4 Culture Hacks from High Performing Companies that Builds Trust

4 Culture Hacks from High Performing Companies that Builds Trust

When it comes to developing a high-performance culture – trust matters.  In fact, twenty years of research from Great Places to Work Institute found that trust between an employee and their direct manager, as well as the organisation at large, is the number one predictor of employee engagement.  In other words, if you want to measure employee engagement, measure how much people trust their direct manager and the organisation.  The benefits are huge – 51% more employee engagement, 40% less burnout, 18% more productivity, and 40% more loyalty to name a few.

Yet, my favourite statistic is from a Helliwell Huang study.  It found that a 10% increase in employee trust in a company’s leaders has the same impact on life satisfaction as a 36% increase in salary.  This means that by having high trust leaders you can actually improve people’s quality of life (and improve the quality of their work at the same time).

Think about that for a minute.  Can you imagine how much better the world would be if people went to work and felt like they mattered, that their work made a difference and that they had people that liked and appreciated them?  Can you even think about what the flow on effect of that would be?  It means that people would drive home from work and not abuse others in their car or kick their dog (or wife) when they got home.  It would even mean that they would treat strangers better as they walked down the street.

Leading with trust is not just important for a more productive workplace, but it’s also critical if we’re going to create a happier society with less mental illness, anxiety, anti-social behaviours, and isolation.  

Creating psychological safety, focusing on impact and reinforcing connection are three ways leaders can improve trust in a work group to give everyone the right environment to thrive.   Think that’s wishy-washy?  Well, the following four fast-growth companies have made these three factors part of their culture and systems.  

1. Demonstrating that you Care

One of the critical factors of being a high-trust company is that you demonstrate to your employees that you care about them.  That they are not just a cog in the wheel, but an important part of the smooth functioning of your organisation.   Every day employees are subconsciously evaluating whether the company and their direct manager care about them.  When senior leaders make decisions that make life difficult or put in rules that show they don’t trust employees, people will hold back from putting their full energy in at work.

One company that does what it can to demonstrate care is Buffer, a social media company.  In fact, they take it one step further and support their employees in self-care.  Working long hours and sitting at a desk all day interferes with energy and focus.  This might seem obvious, but for many employees, they often don’t take the right steps to look after themselves.  At Buffer, leaders take responsibility in ensuring employees are looking after their health.  They provide classes on self-care, healthy snacks in vending machines and remind staff to take breaks or even short walks away from their desk.  

Not only that, Buffer has an online discussion group to talk about self-care that helps those with mental health disorders.  It gives employees the opportunity to share their struggles with depression, anxiety and even, obsessive-compulsive disorder.  

2. Improving Transparency

A survey from 15Five found that 81% of employees would rather join a company that values “open communication” than one that offers perks such as top health plans, free food, and gym memberships.  Communication is a vital component linking leadership and trust because when it’s done well it reduces ambiguity and uncertainty.   Human beings need certainty.  If employees suspect information is being hidden from them, they are more likely to assume the worst-case scenario which reduces productivity.  The same 15Five study found that when employees hear nothing, more than half “resort of doing their own detective work.”

One area where information often gets misinterpreted or misconstrued is when someone leaves a company.  Often, companies aren’t great at handling employee departures.  The person’s name becomes unspeakable or referred to in hushed tones.  Of course, where there’s a mystery, people will make up the ‘why’ and it’s rarely one that improves corporate culture.   If employees get a whiff that the person was fired or unfairly treated, people start fearing for their jobs and lose trust in leaders.  It leads to rumours and questions such as, was Ben fired?  Are more cuts coming?  Am I next?  Was Ben given any warning?

To avoid this, co-founder Jason Fried of Basecamp, a project management software company, has introduced a ritual that when someone leaves they tell everyone in the company why.  Not just their team, or immediate co-workers, but the entire workforce receive the memo.   When people leave either voluntarily or involuntarily, they have the option of saying farewell on their own terms by writing a message that is sent to everyone in the company.  They can write whatever they like, so long as there are no personal attacks or slights.   As Fried says so eloquently “Information vacuums fill with rumours and rumours lead to anxiety.”

After their departure, the team manager writes a follow-up post that is circulated to everyone.  This provides any missing details from the personal goodbye including why they were asked to leave and whether it was due to job performance or conduct issues.  This ensures there are no big questions left unanswered with care taken to not divulge confidential matters.  The critical component is that it is clear, thorough and honest, as well as treating people with the utmost dignity and respect.  

More importantly, Basecamp doesn’t just throw people out and leave them to their own devices.  They also help people find a job if they weren’t the right fit.  Another excellent way to build trust throughout the company culture.

“When someone leaves that affects everyone across the company.  The fallout isn’t isolated.  Trust is shaken.  Suddenly, a happy workforce can be a paranoid one.  The next time you’re dealing with a fraught departure, don’t pretend it didn’t happen.  Instead, take a deep breath, embrace the uncomfortable and tell everyone why.”  Jason Fried, Co-founder, Basecamp, Inc Magazine, April 2018

3. Improving Accountability

Every organisation consists of a complex network of strategic relationships that coordinate work through making promises to one another.  Even if we are talking about 10 or 10,000 employees, people need to rely on each other, in order to exchange information, ideas, services, and goods.  

