Seven effective ways to build a culture of trust in your organisation (Eddie Eng; Rohei)

Eddie Eng is a Principal Consultant at Rohei, Singapore.

“When I joined ROHEI ten years ago, there were only seven of us, working from our founder Rachel Ong’s house. Today we have 70 staff: working at our learning campus, at an office in Shanghai, and at our foundation. While the ROHEI Foundation aims to address the orphan crisis in the Philippines, ROHEI itself focuses on three areas of impact:

  • building a culture of trust in organisations, where both people and results are honoured,
  • developing trusted and relationally competent leaders, and
  • helping organisations navigate the people aspect of their change journey.

ROHEI started with the mission to inspire hope, joy, courage and purpose in the global workforce. But we knew we first needed to practise what we preach, and set out to build a culture of trust in our own organisation. Without trust, our mission would not be authentic, nor sustainable. If you want to build a business that is purposeful, that is sustainable, a business where people feel safe to think out-of-the-box, a business that can withstand the inevitable storms and thrive under pressure, you have to consider the culture in your business.

  1. Be intentional about building trust

The reality is that culture is built either by design, or by default. Whether intentionally, or without thinking, we are building our organisational culture every day through our words, actions and decisions. So what culture are you building?

The famous quote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” (generally attributed to management guru Peter Drucker) still holds true. Even if you have a great business strategy, if the organisational culture doesn’t support it, your team will struggle to implement the plan and your strategy will not succeed. Good strategy is important, but without a good culture, implementation is limited.

When people visit your offices and comment that your culture is open and inviting, what are they talking about? The furniture, or the facilities? No, they are referring to their ‘people experience’. Culture is carried by people. Culture is determined by the quality of relationships. Which means that the foundation of a culture of trust is trusted relationships. These relationships need to be authentic, vulnerable, and safe, even when the situation is stressful or uncomfortable.

Let me illustrate this by way of a personal example. Four years ago, our founder Rachel Ong approached me to consider a change in my career trajectory. At that point I had been heading up the training team for six years, but she wanted me to consider switching lanes from management to a specialist function. She felt that I would flourish as a specialist, and wanted another colleague, Calvin, to head up the training team. Immediately these thoughts rushed through my mind: “But I hired Calvin, and he was reporting to me. If I moved to a specialist role, I’ll have to report to him! Would people think I had done a poor job in leading the team? Was I not valued in this role? Was Calvin better than me? What if people think this is a demotion?” And so forth.

To be honest, I was struggling with my own ego and insecurities. Rachel and I had intentionally built a strong trust relationship over the years, however, which enabled me to override my initial defensive reaction. When there’s trust, we don’t need to second guess the other person’s intention. When there’s no trust, we easily imagine the worst, and can seriously misinterpret each other. So in trusting Rachel, I followed her lead and today I coach and support senior leadership teams through critical times in their organisations. If I stayed in the management track, I would not have been able to facilitate these high-impact interventions.

2. Understand the trust equation

Let’s take a moment to understand what is ‘trust’? What would a trust equation look like? Trust equals credibility (how skilled you are), plus reliability (how consistent you are), plus safety (how emotionally safe people feel when they are with you), all three taken together and divided by your level of self-interest. Take a moment to reflect on these four trust factors. Which do you tend to focus on most, and which do you tend to neglect?

Recently, we were exploring this trust equation with a culturally diverse, global leadership team. The MD wanted to find out from his leadership team how well he was doing in these four trust factors. During the session, the facilitator asked: “Is he a credible leader?” There was an immediate response: “Yes, he is a very credible leader, a man of excellence, who is highly skilled in his work.” The facilitator then asked: “Is he a reliable leader?” The answer came: “Yes, he is very reliable. He always exceeds his responsibility, he always delivers results on time.” Describing his level of self-interest, they confirmed that he was other-centric, and constantly looking out for the interests of the business unit and the company. But when they were asked: “Is he a safe leader?” there was a long, pregnant pause. Everyone was silent. Finally the HR Director responded: “We are afraid to talk to you about the issues we are dealing with, because you react too quickly and do not listen to our perspective. You immediately take matters into your own hands, and we keep having to deal with the unnecessary conflict you create.”

