Responsive Orgs: Lens 4 – Trust

May 5th, 2020

The 4th layer of our Model for Responsiveness is Trust. The culminating lens or layer of organizations who are, by their developed nature, more responsive to both external threats and opportunities, is trust. Trust only happens in organizations when all of the previous lenses are in place.

Instinctively, we know that organizations that are responsive must also develop a tremendous amount of trust:employee with employee, employee with manager, manager with employee, and everyone with the organization and its goals. Our research identified three distinct areas responsive organizations address, as shown in the graphic below.

Figure 1: A Model for Responsivity | Source: RedThread Research, 2020

Areas of Building Trust

Figure 2: Aspects of the Trust Lens | Source: RedThread Research, 2020

As with our other roundtables, leaders shared really insightful thoughts and suggestions on each of the three areas. We have summarized the major points of that discussion in two ways:

  • Mindmap. Click the window and use your cursor to explore. It's almost like being there. This is a live document, so if you have additional thoughts, please feel free to ping us with a comment or send a note to [email protected].
  • Main Points & Leader Advice. The choice morsels of the roundtable have also been summarized below, including short definitions and some of the really great advice we heard from leaders.

Trust Mindmap

Main Points & Leader Advice

In the following sections, we expound on these 3 areas and highlight the good advice we heard at the roundtable.

Handling Failure

One of the most important builders or destroyers of trust in organizations is the way that leaders and managers handle failure. Leaders who treat failure as a thing of shame, go on witch hunts to find the reason (and often person) for the failure, or punish those who fail (either directly or indirectly) have a hard time convincing employees to trust them and the organization. Responsive organizations tend to have leaders and managers that embrace failure tend to think of the concept of failure differently.

Advice from Leaders

  • Change the language and tone. Several leaders mentioned their organizations don’t use the word “mistake”, instead swapping it for “failed attempt” or other terms that indicate a continuation, not an end. Leaders also pointed out that tone (of voice, language used, etc.) sends clear messages about how the company feels about failure.
  • Hold F*ck up Nights, Failure Tours, and other celebrations. Organizations that embrace failure are bringing it front and center. Two of our favorite ideas. First, one company determines the largest failure of the year and asks the person or team responsible to prepare a formal presentation, complete with pictures, timeline, and thought processes, to present at an awards ceremony for largest failure. We like this idea because it normalizes failure while also sharing the information with everyone so that the organization learns. Second, one company has asked its leaders to do failure tours – opportunities for leaders to be vulnerable by sharing their screw ups. As leaders talk about them, the tone around failure changes, allowing employees the opportunity to fail, surface it, and learn from it.
  • Premortems. One company does premortems at the beginning of a project where they outline possible failures and possible solutions to those failures. Thinking through what may go wrong helps employees understand that everything doesn’t always go according to plan and helps teams think creatively about what to do when that happens.

Bringing the outside in

We love that our research showed that bringing the outside in as an important factor to building trust. Responsive organizations are not insular and cannot afford to be if they want to be prepared for disruptions and opportunities in the marketplace. To avoid insularity, bringing in outside perspectives is key.

Leaders at our roundtable shared and explored ideas for encourage organizations and their employees to bring the outside in. Some of our favorite ideas are below.

Advice from Leaders:

  • Ask for it. Interestingly, several leaders said that employees often won’t share unless space is created to do so. And in many situations, this means explicitly asking for it. Leaders mentioned several ways they’re using to do this, including, making challenges clear and involving employees at all levels to provide ideas, innovation slack channels (a modern day idea box?), hackathons, ideathons, 20% time to work on new ideas, and others.
  • Break the echo chamber. Traditional organizations may suffer from a very loud echo chamber as their insular nature makes them too afraid or too prideful to consider outside ideas. Leaders mentioned that they are trying to mitigate this by bringing the outside in through guest speakers at lunch & learns or through sponsoring membership in professional organizations and then asking participants to share what they learned internally. Leaders also pointed out that contractors, coaches, and consultants allowed new ideas to be introduced on a regular basis.
  • Create norms. With so many different personalities and leadership styles, bringing the outside in doesn’t just happen. It must be done intentionally. Specifically, norms must be created. Some of the norms being implemented in organizations that were shared included: experimentation –experiment with an idea for a time, evaluate, and keep what’s good about it; give permission to everyone to call out both good and bad examples of accepting new information; help leadership set the tone; sharing new ideas is scary and no one ever wants to go first.

Building Community

The final factor that sets Layer 4 organizations apart from the rest is their ability to build community. Highly responsive organizations are not just a place people work. Employees don’t just show up for a paycheck. There is even more than just a shared vision or mission (which appears at Layer 3). These organizations have a strong sense of community that values the individual and glues employees together in an interdependent and mutually beneficial relationship.

How this is done varies widely by organization and appears to be the secret sauce. Individuals care about each other, take care of each other, and don’t rely on rules and regulations to ensure that people are “doing the right thing”. Leaders shared with us how their organizations build community, including a few examples specific to the COVID 19 crisis.

Advice from Leaders:

  • Make evangelists. Trust, and particularly building community, takes a change in mindset that often can’t be mandated. Leaders mentioned that spotting passionate people and making them evangelists helps to spread the idea of community. Evangelists don’t just shout good news from the mountaintops – they epitomize the characteristics desired by the community.
  • Day camps and story time. Leaders shared that their coworkers and leaders were showing empathy and lightening loads by helping working parents care for their children. Some of our favorite ideas included one leader who gathered his team and their children and did Zoom story hour (Knuffle Bunny). Another team took turns organizing online activities for children for stretches of times that parents could then use to load up with meetings. Another organized a day camp, sharing activities with kids in different age groups to free their parents up for work.
  • Agitate. Many leaders understand that they have a unique opportunity, while some of the boundaries are flexible or permeable, to get rid of some institutional ideas and process that do not work, and replace them with things that do. One leader spoke of it as an obligation to agitate – take risks and push back was much as they can. Others spoke of it as institutionalizing positive changes for the long run – ensuring that the good ideas and new processes outlived the crisis. Best advice? Don’t forget and don’t quit. Start with individual teams and be intentional. It’ll spread.

As always, we'd like to extra specially thank the leaders who volunteered their time to join the roundtable. Their comments and ideas have made this research much richer, and hopefully more helpful.

The TRUST roundtable was the last in a series of 4, discussing the different layers of the Model for Responsiveness research. This research will be published on May 20.


Dani Johnson Redthread Research
Dani Johnson
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst