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How High Does Your Organization Score in Trust and Transparency?

A conversation with Barbara Kimmel, CEO of Trust Across America™ – Trust Around the World

Transparency is a foundational element for building and maintaining trust in leadership, but I often fear it’s missing in too many of today’s organizations. So imagine my surprise when I got this message on Twitter from Barbara Kimmel: “Of our 12 organizational trust principles, transparency is NOT the one that is lacking most in our current survey of workplace trust.”

Kimmel was responding to a tweet that referenced a blog I had once written about building cultures of trust.

You might have noticed I write frequently (and with great enthusiasm) about the role of transparency in repairing and fortifying organizational cultures. As the CEO of Prologis, I went through a company’s “crucible moment” and witnessed firsthand the important role transparency plays in building trust. When I look around the corporate landscape, however, I don’t see much evidence of leaders embracing transparency. That’s why Barbara’s Twitter response grabbed my attention like an old-time record scratch! Are leaders finally embracing transparency in their cultural strategy?

Eager to learn more about Trust Across America, its work, and those survey results, I reached out to Barbara. As you’ll see from this recap of our Q&A, edited for clarity and annotated with resources for more information, I discovered that her organization’s work actually confirms my views on transparency and trust.

You mentioned that your survey respondents didn’t identify transparency as lacking most in workplace trust. Perhaps it’s “definitional.” My theory of transparency has evolved to emphasize a leader’s vulnerability and humility. How do you define transparency in your work with Trust Across America?

The Trust Alliance Principles define transparency as “rejecting hidden agendas” in teams. Our Survey (Building Trust One Principle at a Time) is not leadership focused, although a leadership study has been discussed. At this time, with almost 300 respondents, we find the weakest links in teams and organizations to be accountability, tracking, transparency and notice. However, when we run the actual diagnostic, AIM Towards Trust, within organizations, the output is not necessarily the same.

The financial crisis and recession of 2008 are meaningful touch points for both of us – in part, necessity became the mother of invention. My tenure as CEO at Prologis overseeing a financial downturn to turnaround codified for me many of my leadership principles. You co-founded Trust Across America. Tell me about its founding and what happened at that first meeting as you looked at the patterns of culture and trust and, as you say, “recognized that history repeats itself.”

First, and as a side note, we have a handful of former turnaround CEOs in our Trust Alliance, but no former “non-turnaround” CEOs. That’s NOT a coincidence!

Our first meeting was not so much about the patterns of culture and trust. It was more about whether a framework could be developed to measure the trustworthiness of US public companies, from the outside in, based on quantitative metrics. After dozens of meetings and hundreds of calls with cross-silo professionals, we created the FACTS® Framework, which is now in its ninth year. It’s been covered extensively in many publications. The culture and trust work came later as we built the Alliance and began exploring trust from the inside out.

The FACTS Framework
In the framework, trust is defined as: “A byproduct of strong core values that are practiced and reinforced daily.”

Where do you think trust begins in an organization? Is it internally in the culture of the organization? Or externally? As I often say, leaders are operating in glass-house environments and every move is there to be witnessed, judged, presumed, and assumed by anyone who’s watching. 

I believe trust is built from the top down and the inside out by trustworthy leaders. Unfortunately, “trust washing” continues to run rampant, often through “best in class” pay-to-play awards and check-the-box practices. Organizations that promote these “workarounds” do trust a disservice and make it easy for leaders to ignore the hard work that must be done to build trust from the inside out. The latest iteration is teaching companies how to use specific keywords in their communications and then assigning trust rankings based on the frequency of their use!

As you work with organizations to help them increase trust, what do you find leaders and organizations to be most resistant to when it comes to the needed change to achieve that trust? Are they conscious of that resistance?

Trust continues to be viewed as a soft skill in most public companies. I’ve asked many CEOs about the level of trust in their organization and they all say it is very high. When pressed further, they equate trust to quarterly earnings and international expansion. Some will even admit to having never thought about it. Then I go to Glassdoor to read the employee reviews and find they tell a whole different story!

The biggest challenge is that trust cannot be delegated or assigned a budget to a specific department. Either leadership cares about trust or they don’t. Most don’t. It’s only after a crisis that you hear the “cry” via public relations that “we are working to rebuild trust.” In reality, it never existed.

Much of the trust work we and our cross-functional consulting members (some members are companies and not consultants) do is either with leaders of smaller, non-public companies or specific to silos, like building trust in sales. The folks who do crisis work enter after the fact, as mentioned above.

You’ve been working with Trust Across America for about a decade now, and the Trust Alliance for six years. What are your thoughts on the state of progress of American corporations? Are they becoming more trustworthy organizations? Or does the pace of improvement feel glacial?

Our FACTS Framework, which is proprietary and was not Alliance generated, measures corporate trustworthiness. To the best of my knowledge there is no other measurement with nine years of data. The pace of improvement feels glacial, and that would be an overstatement. Based on what we measure, there has been no noticeable improvement since we began tracking in 2010. It is rare to see a public company score about an 80 percent, and that has not changed over the years. That means the most trustworthy get a B- at best.

The best grade any public company has earned on trust is a B-?! It might not be surprising, then, to read that just “one in three employees in Gallup’s global database strongly agree that they trust the leadership of their organization.”

A lack of transparency might not be the single most important element working against real trust at an organization, but it’s certainly important. Because not enough leaders value and lead with transparency, too few of them succeed in building organizational trust. I wrote about this recently and it bears repeating: it’s not the transparency of our words or the transparency of our data that builds trust, but that our words as leaders are followed by actions that affirm our words. Policies and programs are just paper until they’re enforced, tracked, and people are held accountable to them. Only then can an organization’s leaders – and its culture – move beyond lip service and live up to the trust they claim is so important.

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