Organizational Trust: A Model for Building the High-Trust Organization


Editor’s note: This article is based on Building the High-Trust Organization: Strategies for Supporting Five Key Dimensions of Trust the latest book from IABC and Jossey-Bass available at the Knowledge Centre.

Every day there is a story concerning organizational trust in the headlines. From questions about how corporate advertisers respond to allegations about the personal integrity of Tiger Woods, to consumers’ claims regarding the safety of Toyota vehicles in the U.S., trust, or distrust, is at the core of all organizational relationships. We first became interested in organizational trust more than a decade ago. At that time we were convinced that trust played a significant role in affecting overall organizational effectiveness. Our subsequent research, conducted in several countries around the world, consulting experiences on four continents and in work on our new book, Building the High-Trust Organization: Strategies for Supporting Five Key Dimensions of Trust, have only served to convince us that trust is not just critically important—it is the main thing, the essential element of organizational success.

The research we have conducted supports a model of organizational trust with five key drivers:

  1. Competence
  2. Openness and honesty
  3. Concern for employees/stakeholders
  4. Reliability
  5. Identification

Further, our research and practical experiences suggest the five drivers are strong and stable predictors of organizational trust across cultures, languages, industries and types of organizations. The results of our survey for the IABC Research Foundation report, Measuring Organizational Trust: A Diagnostic Survey and International Indicator, (2000) showed that the more positive the trust score was for an organization, the more effective the organization was perceived to be and the more satisfied employees were with their jobs. Conversely, lower trust scores predicted lower effectiveness and less job satisfaction.

Dimension one: Competence

The competence dimension is an organization’s ability, through its leadership, strategy, decisions, quality and capabilities, to meet the challenges of its environment. Competence relates to the overall efficiency of the organization as well as to the quality of its products or services. Competence comes from the capabilities of employees at all organizational levels.

Dimension two: Openness and honesty

The openness and honesty dimension is reflected in how organizations communicate about problems, engage in constructive disagreements and provide input into job-related decisions. Openness and honesty is positively evaluated when managers and supervisors keep confidences and provide information about job performance. Employees evaluate an organization as open and honest when they are provided with information about how job-related problems are handled and how major organizational decisions will affect them as individuals.

Dimension three: Concern for employees/stakeholders

The concern for employees dimension is squarely about communication and employment practices. For employees to trust that the organization has concern for them, they need to believe they are heard. It begins with the immediate supervisor or manager listening to employees and acting on their needs, ideas or concerns. Trust is related to leaders’ attempts to disseminate information to employees and the way leaders talk about any specific employee group to others. The concern dimension is reflected in both the perception and reality of top management’s willingness to communicate regularly with employees and act on their concerns.

Employees trust the organization when they believe their immediate supervisor or manager is concerned about their personal well-being. They trust management when policies and procedures within the organization reflect concern for the well-being of employees generally. Safety procedures, health plans and benefits, family leave, vacation, performance evaluation, salary scales, promotional practices, and a host of other organizationwide processes determine whether employees trust the organization is concerned for their well-being.

Dimension four: Reliability

The reliability dimension is about keeping commitments and basic follow-through. It is about doing what supervisors and managers say they are going to do. It is consistent behavior from day to day. For top management, reliability includes keeping commitments made to the organization and telling the organization the reason if any commitments must change. The reliability dimension of trust should not be confused with sameness or the status quo. Reliability is doing what you say you are going to do and saying why. Often that means communicating about the need for change. Reliability is a steadiness in behavior that builds the trust necessary for uncertain times. A reliable organization is a trusted organization because you can count on the organization to do what it says it is going to do.

Dimension five: Identification

The identification dimension is the connection between the organization and individual employees, most often based on core values. Identification relates to an individual establishing a personal connection with management and peers and, in a more elusive way, with the entire organization. Identification comes when individuals believe their values are reflected in the values the organization exhibits in day-to-day behaviors. It is not surprising that identification or the lack thereof is often directly related to the quality of management-employee relationships. Employees identify with and trust organizations that conduct themselves in a way that is consistent with how employees believe the organization should operate.

Many believe there is nothing we can do to actively build trust, but we disagree. Everything we do is about trust-building, and communicators are at the forefront of trust-building strategies in organizations. Strategic communication makes all the difference. Trust is the main thing.

One Response to “Organizational Trust: A Model for Building the High-Trust Organization”

  1. Wedzerai Nhemachena (Zimbabwe)

    Trust in organizations is the foundation for building relationships critical for team effort in high performing organizations. Wedzerai Nhemachena has published many articles on social capital and on building employee trust. he’s currently a part-time university lecturer in Zimbabwe