Rebuilding a wall of trust

As we collectively face up to some of the challenges around the future of work, digitisation and globalisation the question and availability of trust becomes ever more important.  For society to collectively realise the opportunities on offer we have to be able to operate in an environment that is built around one of the most basic human values – trust.   It is the only way to navigate the unchartered territories that the world is moving into.

With that in mind the recent publication of the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer provides an alarming insight into the recent erosion of trust in society and is a call to action.  The analysis acts as a lens to understand why events like Brexit and the election of Trump happened and importantly what we can all do about it.

Trust is breaking down

The survey, collecting data from 28 countries with over 33,000 respondents, concludes that we are approaching a period where there is a ‘crisis in trust.’  There is a lack of trust across all major institutions in government, media and corporate organisations.   Leaders are singled out as having lost trust (with only 37% CEOs and 29% government officials viewed as very/extremely credible).    Worryingly there is an increasing gap in the breakdown of trust between the informed and mass public.

This is contributing to a predominant feeling that the system is failing and is being replaced with a culture where fear wins out.    Interestingly the findings report on the creation of an ‘echo chamber effect’.   This is caused by people seeking to only follow information sources that reinforce their own personal beliefs at the expense of shutting out the views of others (53% respondents do not regularly listen to opposing views).

Without trust where do we go?

Trust is one of the fundamental pillars of any relationship.  If you can’t trust someone where do you go from there?   The psychologist Amy Cuddy in her recent book Presence highlights the necessity of trust.    Her research indicates that there are two questions people answer when they meet someone new – can they trust you and can they respect you.    Trust is fundamental to any human relationship and without it we’re in trouble.

The findings highlight the need for us all collectively to work on building and establishing trust at all levels of society.  It’s easy to say this is down to a small elite group of ‘leaders’ to fix.   Ultimately the barometer shows that across the entire spectrum people are trusting people less whether this is at work, home or in local communities.   We all need to do something about it.

Rebuilding trust

This is a wake-up call and all institutions need to reflect on what they can do to re-establish trust with their customers and their people.   The question of trust needs to be at the forefront of their agendas

Paul Zak’s recent research provides some practical insight into what organisations can do to increase trust.   His research has shown when people trust others there is an increase of the chemical oxytocin in the brain.    Importantly this chemical can be stimulated in organisations through the reinforcement eight specific behaviours.   The behaviours cover areas like recognising excellence, providing autonomy, focusing on personal relationships, showing vulnerability, sharing information and facilitating personal growth.

But you could just simply summarise it to be “treat people the way you want to be treated.”   Reach out, collaborate and work with others and make this a priority.

The other area organisations and institutions need to face into is the learning and education agenda.   60% of the respondents in the Trust Barometer report a fear of losing their job through lack of skills and training.   Against the backdrop of automation, digitisation and globalisation this is hardly surprising.

Our educational and learning systems need to step up to the challenge.    There needs to be a fundamental rethink in how we promote life-long learning for all to help reduce fear and inequality.    We can’t simply keep putting people through schooling at the start of their careers and wait for retirement   It won’t work in a world where we are likely to have over 10 career changes.

The recent learning survey in the Economist provides some excellent insight into how to do this.   Ultimately we need to support people with both the personal and technical skills to be able to create new careers throughout their life-time.

But ultimately we all have a part to play

It would be easy to conclude that the whole issue or rebuilding trust is down to leaders to address.   This is simply passing the buck and we all have a part to play in rebuilding and establishing trust.

The echo chamber is a case in point.  We think that with technology we collaborate and learn more.    But in reality it can just become a vocal reinforcement of our own beliefs.   We build our own digital walls to help reinforce our own positions whilst failing to empathise or listen to other people’s views or opinions.     We all need to get out more, embrace diversity and individual differences and seek to see things from another perspective.

Looking ahead

Whilst the barometer makes for some pretty bleak findings there is hope provided we take the right action.   Ultimately we all have a part to play in rebuilding trust and that is a wall worth building.

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The power of “not yet”

I was recently heartened to see that my daughter’s school has started to apply some of the principles of a growth mindset in its daily practices.    Against the backdrop of globalisation and digitisation (to name but a few) our educational systems need to change to help our children face the future and I think the ideas behind a growth mindset holds a number of the solutions.

I appreciated the impact it’s had on my daughter when she recently said that she wasn’t very good “yet” at something.    The small addition of a very powerful three letter word – yet – highlighted the effect it is having on her.  Unusually, she wasn’t particularly bothered about the fact she couldn’t do the task now because she felt if she kept practicing over time she will.   The power of “not yet.”

