware of activities and ideas of their cross-functional colleagues, so the time it takes to make and implement decisions is radically reduced.  In a world where predictive analytics are all the rage, having this level of proactive cross-functional engagement delivers remarkable old-school results.  At Blount, I had a leader cut product development time by over 50%.  The foundation of that breakthrough?  He started informally engaging his key cross-functional partners “offline”.  Together, they built an improved system.

The second, is that it pushes organizational decision making downward.  A wise leader once told me that if three critical cross-functional groups agree, there isn’t actually any decision to be made.  At HP, it was marketing, finance and engineering.  At Blount, it was product marketing, sales and manufacturing.  Every organization has their “trifecta” of decision making authority.  As leaders, when that “group of three” has already vetted a decision, and brings it forth as their recommendation – all that is left is to approve it.  That downward pressure on decision making becomes infectious.  Teams will accelerate their willingness to take on tough issues, identify best path forward and implement, all by themselves.  They become self-sufficient.

As leaders, isn’t that what we are all driving toward?

Bottom line is that if we are attempting to build trust within an organization, there are simple ways to make it a reality.  Encourage your teams to engage with their cross-functional peers where “they” live.  Model the behavior yourself.  They will catch on.  The results will be remarkable and sustainable.

– Mike Ulwelling

Author: Mike Ulwelling

I've had the privilege to have a dynamic career as both an executive in small, medium and large companies, and an entrepreneur leading my own companies for over a decade. I hope you find my thoughts and ideas interesting and thought provoking.

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