Back to Basics: Trustworthiness and the Modern Firm

Trustworthiness permeates almost every aspect of my work with regulated professions. I’ve been on a mission to learn more about how to build, recover and regain organizational trust, and I recently attended the Summit on Building the Trustworthy Organization at Fordham University in New York. It was transformational.

The Summit is an annual event hosted by the Consortium for Trustworthy Organizations (CFTO), a non-profit housed at Fordham’s School of Business, and led by respected professor and author Dr. Robert Hurley.

The presence of the CFTO, and the valuable work it is doing couldn’t be more timely for the professions. Trustworthiness – or a lack thereof – seems to be the crux of the malaise in firms trying to secure footing in an increasingly unpredictable environment.

Why Trustworthiness?

Dr. Hurley defines trust as “the degree of of confidence you have that another party can be relied upon. It speaks to the quality of a relationship and the extent to which you feel that a person, group, organization, institution or system will consider your interests, be concerned with your welfare, communicate openly, fulfill commitments and not take advantage of your vulnerability.” (Source: CFTO)

If that doesn’t define the prime directive of a professional firm, I don’t know what does.

1. Nothing happens in a climate of distrust. People who don’t trust each other don’t communicate or cooperate. Which means that they can’t innovate because they won’t work together. Ask any colleague who has felt betrayed by another how long it’s taken to forgive the transgression. Then ask how many opportunities to collaborate might have been missed along the way. Self-protection, silos and fiefdoms become the norm.

2. It’s why clients hire you. I have yet to interview a general counsel or client who doesn’t say “I only hire firms I trust”. Firms get so caught up in the minutiae  of marketing initiatives and p.r. announcements that that they forget what really matters.

3. Trustworthiness is part of your reputation. Your reputation is based on emotional factors – trust, admiration, esteem and respect – and rational factors – your leadership, governance, workplace, financial performance, services and innovations. People will only speak highly of you if they trust you to do the right thing, and to do it well and consistently across all levels of your firm.

4. An unstable economic climate. Clients and workforce issues such as generational differences are forcing firms to restructure services and business models. New competitors arrive on the scene every day. What once signalled trust (tradition) might now be considered something else (willful blindness). Trustworthiness implies that you’ve structured your firm to be resilient and you’re committed to leading it towards future success.

5. A global workforce. As work is done across the globe and teams are divided among regions and third-party suppliers, the imperative to build a trustworthy organization also expands.

6. Increasing regulatory requirements. Ethics, compliance and accountability must be part of the values that are ‘lived’ by everyone in your firm, every day. It isn’t just about meeting reporting requirements. It’s about preventing transgressions by encouraging people to make smart decisions in the first place. Ask any of your clients in the banking, finance or insurance about this, and they’ll probably agree.

7. It cuts through the clutter. Tired of the endless stream of doomsday prophesies in legal and other media? I am. I’d much rather focus on information that helps build integrity, purpose and credibility into my client’s organizations, than on the cynical posturing of pundits.

8. It’s a rallying point for leaders. Leaders who aren’t trusted aren’t followed. They have a choice to instil fear and anxiety, or to bring out the best in the the people who work for them. Which type of person would you rather work for? Building a trustworthy firm doesn’t mean that you have to spend all day talking about feelings, either. If you base your efforts on a system and on a commitment to persevere, you can bring a rational, cognitive approach to the process (see the link to Dr. Hurley’s book below).

Trustworthiness is a long-term goal. It cannot be built overnight or fixed with an apology, followed by ‘business as usual’. It requires a comprehensive examination of the sustainability of your firm, inside and out. It is motivating. It is a laudable goal. It is worth the effort.

Learn More:

Book: The Decision to Trust, How Leaders Create High Trust Organizations, by Robert F. Hurley. The book outlines a useful model for building a trust between people and organizations. It discusses “10 essential elements of trust” based on business research and a rational approach.
Blog: The Consortium for Trustworthy Organizations
Article: Designing Trustworthy Organizations, MIT Sloan Management Review, Summer 2013, by Robert F. Hurley, Nicole Gillespie, Donald L. Ferrin and Graham Dietz.