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A Structural Approach to Trust
David Creelman

You won’t have a hard time convincing managers that trust is important. The typical advice on building trust wisely encourages managers to communicate, keep their promises and take pains to treat people fairly.

However, Toronto-based consultant Herb Koplowitz argues that trust can be fostered, not just by the good behaviour of individual managers, but by providing the right organizational structures and systems as a context for that behaviour.

Koplowitz endorses the theory of requisite organization (see Requisite Organization by Elliott Jaques) which describes a comprehensive approach to management and organization design. Most people see requisite organization theory as being mainly about implementing strategy. Koplowitz believes an equally important purpose is creating conditions for trust.

“Jaques was always concerned with building a good society,” said Koplowitz. “Requisite organizations are not just meant to be effective organizations, they are meant to be organizations that are good places to work.”

What creates trust, the condition in which people feel safe and respected? A foundation is to put employees in roles with work they are capable of doing and then holding them accountable not for output, but for doing their best. If an employee is doing their best, a manager cannot ask for more. This seems like a good idea since output is affected by many things beyond an employee’s control. But it takes a manager’s judgment to determine whether a particular task is too challenging for a given role and organizations steer clear of this approach because it’s not objective and they don’t trust their managers to make good subjective judgements.

The trick is to build a workplace where managerial judgement can be trusted. One of the key elements in creating that environment is getting the organizational structure right. If a manager’s level is too close to the employee’s level then the employee won’t trust the manager’s judgement because the manager cannot think better than they can. Imagine a situation where one team member has been assigned as manager of their peers: the other members won’t want to be appraised by this peer. They want to be appraised by someone whose judgment is clearly a level above theirs. On the other hand, if the organization structure has the manager’s level too far from the employee’s then the employee will think ‘my boss doesn’t even know what I do’ and hence not trust their judgement.

But if the distance is correct then the employee will notice that their manager solves the problems they cannot solve and gives them work that challenges them but does not overwhelm them. This builds trust. Having the right number of organizational layers, so manager and employee are the right distance apart, is surprisingly important for trust.

Note that there is a subtle shift of the idea here. It’s not just whether you trust the person to be honest; it’s whether you trust their judgement. The right structure, staffed appropriately, creates a situation where judgement can be trusted.

But structure is not enough; there have to be safety mechanisms. In requisite organization theory all appraisals are reviewed by the manager’s peers and boss so it is all out in the open. Also, an employee can appeal an appraisal to the manager-once-removed (the manager’s manager).

There are a couple of general principles embedded in this story that have value beyond the issue of building trust. One is that we tend to address problems like trust by appealing to an individual person’s behaviour when often the answer involves the structures and systems that surround the person. The second general principle is that solutions often need to be systematic. The practice of holding someone to account for giving their best won’t work unless you have both the right structure and safety mechanisms. It’s hard to work on multiple elements of a problem at the same time, but often that is what is required to make a significant change

Another embedded principle is that HR is not just responsible for providing services to the organization like training or recruiting. HR should take the lead in building a strong culture and that culture should include trust. It’s a good idea to build measures of trust into your employee survey and then work with business unit heads who are having trouble creating a trusting environment.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and commentary on human-capital management. He is investing much of his time in helping HR VPs report to the Board about human capital. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in the U.S., Japan, Canada and China.


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