Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Creating an Environment of Trust

Roger W. Sant
Co-founder and former chairman of global energy giant AES Corp.

Roger Sant describes a environment of corporate openness in these words: "Never tell people how to do their jobs. Instead, present them with a challenge, and then let them choose the best way to attack it. Even when I have an idea or plan, I try to invite people to be part of the problem solving. That way they feel part of the team and they usually come up with an idea that is better than mine."1

Empowering employees requires a climate of openness and trust. This happens when the corporation values employees' talents and ideas in decision making. Creating such an environment means loosening controls while refocusing on mission. It means taking employees seriously in decision making.

When change is needed in a business, members should be asked to identify their personal adaptive challenges. What attitudes, habits or behaviors must they change? What actions must they take? Trust increases when the individual's adaptive challenges are met and the team moves closer to fulfilling the corporate mission.

For trust to run deep in a corporate culture, employees must see honesty, competency and inspiration in the president, in the executive officers and in their immediate managers. Trust develops when these people are viewed as being credible. Credibility is the opposite of hypocrisy. In other words, to be credible there must be no discrepancy between what leaders say and what they do. One of the most important ways for managers to gain credibility is to encourage input and feedback from workers and then to act on the basis of some of that input.

Credibility feeds an environment of trust in other ways also. Leaders who encourage cooperation must themselves be cooperative. Those who encourage persuasiveness must themselves be persuasive. Those who encourage innovation must be open to innovation. When there is a disconnection between word and deed, trust erodes quickly, and it is difficult to regain. Work environments where there is a general lack of trust are also characterized by irrationality.

Respect for people, regardless of their faults, contributes to a manager's success. When you show respect, you are more likely to receive a positive response and cooperation. Respect means listening to people, accurately and fairly representing their perspective. Stephen R. Covey says, "The key to listening is with the eyes and the heart." When both eyes and heart are engaged it is easier to encourage people in their highest aspirations.

Finally, creating an evironment of trust requires keeping promises and being honest with people. When word gets out that the people in your company are competent, trustworthy and empowering, the best employees in your line of business will be knocking at the door. You can be certain that this will have a positive impact on customers and shareholders.

1. Suzy Wetlauer, "Organizing for Empowerment: An Interview with AES's Roger Sant and Dennis Bakke." Harvard Business Review, January-February 1999, p. 112.

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