Trust and Leadership: Colleagues and Collaboration

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There is no one-size-fits-all approach to trust, writes Robert Phillips. Building trust among colleagues has a number of different drivers and consequences than building trust with customers, stakeholders and society.


Trust is a simple word for a complex idea. Discussions on trust are distorted by those who use trust as proxy for sh*t gone wrong.

Trust has many nuances – cultural, geographical; moral, philosophical, belief-based; legal, political, regulatory; sometimes, simply circumstantial. Imbalances of power add further fracture. Too often, all this is conveniently overlooked in search of easy soundbites or someone else to blame. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Beyond conscious banality, there’s also a lack of understanding from business leaders who fail to distinguish between drivers and manifestations of trust on an internal and external level. The dynamics of trust are different when considering colleagues, bosses and employees, as distinct from clients/ customers, regulators, stakeholders and civil society.

Many of those drivers are of course the same internally as externally: honesty; competence; reliability; and benevolence are the constants of trustworthiness, as is the need to be open, transparent and accountable; being willing to apologise when apology is properly due; a clear sense of purpose and positive societal impact – and an operational plan to deliver it; demonstrating vulnerability and often courage – though showing vulnerability is not easy at the best of times, especially among peers and/ or where empathy may be lacking.

Trustworthiness is quickly undermined by naked self-interest. “Trust arrives on foot and leaves on horseback”, as the Dutch saying goes.

Trust, Truth and Scrutiny

Championing truth may sound obvious but truth is always the primary consideration in determining trust.

In workplace settings, “truth” must be embedded in everyday practice:

  • Tell the truth (even if you can’t tell the whole truth, for reasons of commercial sensitivity, for example)
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep
  • Behave the same way when no one is looking

The workplace itself must include safe spaces where truthful, if occasionally difficult, conversations can thrive.

Scrutiny behaves differently, internally and externally: with colleagues, more people can see you close-up and for longer: they are always watching and tend to have long memories. Trust takes time – and an investment in social capital – to build.

If trust is broken with an external stakeholder, it is possible to walk away from the relationship and never see the other party again (albeit, in more extreme cases, that there may be some legal redress that is pursued by either party).  When trust is damaged or breaks down internally – in an organizational setting – colleagues typically still have to work with the other party going forwards (eg. on other projects/ tasks; or even sitting in the same office).

This is the continuity issue that means the dynamics of trust are different: cordial and conducive relationships will need to be maintained irrespective of the ongoing level of trust. 

Falling out with someone in the senior team is probably going to have implications for the level of trust between the individuals concerned  – but beyond this it may impact in various ways, and to varying degrees, on the level of trust with other team members, across the team, and between teams. This is a connectedness challenge.

Finally, colleagues are assessing each other’s performances all of the time. And, given that some of those colleagues may be responsible for promotions, rewards and references, the consequences are potentially so much greater, on a highly personal level. This is where power can be acutely distorting for workplace trust.

Relational versus Transactional Behaviours

This internal/ external dynamic can also be considered through the lens of binary versus multiple, or transactional versus relational, thinking.

External trust relationships are more often binary (eg. between a customer and a supplier; a client and a consultant; and so on).  This makes them transactional – in some ways, therefore relatively straightforward. External trust usually requires trust judgements based on limited information; irregular interactions; lack of attention; and weaker mechanisms of accountability.

Internal trust can be binary, too. But internal trust is also more typically multiple (eg. the trust between various team members; between leaders and their teams; and between ‘in groups’ and ‘out groups’ in informal organizational networks).  It is therefore relational – and more complex for it. Most modern organisations, especially matrixed ones and those operating globally, are by nature a tangled web of connections. This is another reason why the future – and the tangled web – can only be negotiated, not imposed.

Trust is, in itself, messy enough; internal trust is messier still.

Hierarchies of Trust: Internal before External

The order in which trust (and trustworthiness) are established is also important.

A lack of trust internally undermines it externally because “our people” represent “our business” with stakeholders – whether customers, investors, regulators or others.  “Our people” need to act consistently to instil trust in external stakeholders. If they don’t behave consistency internally, then they are much less likely to deliver on it themselves.

