Building Trust in Organisations: a Practical Guide to Working with Masks

As the global experiment in home working continues, we hosted an international conversation with leaders about their experiences of trust: its importance in professional life, what fosters it, and what erodes it. As the title of this piece suggests, building trust in organisations might require an understanding of how masks work in personal and professional life. 

Many thanks to our participants who were senior leaders from a range of backgrounds, including brand consultancy, brand development, leadership development, management consultancy, professional association, finance, business management, comms, PR, advertising, wellbeing, and HR.

We held the online discussion in one large group, from which the following five themes emerged. Each theme is illustrated below with abridged, anonymised verbatim.

Trust is forged at the level of instinct, not intellect

Everyone agreed that trust is essential for an organisation to function coherently, but that it’s difficult to define where it comes from. Most participants felt that trust is something your feel, rather than intellectually construct. A former media group HR Director thought that in order to think about trust one had to look beyond ‘left brain’ rationality, and connect it with ‘right brain’ instinct.

Now the founder of a wellbeing business, a former marketing group Chief Executive thought:

‘Trust is about going with my gut. When I haven’t trusted that, something has usually gone wrong.’

Drilling down into the level of the instinctive, the Co-Founder of a brand consultancy considered what evolutionary drivers might be at play.

‘We know that we’re hard wired to assess situations immediately in terms of friend or foe. You make an instant judgement, because it’s a gut reaction from our reptilian brain, and then you spend the next few minutes assessing, “was I right or wrong?”’

Organisations function on trust, and that’s become harder in a time of remote working

Connecting ‘left brain’ rationality with ‘right brain’ gut can be challenging at the best of times, but much more so when an entire organisation is remote working. A leader in advertising noted,

‘Body language doesn’t work meeting remotely. You don’t pick up the vibe from people. That’s difficult if you’re trying to be intuitive.’

Above and beyond the missing ‘in person’ communication cues, a leader in PR found his home-bound team amplified feelings of insecurity during this period of remote working.

‘As a leader, what you’re dealing with is insecurity in an insecure world, at all times. Some people respond well and others badly. That’s amplified by current events. It’s tied up in working from home, it’s tied up in job insecurity, it’s tied up in relationship insecurity, and worries about lives changing forever.’

For a PR Chief Executive, this perspective reflected the tensions felt by her leadership team.

‘I’m worried about my senior team who won’t take time off because they feel there’ll be a cock-up and a general lack of trust, and then everything rippling down.’

When trust is missing people tend to compensate with control

In the absence of ‘right brain’, gut-level trust, participants thought ’left brain’ control was a natural, but often counterproductive attempt to compensate. For example, a US-based leader in brand development recognised that trust was essential in effective delegation.

‘When I don’t trust someone, I feel I have to override decisions. It’s really scary to let somebody in or let somebody make some decisions for you. That’s why delegation is so hard.’

All participants recognised that trying to run an organisation primarily through control is not only ineffective, but unsustainable. The former marketing Chief Executive:

‘I find trust quite unnatural… I’m a former control freak, but I ran out of headspace. It’s a bloody killer, that’s definition of stress as a leader. I’m trying to listen to Daoist philosophy, just go with the flow.’

For a creative consultancy co-founder and former marketing leader, control freakery was, literally, nearly the end of him.

‘I became physically ill because of over-commitment. I ended up in hospital and a surgeon sat on the end of my bed, who said that if he didn’t operate now that he’d give me two weeks to live.’

Trust is earned by revealing who you really are

Understandably, trust was thought to be communicated through deed, rather than word. For trust to be deeply felt, however, most participants thought masks needed to come off, to some degree. This from the US branding leader:

‘What I’ve found difficult in the past is working with people who are closed off, or operate differently to me. For me, trust comes from both people wanting an energetic exchange, rather than, “We’re both here for a transaction.”’  

A UK leader in brand purpose had a similar perspective:

‘We have to be heart-led. That means you have to show up. Show me who you are, which means you have to show me your values. No masks.’

Most participants thought professional relationships that are guided by ‘Open, truthful communication’, as one leader put it, create the best conditions for trust. From another leader’s perspective, that meant, ‘You go back to the same people.’ Recognising the importance of this dynamic, a US-based leader in finance thought it essential to invest time and energy in nurturing trusting working relationships.

The theme was summed up with haiku-like economy by the leader in advertising:

‘Time + Behaviour = Trust.’

Talking openly about trust can be explosive

While trust was seen as essential organisational glue, everyone agreed it is rarely directly spoken about. The former HR Director found this a strange omission.

‘We never talk about, “what trust do you need from me in order to have a trustful working relationship?” We talk about all the other things going in the client contract, but not that.’

However, when trust needed to be directly referred to on one occasion, the leader in advertising found the result was explosive.

‘Trust is amazingly taboo. The only time I mentioned the word trust with clients, the room groaned. It was like I had said the dreaded ‘T’ word. The thought was, “If trust is broken, then the relationship might be broken”. And, of course, having to mention trust surfaced the dire need to talk about trust.’

