On many occasions, I have referred to communication as the
lubricant that enables organizations to function smoothly. However,
trust in organizations is even more fundamental. Without trust,
effective communication is impeded and organizational performance
Stephen Covey refers to trust as the lifeblood of organizations,
and there is little doubt that success is strongly influenced by
the level of an organizations trust quotient. Taking this analogy
one step further, I contend that trust is to organizations as
hemoglobin is to the human body. It carries the essential
life-giving oxygen necessary for survival and if it is compromised,
the organizational body will suffer varying degrees of distress. In
terms of quality of work life, trust is enormously important.
When public resources are severely constrained as they are today,
strengthening the trust dynamic becomes even more crucial as a
means of improving performance and efficiency. Nearly everyone who
has worked in an organizational setting understands how lack of
trust hinders effectiveness. When trust is absent among those
involved in an organizational transaction, there will be a natural
tendency to question motives, cast doubt on anothers expertise, or
constantly double-check the validity of what is being communicated.
All of these actions affect efficiency and have the potential to
compromise the effectiveness of relationships.
Trust and Communication
In public organizations, the public-political-administrative
trichotomy produces an environment that is not always conducive to
building trust. Competing interest groups, political agendas, and
bureaucratic inertia may all undermine trust. Politicians sometimes
adjust their posture on a particular issue in a manner that raises
the ire of certain constituents.
I recall the sentiments of the chairman of a nonprofit organization
years ago who, in reference to a certain elected official, said, I
want to be the last person she speaks with before the vote is
taken. In other instances, no amount of reasoning will convince
certain ideologues to change their opinions on core issues. This
brand of obduracy is often characterized as the Dont confuse me
with the facts mentality.
Statutes and operating procedures can drag on the bureaucratic
system, leading stakeholders who depend on timely action to
conclude that administrators are either stone-walling the process
Unfortunately, some administrators will use statutory or procedural
requirements as a convenient excuse for an unwillingness to take
expedient action. All of the above tend to weaken trust in public
organizations, sometimes to the point of demoralizing stakeholders
and often in a manner that reduces efficiency.
There is a high degree of interdependence between trust and
communication, and it is difficult to productively communicate when
trust is absent. It is equally difficult to build trust without
clear and open communication that is understood by all parties.
Recently, I encountered unexpected difficulty in executing what
seemed to be an imminently logical course of action because I
failed to communicate in advance with all the parties that might be
remotely affected by the decision. Despite the fact that the
parties questioning the decision had little by way of substantive
counter arguments, I ultimately realized that I had failed to
sustain a foundation of trust in my relationship with this group.
While it isnt easy to devote time to what might be perceived by
some as massaging egos, the reward can be better mutual
understanding and the opportunity to advance future activities
Public Trust and Legitimacy
In government, it is imperative to maintain a high degree of
objectivity and predictability when it comes to things such as
public safety. Unfortunately, where you stand depends on where you
sit, and different people can hold legitimate positions on issues
that are diametrically opposed to one another.
Each of us holds a certain set of beliefs that has been influenced
by our education, experience, cultural background, and peer groups.
As public administrators, however, it is vital that we not allow
predispositions to direct our actions. For example, even issues
such as public safety are subject to interpretation.
In rapidly growing Gallatin County, Montana, we have many conflicts
between developers and the County Road Department. Standards have
been established for subdivision roads and improvements to
connectors, but developers arent always enthusiastic about meeting
these standards because of the added project cost.
The primary focus of the road department is to maintain safe
roadways and minimize congestion, but the goal of the developers is
to complete projects as cost effectively as possible. County
Commissioners may also ascribe to the importance of effective
subdivision planning and economic development.
A case can be made for the legitimacy of the public good in
association with all of these perspectives, and maintaining a
balanced viewpoint when confronted by competing interests is
essential to maintaining the public trust. Public officials will be
accountable for how they deal with these complex issues.
When the legitimacy of the governmental body is regularly
questioned, public trust deteriorates, which may lead to increased
costs and frequent litigation. When government officials are
trusted, stakeholders will have greater confidence in the
legitimacy of decisions made.
Authority and Trust
By virtue of their elected or appointed positions, government
officials exercise authority over certain things. In civilian
organizations, applying legitimate authority in an effective way
can be elusive.
After assuming my current appointment as county administrator, I
recognized that my effectiveness would depend on the degree to
which I could nurture trust among a large number of department
heads and elected officials. Because of the structure of county
government in Montana, my formal authority has limitations since,
by statute, certain departments are directed by independently
Moreover, the county commissioners have statutory authority for a
number of things and only some of these can be readily delegated.