As IKEA’s Karen Rivoire points out, ”trust” is an everyday conversation and set of behaviours that require the right cultural and structural conditions to thrive. Purpose-peddling is breaking down trust brands have built with people, so it is more important than ever for brands to be embodied by people. Only coherence between what brands say they do and what people really do will avoid a further breakdown of social norms.”

Trust must start at home.

Healthy scepticism and enquiry

Much has been recorded on the power of vulnerability and courage and their relationship with trustworthy relationships. American Social Researcher Brene Brown has a brilliant TED Talk that captures this.

Healthy scepticism (note: not cynicism) and a commitment to enquiry are also critical considerations in building trust among colleagues.

Author Margaret Heffernan’s Wilful Blindness argument is that companies perform badly not necessarily out of ignorance but out of a failure to look, listen and challenge. Real integrity flows from enquiry and a determination to ask the toughest questions of ourselves. Again, in any organisation, this has to start internally, among leadership teams and their cohorts.

The Jericho model – built on principles of activism, participation, accountability and dissent – is designed so organisations can listen to a meaningful cross-section of voices and welcome scepticism as a friend; where those who seek greater trust(worthiness) are prepared to go against the flow and eschew the temptation to be too nice, too polite or too accommodating of the status quo; and where establishing frameworks of shared principles always trumps the imposition of rules. In an organisation that wants to be trusted, a culture of constructive challenge is an essential ingredient.

Brown argues that blame (an easy escape from constructive challenge) is the flipside of accountability. Blame distorts positive discourse and engagement in business and in teams, as it does in politics also.

Accountability: bespoke models required

Conversations on trust must translate into meaningful behaviour change. They are otherwise pointless. Likewise, leadership teams – entire organisations in fact – must be held accountable to their trust promises, internally and externally as well.

Because of the many nuances, as detailed above, it is impossible to build a measurement system with universal application. Too many leaders are therefore asking for the undeliverable. Why stakeholders trust Unilever or Diageo, for instance, will be very different to why customers trust Shell or Coca-Cola, or why clients trust McKinsey or KPMG. The dynamics of internal trust similarly vary hugely from company to company, country to country and region to region. Each company or brand should therefore define and compose its own trust score. There is little point comparing apples and pears – or building expensive measurement models that do precisely this.

Leaders would be better advised that, rather than trying to measure “trust” in the generic, especially across any global or matrixed organisation, it is better to understand and be held accountable to the specific behaviours needed to support trust in that organisation and its collective purpose and ambition. This applies both to internal and external trust. In this model, the constants of trustworthiness still form a cornerstone. The basis for these bespoke trust scores will possibly vary between different departments and/ or countries. The word “trust” may not even get mentioned – because trust is an outcome of what we do, not what we say. In short, measuring behaviours that drive trust, rather than measuring trust itself, is the key to determining ultimate trust scores.

This approach is more robust if co-created and negotiated with those to whom the organisation, company or brand is ultimately accountable.

Conclusion: Breaking trust with colleagues has real consequences

Although often overlooked – with leaders tending to focus on the client, customer or regulator – broken trust internally is every bit as threatening to an organisation as broken trust externally.

Fragile internal trust inevitably makes external success much harder, if not impossible. Dog-eat-dog behaviour from leadership (teams) should be consigned to the dustbin of 20th century thinking, while collaboration, like empathy and courage, is essential for organisations to thrive in a 21st century business environment.

Leadership teams need to show respect to one another and always have each other’s backs, sharing purpose and ambition. Challenges should be confronted openly and respectfully; big ideas generated in a spirit of collaboration, not competition. Aggressive, competitive behaviour is best kept for outside competitors, not for partners or colleagues. This is an essential part of the negotiation to collective commercial success.


Robert Phillips is the founder of Jericho Chambers and the author of Trust Me, PR is Dead (Unbound, 2015). He is Visiting Professor at Cass Business School, University of London.

With thanks to Sarah Alspach; Peter Cheese; Professor Bobby Duffy; Jan Gooding; Margaret Heffernan; Professor Cliff Oswick; Karen Rivoire; and Professor Gerry Stoker for their help in the preparation of this article.

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