According to a Donald Sull study published in Harvard Business Review, 9% of managers feel that they can rely on cross-functional colleagues all of the time.  While 50% say they can rely on them most of the time.   More importantly, managers say they are three times more likely to miss performance commitments because of insufficient support from other units than because of their own teams’ failure to deliver.  

At its core, trust is about people being able to rely on others in the organisation to do the right thing and make good on their promises.

To get around this common problem, Justin Rosenstein, the co-founder of Asana, a project management software company has management meetings that ensure that senior leaders have no wiggle room to get out of their promises.  Yet, nurtures the right environment to ensure psychological safety and accountability at the same time.  According to Amy Edmonson, a Harvard Business School professor, leaders that allow for questions and discussions and also hold their employees accountable for excellence fall into the “learning zone,” or the high-performance zone.  The process that Asana undertakes is as follows:

Every Tuesday they have an all-hands meeting where all employees come together.  They go around the room and every team leader will update the calendar and will say “Here is a milestone that I commit to.  By this date, I am going to ship this or achieve this internal milestone.”  It is said in front of everyone – peers, direct reports, the CEO and executives.

Then, after everyone has made their pledge, they go into the past and team leaders review what things they have committed to over the last week and the outcome.   For example, when they go around the room, team leaders say “Three weeks ago, I said that I would ship this thing by Thursday and on Thursday it shipped. “

Cue applause and lots of high fives.  

For leaders who missed their milestones, they don’t get punished or excluded from the positive vibes.  They are fully supported by the entire company.  To help get them unstuck and moving in the right direction, they must provide notes to the entire company as to why they didn’t meet the deadline and any information that is needed for the situation.  Then, everyone gets to provide advice.  

As Justin says:

 “It gets better over time and people execute more effectively. Milestones get executed.  It’s a judgement free process that empowers everyone to do their best work.  We support each other.  It doesn’t come from CEO.  I just set the process. But it’s always clear who has the ball to drive it forward.  While community pressure and direct reports will do what they can to get it done.  It increases camaraderie because the team feels that they worked hard to make this happen.”

4. Improving Cross-Functional Collaboration

Following on from the typical accountability issues found in companies, getting teams to help each other out is a big issue when it comes to trust.  One of the main reasons is that functional departments usually have very little understanding of what other departments actually do.

Teams may have the noble intention of wanting to help other teams, but they are not quite able to despite themselves.  Their own internal priorities get in the way compounded by a lack of clarity around how important the work is to the organisation as a whole.   It is almost as if other team’s deliverables are considered optional.  

What you’ll find is that deliverables are submitted late or of poor standard that wastes time for the receiving department who ends up with the burden of undertaking reworks and modifications.

Work4, a social recruiting company, discovered the key to reducing bottlenecks and improving communication between departments is to help every employee understand the priorities, goals and challenges faced by their peers.

They have developed an inter-department employee exchange program called “Live My Life” which allows anyone in any position, to experience a day-in-the-life learning the job of a peer in another department.  The premise is that by job shadowing, employees become familiar with the processes, demands, and challenges of their coworkers, which provides a more holistic understanding among employees about the operations of the company.  While ensuring functional job titles are more empathetic to the needs of their coworkers.

The program requires that employees define a one-day project that they will work on with the team of their choice.

“We didn’t want the team [being shadowed] to feel it was a drag, or a waste of their time and we didn’t want the employee to feel that they were just shadowing. Having a goal and structure to the day allows employees to really dive in and feel like they’re part of the team, rather than just an observer.”
CEO Stephane Le Viet, CEO, Work4 

After completing their work experience, employees write a short report to summarise what they have learned and what ideas they will bring back to their own team.  This email is then circulated once a month to all employees to embed learning and reinforce the importance of a “one-firm focus.”  


Ultimately, you cultivate trust in a workplace by ensuring people feel valued for who they are, understand how their work positively impacts those around them and through providing the right people and resources to see it through.  

Creating a high-trust collective is more than just slapping trust into your corporate values or telling people that you trust them.  You can’t talk your way into trust.  People have to see that an organisation’s rules, systems, leadership and processes are supporting and modelling the right trusted behaviours.   Embedding meeting routines and employee programs that support building a high trust environment are key. 

After all,  if you want to improve performance, you have to look after your people first.   When you do that, performance looks after itself.   Plus, you also improve people’s wellbeing and emotional fulfilment (and the world!)

Which ones are you going to try?

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Marie-Claire Ross is the Founder and Chief Corporate Catalyst at Trustologie. She is a workplace sociologist, author, speaker and consultant focused on helping leaders put the right processes in place to accelerate trust during change and growth. She does this through strategic diagnostics, roundtables, workshops, coaching and consulting. Marie-Claire is also the author of the number three ranked book on Amazon, Transform your Safety Communication. She has been interviewed on “Technology Behind Business” for Sky Business News and regularly contributes articles to FM Magazine and LogiSYM on company culture. She is also a Graduate of the Company Director’s Course and is on the SME Committee for the Australian Institute of Company Directors.


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