The former HR Director found that in her previous role, unspoken complexity around trust in one set of professional relationships had the capacity to migrate into wider areas of organisation life. 

‘I’ve spent most of my career in HR. It’s a really difficult place to be. You want to build trust for people, but you know that a global CEO has other plans for a person’s future, and you can’t declare that in a meeting. So how does that leak into a meeting when both people are present? It means I can’t be fully present. Same for any leadership team. If trust isn’t there for that group, then how does it leak into the rest of the organisation?’

Summary

What’s striking about all five themes is how trust was consistently linked to phrases such as ‘gut instinct’, ‘heart-led’, ‘energetic exchange’ and ‘right brain’ emotion. I would loosely group these into, what we refer to as the unconscious, ‘below surface’ mind environment. Conversely, where trust was lacking, there was a tendency to compensate with control, which I would position somewhere within the conscious, ‘above surface’ environment.

To appreciate the distinction between these two environments in the life of organisations, consider the analogy of a football team. Each player engages in the game with a mixture of ‘below surface’ forces, such as instinct, gut reaction and reflex on the one hand, and ‘above surface’ conscious forces, such as strategy and spoken command on the other. To manage a game by centralised control alone would be akin to the skipper barking a constant stream of orders: ‘Bend your left leg 90 degrees, then angle your foot 45 degrees from the heel and kick!’, and so on. In rendering each player a passive marionette, not only would it be the slowest game imaginable, it would also be a recipe for losing.

This illustrates, in part, why neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist asserts that the ‘right hemisphere’ (I.e. ‘right brain’) has primacy when it comes to understanding the human ‘truth about the world.’1 The problem is, often when we try to consciously engage with the ‘below surface’ dimension in organisational life we encounter powerful forces that tend to repel us back towards ‘above surface’. Whether what we encounter ‘below’ is strong emotions, irrational beliefs, or unconscious drivers that seem to contradict agreed goals, in general, it can feel like a topsy-turvy, often explosive world in which are lost, deskilled, and anxious. With this model in mind, you can understand why the advertising leader found that just raising the word ‘trust’ was taboo.

If trust has its roots in these shady depths, how can we engage with ‘below surface’ productively in order to consciously work on trust? It is interesting to note that ‘unmasking’ – ‘show me who you really are’, as one participant put it – was seen as important. Does that mean that if everyone in an organisation was to remove their mask, trust would automatically be deepened? The simple answer is no, but to understand why, we need to look more closely at the function of masks.

To appreciate just how important masks are, consider the root of the English word ‘person’, which derives from the ancient Etruscan, pre-Latin word ‘persu’, meaning ‘mask’. In other words, masks can be seen as being woven into the fabric of personhood. To my mind, masks are a condensed, simplified version of ourselves that others can interact with – a human user interface that hides millions of lines of ‘below surface’ code. Direct contact with that code, (or to be more literal, the unconscious processes that constantly underlie conscious thought) would leave others thoroughly disorientated. In this sense, masks perform an essential function: they filter what we show to the world, and we could not exist in the world without them.

The problem is, most of us are not aware that we wear a mask in the first place. If we are aware of it, it’s unlikely that we have much sense of how it appears to others, or the impact it has on them. This matters, because in becoming aware of our own masks, we can start to learn the difference between the mask itself and the ‘below surface’ internal processes that it conceals. This awareness helps us make better, more informed choices about the kind of mask we wear, how we choose to adapt it, or when we choose to reveal more of what’s beneath.

Relating this notion back to organisations, rather than dispensing with masks altogether, the question might be something like this. How can leaders create the conditions in which their teams can, when required, lift their masks just enough to engage in productive conversation about the ‘below surface’ forces that drive such crucial commodities as trust, while at the same time, keeping masks in place in order to facilitate ongoing ‘above surface’ function?

Crisis and change often rupture long-established boundaries between ‘above’ and ‘below’, and may in the process, forcibly, and explosively remove masks. The effect of that is likely to be traumatic, particularly if there has been no groundwork, and managing the resultant damage may be time-consuming and costly. By contrast, connecting ‘above’ and ‘below’ reveals a more comprehensive picture of all the forces at play in an organisation, enabling leaders to understand what drives things like trust, to discover the obstacles that erode it, and to develop the processes needed to strengthen it.

To engage with these ‘below surface’ forces productively, and to emerge with a focussed plan that enhances ‘above surface’ function requires time, well-structured space, and skilful facilitation. Organisations that structure in this kind of work not only engage more effectively with trust, but other key ‘below surface’ forces, such as identity, belonging and culture. While bringing together both ‘above’ and ‘below’ can sometimes be challenging, it can lead to tangible breakthroughs, and help build more effective, communicative, creative and healthier teams.

Tom Cotton Founder, Mind Environment, 5th December 2020

1McGilchrist, I (2009) The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

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