Domo’s Chris Willis explores the biggest problem in your company that no one wants to talk about.
Maybe Machiavelli was right.
The thought crept into my head as I sat at my tiny desk overlooking Wall Street. It was a bright fall afternoon, but doubt and the ancient advice of that nearly 500-year-old treatise began to cloud my optimism. The project I’d been working on was a simple chat tool to connect ideas and people across a global bank. My team had tamed the technology and regulatory challenges, and we were looking forward to the final stage of the project.
Encouraged by our progress, I took it upon myself to test the latest working prototype and interview a half-dozen or so employees. My optimism quickly faded as the user feedback began to tell a story I wasn’t expecting. No one—from the traders, to the VPs, to the pricing managers, to the quants—was going to use this app.
Undaunted, I responded like a doctor with a critical patient and went into triage mode, chasing other symptoms and possible solutions until it became clear that the real disease remained undisturbed—like a cancer, lurking deep below. The problem wasn’t the tool. It was the organization.
At best, people across the company could see little opportunity for self-enrichment. But more importantly, I learned the truth I hadn’t considered during the concept and design: the tool had the potential to expose them to new vulnerabilities.
Each day, employees across the bank saw themselves as playing a zero-sum game where only individuals won. Like the Old World, Fortune was for those willing to take it. Fate was what happened to everyone else.
At the time, I walked away demoralized—and to be honest, a bit ashamed. I concluded that this was a cultural problem. Team structures, incentives, and management’s communication skills needed to be fixed. But in the years since, I’ve seen similar situations play out dozens of times. And each time, culture seemed to be at most complicit, but ultimately not the culprit.
I began to seek out a unified theory of why collaboration works—or doesn’t—across organizations. And my realization is that it’s not just about the technology at your fingertips or mandates from the C-suite. Collaboration comes down to one thing, a force that’s complex, essential and invisible: Trust.
Why trust matters.
Trust eats strategy, technology, roles, and incentives for breakfast. But let’s acknowledge that trust comes in many flavors:
Reciprocity: That unspoken trust between strangers, that can have monumental impacts. Think of that the next time speeding headlights pass you on a dark highway with nothing but a yellow strip of paint to protect you.
Predictability: When you’re certain that your house won’t collapse on you because it was built on a solid foundation – plus it hasn’t collapsed before.
Value Exchange: The confidence that the $5 bill in your wallet will still be able to buy that latte tomorrow.
Trust in Institutions: Faith that groups will do what they’re tasked with, which has been waning for years. (I’m looking at you, US Congress, at 12%—the lowest of them all).
The rise of Airbnb and of Uber show that trust can become a disruptive advantage. (I distinctly remember my parents telling me not to get rides from strangers—advice that has kept me $68 billion poorer than I should be.)
But the trust I’m talking about is the connections between co-workers, your boss, your boss’s boss, et al. It’s the faith we put in others to listen, respect, reciprocate, forgive, and communicate openly. It’s a big effort just to picture and manage the direct relationships of people we work with every day. The bigger, frankly impossible challenge happens at the edge of our network. As Karen Stephenson, a pioneer in social network analysis and principal of NetForm Resources, observed: The relationships over which you have no direct control, but only influence, “is where all politics begins.”
Politics. The dirty word.
Ah, politics. Ah, Machiavelli. And now it’s as if the courts of the old Italian princes may have simply been replaced by our conference rooms and corporate cafeterias. Here’s where the skeptics among us might suggest giving up. It’s tempting to feel that many of our collaborative endeavors are innately susceptible to infection by power and politics.
While it’s true that that happens more than it should, it ignores the fact that humans are very capable at creating magnificent things together: Spacecraft, the internet, self-driving cars, Dubai, and duct tape. Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, pointed it out best: “Sapiens rule the world, because we are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. We can create mass cooperation networks, in which thousands and millions of complete strangers work together towards common goals.”
And trust is a key ingredient in that success. Without it, productive collaboration is impossible.
A global shortage of trust.
Eroded trust inevitably hurts the bottom line. According to researchers at Bain & Company, 94 percent of companies with revenues over $5 billion a year see internal dysfunction as their greatest obstacle to growth—not competitors or opportunity.
More specifically, an EY survey found that less than half of global professionals trust their employer, boss, or even people on their team.
Q&A with Dr. Karen Stephenson
Bio: Dr. Karen Stephenson—hailed in Business 2.0 as “The Organization Woman”—is a Harvard-trained anthropologist and lauded as a pioneer and “leader in the growing field of social-network business consultants.” Stephenson had earned praises for innovatively solving a variety of complex problems which have been featured in The Economist, Forbes, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company and Wired.
Q: Given your research and expertise in anthropology, how would you define trust in an organization?
A: Trust is the reciprocal exchange of information with others over time.
Q: Can you give a few reasons why you think trust is critical in the success of an organization?
A: Where there is trust, information moves circuitously and speedily. When there is betrayal of trust, then information abruptly stops. It is difficult, if not impossible, to restore trust once it has been betrayed. Therefore, in the “trust-light” world of organizations, increased transparency lowers the inherent risk in sharing information and allows trust to grow.
Q: Are larger hierarchies more susceptible to trust and collaboration issues than flatter organizations? Are politics inevitable in the workplace?
A: Politics are inevitable with scale. Two-person relationships are a partnership, but three-person relationships and beyond are networks. A network is characterized by at least one indirect link, and it’s in these indirect links where all politics begins. Culture is a network of trust relationships; hierarchy is merely the hanger on which it is draped.
Q: What suggestions do you have for managers who want to cultivate a more trusting environment?
A: In modern organizations, it’s almost impossible to be both beloved and trusted. The best you can do is to be consistent and lead with trust. Others will follow.
5 ways to build trust.
Start at the top
Organizations are hierarchies, not democracies. So, the responsibility begins with leadership. Focus on being clear with your communication, be visible, embrace accountability, and create an environment where promotions are well-deserved and the pay is fair. Leading by example is the best way to build the strongest social contract between employees and management.
Promote trustworthy people
This is the most obvious and clearest signal you can send the troops. But trustworthiness is not always high on the list of considerations for promotion. While its impact can be significant, it’s usually outshone by just about every other trait—like performance, skill, and yes, even an ability to play office politics.
Flatten your org—encourage autonomy
Heavily siloed organizational structures encourage siloed thinking. When data and information remain in the hands of a few, innovation will be stymied. Look to companies like Facebook, where reorgs are initiated to remove emerging hierarchy rather than to add layers.
Small talk can have big effects
You may be surprised to learn that those brief, mundane utterances you make passing in the hall (“hey,” “what’s up,” etc.) are actually important. There’s even a name for it: phatic communion. You might notice it a lot more online the next time you click “thumbs up” on a post. The key point is that we engage in these seemingly trivial messages because they hold our social fabric together. They keep communication channels alive even if there is nothing important to say.
Believe in a big vision
Turn your strategic vision into a shared story that connects emotionally with teams. This will ignite imaginations, encourage collaborations, and bring greater meaning to day-to-day work. According to one report published in Harvard Business Review, an inspired employee is 125% more productive.
So, are we destined to toil in a Machiavellian workplace?
I don’t think so. History shows that our better nature leads us to greater cooperation. And trust just makes better business sense.