“Trust is like the air we breathe- When it’s present, nobody notices; when it’s absent, everybody notices.” -Warren Buffett
“If you run a company, you will experience overwhelming psychological pressure to be overly positive. Stand up to the pressure, face your fear, and tell it like it is.” –Ben Horowitz in “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”
I agree. When you run a company you naturally want to say positive things about the business to everybody. Your investors, the analysts, your employees, the people you talk to at the cocktail parties at the industry events. But telling it like it is doesn’t always mean you always have good news to talk about.
At one point I realized the culture at SimpleSignal was going toxic. We were under fire as a company and my mandate was that we needed to do “more with less”. But that seemed to bring out the worst in our people. Relationships were strained, People blamed and accused one another in public. Conversations were stilted and CYA was becoming our favorite letters of the alphabet. The pressure to perform made the tension so high we weren’t having fun anymore. So in a quiet moment I asked myself, “how can we get our mojo back?” So at an all hands meeting I told them “like it is.”
My observation was we had slipped from a “high trust” culture to a “low trust” culture.
As I spoke to my employees that day I quoted Steven M.R. Covey when he said “a business moves at the speed of trust.”
“Trust is an economic driver not just a virtue…when trust goes up, speed goes up and costs goes down. People are able to communicate faster, collaborate better, innovate more and do business faster and more efficiently,” said Covey in this book “Smart Trust.” “We call this a high trust dividend.”
Conversely he wrote, “Where there is a lack of trust everything takes more time. This is because of the many steps that have to be taken to compensate for the lack of trust. Miscommunication, redundancy, and rework create costly delays.”
Low trust environments are like a tax on the business. They are a drag. When people talk about low trust relationships you see paranoia, even fear in their expressions.
But it seems to me that high tech companies are especially prone to defaulting to low trust environments. When a company is made up of bright, technical millennial’s, the culture can easily become protective and withdrawn rather than collaborative and communicative. As I talk to other business owners in the MSP and VAR space I’ve been surprised at how much work goes into getting people to trust the people they work with.
I realized that when my company returned to a “high trust” environment things got more fun around the office. That’s because trust makes for a better quality of life. It works that way both personally and professionally.
Companies that are in “hyper growth” find that transparent communication becomes their biggest challenge. If the employees fundamentally trust the CEO, then communication will be way more effective than if they don’t. When the leadership of the company tells it like it is, good or bad, people can deal with that. It’s when everyone’s crap detectors are going off that the insidious culture of distrust is formed.
I believe the difference between companies that execute well and those that don’t make it is the leadership’s ability to build trust over time.
I’ve also always believed that companies never “fail.” They just get quit on. Somebody quits. A key employee accepts another “opportunity,” an investor decides not to come through, etc. Companies with a high trust culture experience a far lower churn rate and much higher employee engagement with the enterprise.
Besides, it makes no sense to hire really smart people and not let them help solve the problems. A healthy culture encourages people to deal with both bad and good news in a positive way. in In my experience, when the leadership looks at the people and says “we’re in this together” people respond positively to that. Hire fully formed adults and they’ll look at business problems like they do problems in their personal lives. Encourage them to get the problems out in the open and solve them together instead of the common “don’t bring me a problem without bringing me a solution.” That kind of thinking just discourages open collaboration and communication and fosters resentment.
When Tony Hsieh founded Zappos, his top priority was creating a company culture that would incorporate not only prosperity but also energy and joy. The Zappos culture is all about trust. Hsieh says, “Empower and trust your people. Trust that they want to work in a high trust culture and provide great customer service…because they actually do.”
As a result Tony can say, “Zappos is about delivering happiness to the world.”
How can a culture of high trust relationships change the way your business works?
“More than any other element, fun is the secret of Virgin’s success.” -Richard Branson CEO, Virgin Companies