Organizational Trust

Evaluating the trustworthiness of organizations

By Gary Heusner with contributions from Leeann Enright

So we know individuals can build Trust, please see my recent post on Building Your Trustworthiness.  But I posit that organizations can build or break down trust by their policies, structure and ‘collective psyche’.  I fully expect that I have a novice view of organizational psychology and development. I am looking for more input on this topic, but I don’t believe it negates the principle of the hypothesis.

Note: I was recently introduced to organizational psychotherapy as a concept, fascinating, by Bob Marshall through his blog. I have been working on this concept of Organizational Trust as a limiter or enabler of individual trust for months, so it’s time to let it see some sunlight.I encourage contributions.

From the most recent post for individual trust:  If you haven’t read this post I suggest it as a starting place to give context to this post.

Trust = (reliability + credibility + intimacy + character) / (self orientation)

But let’s take this to an organization level.  I would substitute transparency for intimacy and broaden self orientation to department/unit self orientation as well as thinking about character as departmental character.  Shown as:

Organizational trust = (reliability + credibility +  transparency + character) / (department or unit self orientation)

Individuals would need to be trustworthy in order to build a trustworthy department.  But a group of individuals in an organizational unit, like Information Technology, would need to understand the defined interactions (policies and processes) with their peer groups and how these affect building trust. Employees may be genuinely meeting all individual requirements for trust, but the processes, procedures and team dynamics may be sabotaging individual efforts without people’s awareness.


Resolving reliability comes down to being able to make and honor commitments within your organization.  Organizational commitments are built on personal commitments.  People need to be given the chance to say and then get what they need to be successful.  Those individual commitments should be testable, not just allowing someone to guess based on their experience. How do you build commitments based on guesses anyways?  For example, just imagine< that’s sarcasm> estimating sessions where a team says they need at least two weeks then are told that they must get it all done in one. This example is not always imaginary and absolutely stretches, if not breaks, an organization’s ability to be reliable. When a group can be allowed to make and then will honor commitments it changes everything from meeting start times to the delivery of solutions.


Most groups work on credibility through hiring excellent individuals, continuing education efforts, and hiring consultants in addition to their own performance.   Credibility is the easiest to tackle as there are lots of education and certification organizations out there to help people. It is a tangible path for growth and one that is the easiest for most people to relate to and follow.  For organizations credibility is a collective weighting not an individual weighting. One customer will interact with multiple people in a department and form an opinion of the entire department’s credibility. These opinions are not necessarily based on fact, but perception of the group by evaluating a handful of individuals. These opinions are real drivers of credibility none the less for everyone in a department.


Transparency for an IT organization involves being collaborative, developing a common language for communication, being timely in issue resolution and consistently exposing decisions to all the stakeholders affected.  When a group is transparent they agree on what they are measuring for success before they start something, people are involved in decisions not surprised by them and the path from where things started to how they finished is clear and easy to follow.

Imagine a company that used technology speak and jargon with all of its customers, keeping them in the dark and allowing simple assumptions to create huge gaps in understanding about software  being built.  What if this company waited until weekly or monthly meetings to raise issues on projects to business stakeholders even though it is the stakeholder’s budget that is being spent?  And finally issues and resolutions of issues in this imaginary company are only shown to a few individuals on projects rather than all of the stakeholders and relevant decision makers in the company.  Oh wait, you know a company like that?

Organizational Self Orientation

Reducing self orientation comes from truly understanding the concepts of service and why the IT organization exists in most companies: to provide a service to other teams who own the actual business problem. Too often processes are implemented by IT to solve IT’s problems without collaborative development with its customers.

One small example: how many requirements document reviews and signatures need to be collected between a team that trusts they are working together?  These activities while started as process controls are often viewed as simply distrustful. The IT team is focused on protecting itself from future finger pointing and blame. Protecting the business from itself by preventing “bad” decisions is a deception to cover a larger problem. I love Stephen Covey’s Speed of Trust and the trust tax concept on organizations for this kind of behavior. This self-serving type of process undermines trust and prevents the growth of real partnerships.

As an aside, processes should not be implemented solely to cover one’s rear end. (I understand auditing. Ask yourself “Why are we audited every year?”).  There are larger problems in relationships when people have to implement policies to ensure engagement, ownership and alignment around expensive IT projects. See Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage for help in identifying and hopefully addressing these types of issues at the top.


The character of an organization is closely linked to its culture.  It is the integrity of the collective individuals and how they act as a group and the policies and processes that they follow.  Consider a company whose values emphasize that they focus on external customer service with personalization and attention to each individual customer at the highest level, like a fine restaurant. However, the only way to get work done with the internal IT team is by submitting a ticket to a faceless online system as if you were submitting orders at a fast food drive through. Imagine how the internal customers of that IT team would feel relative to how they run their business with external customers?  The ticket system might be efficient for IT, but is it matching the espoused values of the company in any way?  Character is developed over time and while it can change the way we operate at the organizational level, it needs to be carefully considered for the types of relationships and ultimately the trust it will create.


The real danger of organizational trust is in believing you can’t make a difference as an individual. In truth you can.  Each person’s actions within an organization count to the collective.  You can lobby for change.

Here’s why it is important to you. Can you imagine your work environment supporting better positive relationships, making better commitments, and supporting the business more predictably?  Maybe your company already does, but wouldn’t it be worth a little discussion to see if you can build support for improving organizational trust so it supports your ability to build trust?

Credits and sources

Friends, colleagues, clients and …

  • Leeann Enright for contributions, support and insights
  • Covey Stephen R (2005). The 8th Habit from Effectiveness to Greatness New York, NY: Free Press
  • Lencioni, P. (2012) The Advantage Why Organizal Health Trumps Everything Else in Business San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass
  • Green C. H. & Howe A. P. (2012). The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley
  • Maister D., Green C.H. & Galford R.M. (2000). The Trusted Advisor. New York, NY: Free Press
  • Lee G. & Elliot-Lee D. (2006). Courage the backbone of leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass
  • The hard work of Jessica Chipkin : )


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