In the past, relationships between certain officials and
departments were characterized more by grudging tolerance than by
positive and open communication. Regardless of your level of
authority, I have found that it is impossible to force people to
trust you or one another.
The importance of building trust in the role of county
administratorwhich had a spotty history in Gallatin County and in
me personallywas apparent. Indeed, I subsequently discovered there
was considerable speculation in some quarters that my tenure would
be brief because of the unresolved problems tormenting the
organization at the time of my arrival.
It would be disingenuous to say that I had the forethought to lay
out a well-sequenced plan to deal with these issues. In essence, I
took it one step at a time and used the following approaches to
garner the trust of those I serve:
- I scheduled one-on-one meetings with all department heads and
elected officials to listen to their concerns and solicit their
perspectives on the state of the organization. People were, for the
most part, remarkably candid with me then. This process laid the
foundation for the open dialogue and problem-solving sessions I
continue to have on a frequent basis.
- In my early months with the county, I found time to develop a
management training program. Most appointed and elected department
heads attended these sessions, which provided an excellent
opportunity for networking. This highly interactive program allowed
the department heads to get better acquainted with me and other key
people in county government.
- I established monthly department head meetings, which provided
a forum for dealing with common problems, sharing ideas, and
disseminating information. We are more likely to trust those with
whom we are better acquainted.
- As time went on and the trust level began to increase, I was
sometimes called on to mediate disputes. Many came to realize that
a safe forum was available to deal with disputes and that often led
to a restoration of interpersonal trust.
None of these actions were particularly innovative nor did they
require arcane skills. The most important preconditions to
successfully implementing a trust-building strategy are a
willingness to accept some risk and actively listen to others,
create a degree of comfort with self-disclosure and vulnerability,
and build an unwavering respect for confidentiality. These traits
allow trust to develop at the interpersonal level. In my
experience, a climate of trust is created one relationship at a
time until it becomes engrained organizationally.
Earlier in my career, I observed the marginalization of a colleague
due to the gradual erosion of trust in his abilities. As a senior
executive with the organization, he had seen it grow and change in
many ways. Moreover, the management environment changed and young
staff members expected to have greater autonomy and opportunities
to apply ever-changing methods and technologies in creative ways.
However, the executive was uncomfortable with this higher-order
delegation and lacked the technical expertise to provide meaningful
direction in cutting-edge approaches that were favored by younger
knowledge workers. Attempts by the executive to micromanage work
were met with passive resistance. This, in turn, led to a growing
belief that he was irrelevant and that his expertise could not be
Managers in complex organizations do not need to convince people
that they are expert in all technical areas. They arent expected to
be expert in all the specialties of a diverse set of operations if
they contribute to organizational vitality and advancement.
Their role is to manage and demonstrate a willingness to delegate
responsibility to those with the technical expertise while
providing adequate resources to employees as a means of assuring
the success of their efforts. This willingness to delegate is
preconditioned by trust, however.
Had this particular executive placed sufficient confidence in his
employees instead of micromanaging, there is a high probability
that they would have rewarded his actions by trusting his
leadership. As it was, his ability to lead gradually diminished
until he was relegated to a marginalized role. The significance of
this anecdote is that trust is reciprocal.
Decision Making and Trust
At this time, state and local governments are confronted with
exceptionally vexing challenges as we attempt to make deep budget
cuts, often involving personnel. Although budget shortfalls in
Gallatin County have been less severe than in many jurisdictions,
the rapid growth of recent years has ground to a rapid halt.
To balance our budget, I was forced to closely scrutinize all
hiring and reduce numbers through attrition and isolated layoffs.
Several months ago, I was asked by the county commissioners to fill
in as planning director in addition to maintaining my
responsibilities as county administrator.
This occurred immediately after I had imposed personnel cuts on the
planning department. Because I am not a professional planner by
training, I had to deal with skepticism within the department
concerning my technical expertise and my ability to devote adequate
attention to the demands of my second job.
Building the trust of my planning department is a work in process,
and I am attempting to do so by regular communication,
accessibility, being candid about what I can and cannot accomplish,
and reassigning some management responsibilities that were formerly
the purview of the director to two of our lead planners.
This has been done with considerable input from staff, which is the
point of this segmentcommunicating with the people affected by
difficult decisions is essential in order to gain and preserve
Interdependence and Trust
I value motivated people and have sought to hire and develop the
most competent employees available. High performers are often
ambitious, however, and they yearn for advancement, which in
American society, is most often rewarded by individual achievement.