In her excellent overview of the growth mindset Carol Dweck explains the power of “not yet” as well as a succinct explanation of both a growth and a fixed mindset.     You have two choices either you have a fixed view of the world where talents are set and are finite.    Or alternatively adopt a view where with a healthy dose of persistence, effort and resilience you can learn something over time – the essence of a growth mindset.

Traditionally, schools and organisations have a tendency to create and reinforce a rather binary view of success and failure.  You see it through countless symbols like the use of grades or appraisal scores.   The systems simply reinforce that you either have ‘it’ or you don’t.

But there is another way.   Instead organisations and schools should be looking to follow the same approach to create an environment and culture that supports life-long learning and thereby helping their people adapt to the challenges we face in the future.    It doesn’t have to be that complicated either, just by applying a small three letter word is at least a start in the right direction.

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Performance is for life and not just for January

We’re in January and as everyone returns to work it is the season to start setting goals and talking about performance.   It feels that the whole performance space is in a state of flux, with the approach being challenged from all sides from how goals are set to the use of ratings.    With this in mind here are some reflections on how to manage performance.

One size doesn’t necessarily fit all

The debate on performance across the industry I think is in danger of over generalisation. What you need to do is look at the context of what your organisation (and even different sections of the workforce) needs and then apply a pragmatic approach on how performance is managed.    Whilst convenient there is a danger in lifting and shifting an approach in one organisation and apply it somewhere else.   Context is king.    This is neatly outlined in this month’s HBR article “the stretch paradox.”  This highlights the importance of understanding the organisation’s capability and level of resources before you decide the nature of the goals you set.   For sure there are always principles around performance that stand the test of time (goal-setting, evaluation of performance etc.) but how you do this needs to be adapted to the needs of your workforce.  Adapt and develop your policy to suit different parts of your workforce.   Be flexible and pragmatic.

Be agile and adapt

Whilst there is a logic to cascading goals from top to bottom, organisations need to be far more agile and flexible in how this is done.   Within your goal-setting framework you need to allow for regular reviews and flexibility in how goals are set and monitored.   Given the products and services that generate your revenue don’t necessarily follow an annual cycle it doesn’t follow your goal-setting process should.   You need to allow for your organisation to adapt and create flexible goals.  Performance management needs to adopt the lessons learnt from how the agile software development methodology has challenged traditional waterfall development.   Your goal-setting framework needs to enable your people to break things down into simple goals and tasks with regular reviews with customers and stakeholders.   A feedback culture needs to be fostered that embraces what’s worked and what hasn’t (so often overlooked).     Keep the conversation current and the dialogue regular.   Additionally, regular communication and a review of goals will help ensure alignment to wider organisational priorities.

The obsession with ratings misses the point

When you mention performance management everyone seems to obsess about whether you should use or stop performance ratings.  We get obsessed over this question at the detriment to the entire process.   Again, what works for one organisation may not work for another.    As Josh Bersin neatly articulates in one of his predictions for 2017, the argument about ratings is a red herring.    We need to focus on how we keep the conversation on performance alive as a regular process, rather than an arduous process that resembles your annual tax return.

The experience needs to be simple

Whatever you choose to do make it really easy for your people to use it.   Well intentioned principles and ideas get lost when workflows are cumbersome and participants fight the process rather than are able to participate in it.  Applying some of the principles from design thinking can help you create something that your employees will use rather than abuse.    There is still some way to go with HR Tech solutions to make performance simpler to use but there are signs this is starting to happen.    Hopefully 2017 will see further development in this space.  In the interim keep things as simple as possible.

It’s all about your manager

Policies and processes are great but ultimately the impact performance has on an employee will reside enormously on the interaction they have with their manager.   The old adage that people leave organisations because of their manager and not because of the organisation is often reality.   Performance is one of the arenas that tests this principle to the max.  Managers who have the ability to coach, grow and inspire their people through regular objective dialogue on performance are key for your business.   The lesson is whatever you choose to do in performance make sure your managers are fully supported and trained to have the right conversations with their people.


So in my view there is no magical special sauce that will solve all the issues with performance management.  The key is to diagnose what is important to your organisation and then using best practice pragmatically change and fine tune the process.  The temptation of applying standard solutions from other organisations may seem attractive on the outside.    But like the declining levels of gym membership after the spike in January, they don’t always survive the test of time.    The key is to keep the debate and interest alive throughout the year.



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