The 3 Cs of Trust

While HR leaders aren’t the only cooks in the kitchen when it comes to organizational culture, they are frequently asked to support the creation of a positive and strong culture. Often, this request comes from the C-suite, with the objective being to get them to focus on building trust.

Yet, despite a common understanding of the many benefits of trust, the challenges of establishing a trust-based organization have never been greater. Researching thousands of companies across a wide swath of industries, LRN finds that almost three-quarters of organizations around the world have low-trust cultures.

Before discussing how to foster trust, let’s take a step back to define what trust is – and what it is not. Often, when people talk about trust, what they often have in mind is a concept that is closer to “confidence.” For example, if you order a pair of shoes online, you probably trust that it will be the right size and color, based on your order. But that trust is simply the expectation that a company or person will do what you requested. While earning another’s confidence through a proven track record is an important aspect of a high-performance culture, it differs from building an organizational culture that is based on trust.

Trust is a profound act that occurs on a human scale. Real interpersonal trust lies in the act of making yourself vulnerable by putting your welfare in the hands of another, trusting that the person will deliver on something that’s important to you. It is this openness to vulnerability that makes the act of trusting one another so deeply challenging.

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As we move from a traditional industrial economy to one that is more networked, digital and sensitive to the needs of a global community, winning organizational cultures will be ones that prioritize those elements of human character that matter most. These include courage, empathy, joy, creativity, the quest for justice, the ability to care, and the many other virtues that speak to the best parts of being human.

How can leaders encourage colleagues to bring their best to work? One easy way is to celebrate their strengths, pointing out what’s right with colleagues’ behavior. People naturally yearn to demonstrate the best aspects of themselves with others when they feel supported. When this happens – when people behave with strength and virtue at work – they are elevated and energized in how they engage.

As easy as this sounds, LRN’s research reveals that only 12 percent of organizations show high degrees of celebrating the strengths of others.

Celebrating what’s right can be as simple as a “shout out” in a weekly team meeting. Many organizations do some form of this, but it can be made even more powerful by focusing on character strengths of those being recognized. In other words, leaders need to be specific about how a colleague’s courage, care or compassion led to a truly unique contribution. When they highlight contributions that come from character strengths, they foster trust. People who bring their best to work are able to experience a sense of authenticity and do the right thing with confidence, even when the immediate benefit is unclear.

The role of HR leaders in this pursuit is critical. Consider the data: When managers emphasize creating a culture that gives people the freedom to bring their best qualities to our work, LRN’s research finds 96 percent of employees score them as effective leaders, compared to only 52 percent for those leaders who do not. Such leaders are also more than three times as likely to deliver a high level of business performance.


Humans are wired to connect with each other. Or put another way, they yearn to belong. Many people may no doubt have deep and rich connections outside of work, but they also need to have a sense of community inside the workplace in order to build an organization that’s grounded on trust.

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Another way to foster connections is to commit to the growth and development of one another at work. Examples of this include providing both formal and informal mentorship on projects or inviting colleagues to do shadow work. It’s one thing to collaborate on a project. It’s quite another to feel that teammates and leaders are pulling for you and looking out for what’s in your best interest.


A high-trust culture takes more than strong personal character and interpersonal relationships within a company. People also need to feel that their contributions are significant and connected to the overall mission and purpose of the organization. When people have conviction in a mission that they are working toward, their sights are on something greater than themselves. At the end of each day, week, month or year, they can reflect on the ways in which they have made a difference.

There is a difference between organizations that position themselves as having a “mission of significance” as part of their public-relations strategy and those that have truly taken the time to align their business models and operations to a meaningful mission. In the case of the latter, HR can help operational leaders better understand how to connect the dots between the daily work of teams and the organization’s higher purpose, creating opportunities for everyone to find meaning in what they do. When leaders give individuals the freedom to pursue their own passions and missions within the framework of corporate goals, they are facilitating conviction.

LRN’s research finds that when organizations have employees who behave with conviction, their performance is 27 percent greater than those with employees who are simply engaged with their work. Despite this fact, the research reveals only 8 percent of organizations successfully build conviction around a “mission of significance.”

To build cultures of trust, executives need to focus on the character, connection and conviction they see within their organizations and their people. Without them, trust is impossible.

Michael Eichenwald and Jan Stanley
Michael Eichenwald leads the advisory practice at New York-based ethics and compliance firm LRN and advises a wide range of companies on leadership and how to build ethical cultures. Jan Stanley is a senior advisor at LRN and works closely with leaders to translate purpose and values into impactful action. They can be reached at [email protected].