Some years ago, an exceptionally bright and ambitious young
executive on my team created almost perpetual upheaval in the
organization we served by undermining the trust of his peers and
subordinates, primarily due to his insatiable desire for rapid
advancement. By contrast, another equally talented young executive
a few years later contributed immeasurably to the success of our
team by freely sharing his impressive talent with others in a
manner that improved the image of all.
The primary difference between these two young executives was in
their ability to inspire trust. While the former was viewed with
great suspicion despite his estimable skills, the latter was
readily accepted because of his openness and willingness to assist
others without the expectation of getting something in return.
Basically, the difference can be summarized as selfishness versus
selflessness. In public organizations, a willingness to cultivate
relationships of interdependence as opposed to seeking the
gratification of independent glory can make all the difference in
terms of long-term success.
The success of the individual will ultimately be enhanced by
embracing interdependence and putting organizational benefits ahead
of short-term personal gains. The organizations trust quotient will
climb as a result of the success of interdependent relationships.
To foster trust within an organization, you must first establish
yourself as trustworthy. There are many ways that this can be
accomplished, and building trust generally takes time, so be
patient. Experience suggests that it frequently takes a year or
more for an executive to establish a sufficient number of trusting
relationships in a mid-sized organization. The following are
several personal and professional attributes that are likely to
Predictability and Consistency. It is important to
be dependable and predictable. Fulfilling promises made and walking
the talk make a favorable impression that will be noticed,
particularly for those in leadership roles. People need to have
some notion of what to expect when they approach you.
Authenticity. It is great to be clever, witty, and
full of great ideas. But, to gain the trust of others, it is far
more important to be real.
Ethics. Though the need to apply ethics to gain
trust is obvious, ethical dilemmas arise frequently in government
and the media is full of stories of government officials that fail
the test. Be vigilant in applying ethical considerations as a means
of promoting trust.
Accessibility and Openness. Although some people
are more naturally charismatic than others, everyone can be
approachable. Being open and non-judgmental provides people with
the confidence they need to freely present their ideas and concerns
Responsiveness. Actively listening and responding
appropriately are communication skills that help to promote trust.
Expressing empathy, understanding, or concern is also important. It
is critical that you follow through in accordance with any
commitments that are made.
Service-Oriented. When leaders dispel the notion
that they are above others by demonstrating a genuine willingness
to serve, their followers will begin to identify with them.
Vulnerability. By exposing your frailties to
others, you show that you are human and not afraid to take a risk.
This allows the rest of the world to see your humanity. People are
not especially trusting of indestructible automatons. Even Superman
has a human side.
Emotional Maturity. While allowing others to
recognize your humanity is good, displaying emotional maturity is
essential and includes keeping emotions in check as well as
avoiding a variety of indiscretions. Developing emotional maturity
requires discipline and isnt necessarily correlated with age.
Overreacting emotionally to events is disconcerting to people and
may create confusion or hostility. Anger not only drives people
away, but it and creates a climate of fear in which productive
communication is impossible.
Confidentiality. There are innumerable occasions
in organizational life when confidentiality is an ethical or even a
legal imperative. At other times it is merely offering a colleague
a safe outlet in which to vent their problems.
Excellence. People trust competence and they
generally respond well to those who display a good work ethic.
Striving for excellence can be contagious.
Accountability. If you dont make a few mistakes
along the way you arent really trying. People respond well to those
who take ownership of mistakes. Practicing the blame game is one of
the surest ways of undermining trust.
Courage. There are times when doing the right
thing will hurt you personally, at least in the short term. People
will trust you more if they know you are willing to sacrifice
personally by getting some skin in the game.
Trust is an essential and fragile commodity in organizations.
Developing trust takes time, and it can easily be damaged. Local
government officials are under constant scrutiny and most are
astute enough to realize that their actions will be second guessed
and dissected by the media and the public. Developing a reputation
for integrity and maintaining a balanced perspective in public life
is of great benefit in terms of avoiding that brand of scrutiny
that is driven by suspicion. Building trust within the organization
allows for internal processes to operate in a manner that leads to
greater expediency and broader ownership of results.
While vibrant internal debate and idea sharing are constructive,
public displays of dissension among government officials undermine
confidence and damage relationships. If the level of trust within
the organization is high, policy making and administrative actions
can be carried out in a manner that engenders public trust and
provides a sense of mutual accomplishment. My experience suggests
that developing and sustaining trust must be a priority for public
managersyour success depends on it.