We rarely hear contestants in ‘The Apprentice’ making claims like ‘Others can trust me to deliver’ or ‘Relationships are most important to me’. Instead it’s mostly self-puffery and macho silliness, which is so very entertaining.

In contrast, I’ve just worked for a professional service firm in crisis: beset by scandal and with a big hole in their own finances. The overwhelming atmosphere here is one of collective depression and disengagement. Betrayed by their ex-leader who faces criminal charges, some of the staff seem able only to stare out of the window, in listless hope that redemption from the gods might arrive there. They have lost the trust of the customers they exist for – and internally too, between departments and individuals, trust has broken down. If not restored, this lack of trust may mean the enterprise ends up skint.

The idea of prosperity being embedded in social networks is not a new one. But a social network is meaningless if it does not create relationships based on mutual trust and understanding between people. The connections get nowhere : no transactions of emotion, shared cause , or goods for money occur. So there’s not much point talking about networks unless we talk about engagement and trust too.

What makes us trust each other? Friendliness, openness, disclosure about how we feel and our vulnerability – a straightness of approach, maybe. Something that gets rare mention these days is being good at something – and then delivering on what we are supposed to be good at. And always delivering… even if it is just a contact we said we would send someone or a response which says ‘haven’t got the information yet, but haven’t forgotten either’. People we trust keep us in the picture; and they take responsibility for events rather than blaming external factors, like their work pile, or the weather or their sick dog. They convey a sense of ‘we can make this happen’.

In any sort of collaboration, trust is the currency that gets results. You join a new project team where one of you knows a lot more about the client than anyone else. In the project’s interest, if that person reveals as much as they are able to the rest of you, success is more likely. Where that person withholds knowledge, there is a far greater chance of an oversight. And oversights often cost money, as the project runs over deadline or agreed resource to put matters right. Where people trust each other they work smarter and harder – and this even applies to entire cultures of nations.

Why We Love John Lewis


In the UK, the John Lewis Partnership is frequently cited as an example of a trusted business. A retail mid-market department store chain, also owning the upmarket supermarket, Waitrose, it has around 70,000 employees known as partners. Originally started as an alternative to ‘Bolshevikism and Capitalism’ it is an industrial democracy offering great scope for staff engagement. In the past eight years, it has held top position in Verdict Retail Analysts’ research into favourite UK businesses. In 2006-2007 the business received 2849 letters of complaint and 28,902 letters of appreciation. And – no surprises here – despite the nasty economic climate, its last quarter’s results showed profit up by 28%.

The core ethos here is that people mostly can be trusted and are trying their best. But to offset the inevitable exploitation this belief incurs, John Lewis has rigorous internal security measures. The emphasis is on rational adult behaviour, with partners treating each other and their customers as they would like to be treated themselves. People are mostly polite and cheerful.

Ah, cheerful… that is the state eluding my poor client this post started off with. For some of the staff there, dashed hopes have become cynicism, with a compunction to contaminate others. How to remedy it? Experience tells me that workshops of a boot camp nature, where people have to give positive suggestions and feedback can help. Open and frank communication from the bosses will help too – with frequent uses of ‘What’s your take on this?’ ‘Do you have any reservations?’ and ‘What concerns me is…’ Job shadowing, cross departmental project teams and informal ‘what have we learnt this month’ events can also contribute. Fear of an outside enemy – their demise – may help quell the killjoys.

Above all, my client has to move from ‘what is’ to ‘what might be’ as trust is based on hope. Just like relationship counselling, the focus needs to be on the present and the possible, not history.

Trust me on this, please : I’m a psychologist…

By szcz

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