The enemies of trust

Harv Bus Rev. 2003 Feb;81(2):88-95, 126.


Researchers have established that trust is critical to organizational effectiveness. Being trustworthy yourself, however, does not guarantee that you are capable of building trust in an organization. That takes old-fashioned managerial virtues like consistency, clear communication, and a willingness to tackle awkward questions. It also requires a good defense: You must protect trust from its enemies. Any act of bad management erodes trust, so the list of potential enemies is endless. Among the most common enemies of trust, though, are inconsistent messages from top management, inconsistent standards, a willingness to tolerate incompetence or bad behavior, dishonest feedback, a failure to trust others to do good work, a tendency to ignore painful or politically charged situations, consistent corporate underperformance, and rumors. Fending off these enemies must be at the top of every chief executive's agenda. But even with constant vigilance, an organization and its leaders will sometimes lose people's trust. During a crisis, managers should enlist the help of an objective third party--chances are you won't be thinking clearly--and be available physically and emotionally. If you "go dark" in the face of a crisis, employees will worry about the company's survival, about their own capacity to cope, and about your abilities as a leader. And if trust has broken down so badly that your only choice is to start over, you can do so by figuring out exactly how the breach of trust happened, ascertaining the depth and breadth of the loss, owning up to the loss instead of downplaying it, and identifying as precisely as possible the specific changes you must make to rebuild trust.

MeSH terms

  • Commerce / ethics
  • Commerce / standards*
  • Ethics, Business
  • Humans
  • Interprofessional Relations*
  • Leadership
  • Organizational Culture
  • Organizational Innovation
  • Trust*
  • United States