Improved Trust Fosters Improved Results: Trust Is an Essential and Fragile Commodity in Organizations. the County Administrator for Gallatin County, Montana, Shares Some Lessons about Giving and Gaining Trust

By Mathers, Earl | The Public Manager, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview
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Improved Trust Fosters Improved Results: Trust Is an Essential and Fragile Commodity in Organizations. the County Administrator for Gallatin County, Montana, Shares Some Lessons about Giving and Gaining Trust


Mathers, Earl, The Public Manager


On many occasions, I have referred to communication as the lubricant that enables organizations to function smoothly. However, trust in organizations is even more fundamental. Without trust, effective communication is impeded and organizational performance suffers.

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Stephen Covey refers to trust as the "lifeblood" of organizations, and there is little doubt that success is strongly influenced by the level of an organization's trust quotient. Taking this analogy one step further, I contend that trust is to organizations as hemoglobin is to the human body. It carries the essential life-giving "oxygen" necessary for survival and if it is compromised, the organizational body will suffer varying degrees of distress. In terms of quality of work life, trust is enormously important.

When public resources are severely constrained as they are today, strengthening the trust dynamic becomes even more crucial as a means of improving performance and efficiency. Nearly everyone who has worked in an organizational setting understands how lack of trust hinders effectiveness. When trust is absent among those involved in an organizational transaction, there will be a natural tendency to question motives, cast doubt on another's expertise, or constantly double-check the validity of what is being communicated. All of these actions affect efficiency and have the potential to compromise the effectiveness of relationships.

Trust and Communication

In public organizations, the public-political-administrative "trichotomy" produces an environment that is not always conducive to building trust. Competing interest groups, political agendas, and bureaucratic inertia may all undermine trust. Politicians sometimes adjust their posture on a particular issue in a manner that raises the ire of certain constituents.

I recall the sentiments of the chairman of a non-profit organization years ago who, in reference to a certain elected official, said, "I want to be the last person she speaks with before the vote is taken." In other instances, no amount of reasoning will convince certain ideologues to change their opinions on core issues. This brand of obduracy is often characterized as the "Don't confuse me with the facts" mentality.

Statutes and operating procedures can drag on the bureaucratic system, leading stakeholders who depend on timely action to conclude that administrators are either stone-walling the process or incompetent.

Unfortunately, some administrators will use statutory or procedural requirements as a convenient excuse for an unwillingness to take expedient action. All of the above tend to weaken trust in public organizations, sometimes to the point of demoralizing stakeholders and often in a manner that reduces efficiency.

There is a high degree of interdependence between trust and communication, and it is difficult to productively communicate when trust is absent. It is equally difficult to build trust without clear and open communication that is understood by all parties.

Recently, I encountered unexpected difficulty in executing what seemed to be an imminently logical course of action because I failed to communicate in advance with all the parties that might be remotely affected by the decision. Despite the fact that the parties questioning the decision had little by way of substantive counter arguments, I ultimately realized that I had failed to sustain a foundation of trust in my relationship with this group.

While it isn't easy to devote time to what might be perceived by some as massaging egos, the reward can be better mutual understanding and the opportunity to advance future activities smoothly.

Public Trust and Legitimacy

In government, it is imperative to maintain a high degree of objectivity and predictability when it comes to things such as public safety. Unfortunately, where you stand depends on where you sit, and different people can hold legitimate positions on issues that are diametrically opposed to one another.

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Improved Trust Fosters Improved Results: Trust Is an Essential and Fragile Commodity in Organizations. the County Administrator for Gallatin County, Montana, Shares Some Lessons about Giving and Gaining Trust
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