The MD realised that even though his leadership team knew he was credible, reliable, and had their best interests at heart, he was not a safe leader. This affected their emotional well-being and work performance. He realised he had to focus on listening in order to understand, not listening to act. He had to become more patient in talking matters through with his leadership team, inviting their feedback, and communicating his intentions more clearly. Eight months later, the overall business unit’s performance improved tremendously, and they even managed to save a technical manufacturing plant by rebuilding its leadership team.

3. Embrace feedback as a gift

We need to realise that feedback is not a threat, but a gift. Giving and embracing feedback is a very powerful tool to build trust into relationships, to create an emotionally safe culture, and to increase our own (and others’) skills and maturity.

For example, Eng Eng joined ROHEI at the age of 49 as a senior trainer. She reports to two women much younger than her (seven and 24 years younger). Remarkably, her commitment to building a culture of trust is so strong that she is willing to humbly learn and receive feedback from those who are much younger than her.

Another colleague, Matthew, joined ROHEI in the role of a trainer. He had been trained as an accountant, and after he facilitated a workshop for the first time, he felt so discouraged that he wanted to quit. I encouraged him: “As a first timer you did exceedingly well. Yes, there are some parts you can improve, and everyone has room to grow, but you have two qualities that make you a great trainer. First, you care deeply for people, and second, you desire to be better. With these two qualities, and by embracing feedback as a gift, you will do very well in this role.” Thankfully, Matthew worked hard to leverage his strengths, and actively asked for feedback in order to learn and improve. He still keeps a file containing the feedback he receives from clients and colleagues. Today, he is one of ROHEI’s most sought-after trainers.

4. Unleash the power of affirmation

Never underestimate the power of affirmation and appreciation. It is easy to point out what is wrong or lacking in what we do, but paying attention to what is right and good builds a culture of trust. Deep down, every human being desires affirmation. We all need someone to believe in us. To build a culture of trust we must saturate it with affirmation and appreciation. This creates the safety for us to speak freely, to grow, to restore people, and to rebuild communities. Will you be that person who affirms others’ strengths and potential?

5. Take ownership of your behaviour

Karen is the Head of Business Development at ROHEI, and we’ve known each other for ten years. One day, she took a deep breath: “Eddie, we really appreciate how you always look out for the business and for the development team. I value your friendship and your leadership, but your communication style is incredibly challenging for me and my team. When we need to solve a problem, you tend to communicate in a very domineering way. You’re not willing to hear us out, you’re not open to our ideas and prefer to do things your way. I realised my team is no longer willing to share their perspectives with you, and if this is not addressed, it will affect our friendship, our culture, and the future growth of the business.”

I am committed to embracing feedback as a gift, but at that moment I felt badly misunderstood by the Karen, and by her team. I was shocked, because everyone in the training team knew that although I communicate passionately, I’m very open to others’ ideas, and am fine with it when people challenge my suggestions. Yet I realised that my behaviour was negatively affecting the business development team. I was eroding the ROHEI culture of trust, and I was reminded of another famous quote: “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions” (Steven Covey).

I realised I needed to take ownership of my behaviour. That is the price a leader must be willing to pay. To restore relationships, we as leaders have to be willing to be humble, to apologise, and to change our behaviour, so that we can build and protect a culture of trust.

6. Be a peacemaker, not a peacekeeper

The value of a culture of trust is that it gives you the courage to be vulnerable and to take risks. Often we avoid having uncomfortable conversations like the one Karen had with me. We rather sweep issues under the carpet and settle for fake harmony. We ‘keep’ the peace by being nice, but the price we pay is the slow erosion of the culture of trust.

Don’t be a peacekeeper, be a peacemaker. This is hard, because it means we must be willing to initiate that tough conversation. We make peace by caring more about the other person than our own comfort. We make peace by listening deeply to understand, rather than fighting to be understood. When we do that, we discover the beauty of honouring people and results.

7. Honour both people and results

A culture of trust honours both people and results. As a sustainable organisation, we know that we need to achieve results, but the way in which we achieve those results matters. Let’s not achieve the one at the expense of the other. A culture of trust includes both the people and the results. When we work hard to honour people in the way in which we achieve results, that’s where regeneration takes  place.

Building a culture of trust is a journey, it takes time. But if you take the time to intentionally build a culture of trust, it will give you the influence to transform your organisation, and even to reframe the narrative in your nation. A culture of trust restores people, repairs a society, and rebuilds an economy. Let’s start today, one relationship at a time.

This talk was presented at Nation Builder’s 6th annual In Good Company conference (September 2020) which looked at “building back better”.