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March 30, 2021updated 08 Apr 2021 4:04pm

How IT leaders can restore trust in their organisations

Organisations that fail to nurture trust will squander energy and lose their best people, writes Laura Dawson, CIO at LSE and trustee of Charity IT Leaders.

By laura dawson

On Tuesday 30th April, Tech Monitor welcomed Charity IT Leaders, an IT and digital networking group for the UK charity and not-for-profit sector, as our guest editor. The group commissioned three articles from leaders in the network. Here, Laura Dawson, CIO at the London School of Economics (LSE) and trustee of Charity IT Leaders, explains why trust within an organisation is essential for its longevity.

We’re in our second year of lockdown and many are working remotely. This means that one of the primary tools for building trust – personal contact – has changed. In a recent LinkedIn poll, 97% of respondents felt that building trust remotely was either as hard or harder than face to face. Only 1% said it was easier.

This is bad news for leaders. A lack of trust in an organisation can result in increased costs through high turnover of staff, low productivity as people seek to protect themselves and processes become turgid, and slow decision making (or none at all). An organisation that does not nurture trust as a core principle will be, at best, squandering resources and energy, and at worst stagnating and haemorrhaging its best people.

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Trust is real, important and measurable, but it can also be fragile and once broken, is very hard to mend. (Photo by Alice-photo/Shutterstock)

Signs your organisation has a trust deficit

While it’s clear trust in the workplace is an essential ingredient for success, gaining or building it is hard. Most of us can tell intuitively if someone doesn’t trust us, but how do we identify when trust has broken down within an organisation?

One indicator is that it mistakes checks for controls. Every organisation needs controls, but if your governance processes are based on policing whether someone has done the right thing, rather than measuring delivery, trust is missing.

A ‘checking culture’ has steps in a process where someone else is reviewing and approving actions. The process can become long and turgid and stifle progress and innovation. I refer to this as “process by exception”. Simply put, this is when a process is to prevent a small number of individuals from doing the wrong thing. Organisations with low trust would rather adjust a process to protect it from a few than tackle the few people directly. Ironically, most avoid using the one process they already have, performance management.

One of the bigger impacts of a ‘checking culture’ is that people abdicate responsibility for doing the right thing because ‘someone else’ will pick it up. This can then spiral to more checking and less accountability. For new hires into an organisation like this, it quickly dawns that not only is there a lot of checking but also low autonomy, little authority and low job satisfaction. The cost of these additional processes can be significant both in terms of effort expended and in lost opportunities.

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Another major indicator of a trust deficit is active exclusion. Many organisations have a high degree of silo mentality. Key expertise is excluded because people feel it will slow them down, little realising that slow starts often mean fast finishes. We see this happen too often in the technology space when IT and digital expertise is not included at the outset of a piece of work, but as an afterthought and solely as a means of delivery. Like the checking culture, once this starts to happen, it quickly escalates and becomes an embedded practice.

Active exclusion involves a number of common behaviours ranging from being missed off meetings to senior leaders being lobbied that central oversight or assurance from other teams is not needed. Active exclusion can also lead to more desperate attempts to check on things (see above) creating a vicious circle that is hard to break.

How IT leaders can develop trust in an organisation

Having worked in an organisation that specialised in building trust through cultural relations and soft power, it became apparent that trust is not a nebulous, unmeasurable, unquantifiable theory but a real, important facet for an organisation’s success.

Trust is not a nebulous, unmeasurable, unquantifiable theory but a real, important facet for an organisation’s success.

At the core of the international cultural relations ethos was friendly knowledge and understanding. This applies to teams in an organisation. How well does your top team know each other, know what their teams do, know what ‘gets their goat’? Those team-building events are going to be even more important as the workforce of tomorrow will be more distributed in how they work. They don’t need to be cringeworthy and fake, they need to be authentic opportunities to get to know each other, listen to how things are for each other and build understanding. Whatever you do, don’t let people avoid them, even those who find it painful in social settings. This has to be part of work.

Another essential ingredient of trust is radical transparency. In the LinkedIn poll mentioned above, 67% of respondents reported that transparency was the number one tactic in building trust. But this doesn’t mean only providing reports and KPIs when asked, it’s about putting them out there unprompted. Publishing your numbers and how your budget is made up will do more than anything else to build trust with finance colleagues, for example. Improvements in transparency will, over time, allow desperate checkers to start relaxing their checks.

Once you start to improve transparency, making changes to the process can begin to happen too. One measure that may help here is the percentage of processes that have been reviewed and optimised. Look at each process: how much is a check and how much is about achieving an outcome?

When things go wrong it can be tempting to deflect blame, but the antidote to a blame culture is a responsibility culture. Owning up removes the need for blame. But a lot of this comes down to how leadership reacts. If someone owns up, the first response must be to thank them for their honesty. Anything else and they will never do it again, and nor will others.

Trust is real, important and measurable, but it can also be fragile and once broken, is very hard to mend. Thankfully, as leaders, there is much that we can do to model, embed and build a trust culture, and once trust is established, high-performing, successful teams will be able to flourish.

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