Building the Bonds that Make a Business Great

Building the Bonds that Make a Business Great

In business, as in life, trust is elemental. We all cherish it. Most of us think we deserve it. Few of us think we violate it. But what exactly is it? At its core, trust means willingly ceding a measure of control to another—be it a person, an organization, or an institution—and without the apparent safety nets of a binding contract or other means of coercion in place. Although we trust with an expectation that others will respond in kind, vulnerability is the psychological hallmark of trust. We’re taking a risk, sometimes based on limited evidence. Trust is a leap of faith rooted in optimism.

We take trust for granted, not conscious of how it pervades relationships. Partners rely on partners; employers on employees; companies on each other; nations on other nations; families on other family members. And in a world in which the peer-to-peer economy is gaining ascendance—with individuals sharing cars, boats, and apartments—trust is all the more indispensable. Understanding the underpinnings of trust, therefore, is increasingly important as companies become more global, more competitive, and more diverse culturally and demographically. Each new thread of well-founded trust adds strength and richness to the complex tapestry of our interwoven economic and personal lives.

But trust doesn’t just happen. It takes initiation, nurture, evaluation, and repair. Trust is earned. Trust builds over time, fostered not only by decency but also by enlightened self-interest, a recognition that trust works to everyone’s benefit. As a lubricant, trust accelerates decision making, results in agreements that are both durable and flexible and makes life infinitely more pleasant. Trust creates a bond among an organization’s associates, customers, and suppliers, which in turn accelerates its ability to deliver on its promises to each group. But trust is neither an end unto itself nor merely a technique for achieving the desired outcome. Trust is the operating system for a life well-lived.

There is power in being trustworthy. In the economy of trust, what goes around comes around. The more we look out for others, the more they look out for us. The more we trust, the more we are trusted. When trust is the medium of exchange, people collaborate and altruism can grow again to everyone’s benefit.

Evolutionary biologists David Sloan Wilson and E. O. Wilson propose a thought experiment for the relative power of selfishness versus generosity: Two groups are placed on separate islands with no way to communicate. On one island, it’s each person for himself. On the other, everybody works together to achieve broader goals. A few generations later you’ll find two very different societies: one in a state of constant, near-psychopathic conflict, the other successful and harmonious. Summarizing the essential argument for building trust, these scientists conclude: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”

Put simply, high-trust (altruistic) organizations prevail over low-trust (selfish) organizations, and over time, high-trust leaders are more successful than low-trust leaders. Contrast the high trust levels of the legendary teams built by Alan Mulally at Boeing and then at Ford, with those at Enron, where temporary success ended in spectacular failure. Just as important, selfish (low-trust) groups, besides losing to altruistic (high-trust) groups, suffer misery within their ranks. One need only review Stanford University professor Bob Sutton’s bestseller The No Asshole Rule to see how untrusting workplace behaviors wound productivity and morale.

Like air, trust is invisible, and when abundant, it is taken for granted. But again like air, when trust is in short supply, people must find ways to cope. When suspicions arise, people reach for legal documents, policy manuals, and other preemptive measures—the scar tissue of strained trust. Worse, when trust breaks down altogether, responses to the ensuing wreckage can vary from giving up altogether to grabbing power—from threatening to litigating.

Make no mistake: Building and maintaining trust is hard work. Trust can be fragile. One bad actor can damage it. A single act of deceit can destroy a reputation for being trustworthy that was built over a lifetime. Be it in the boardroom or in statecraft or in literature—Hewlett-Packard or Caesar or Othello—betrayal is poison. Bernard Madoff ’s investment firm and Bernie Ebbers’s WorldCom will forever live in the annals of capitalist infamy. There’s a good reason why being called an Iago is among the worst stains on a reputation.

But if you live in a world of suspicion or selfishness, you may not even be aware that you and your necessarily low-trust teammates are like runners on a relay team lugging around heavy oxygen tanks in order to cope with the short supply of trust. You may not notice that your attention has shifted from the potential of posting a winning time to avoiding the risk of finishing last. Your energy is spent securing a replacement for the air you’d enjoy naturally in a high-trust environment. You look past innovation, optimization, and mutual gain in order to obsess over threats, downsides, and coercion. You look out only for yourself. As a result, low trust begets even lower trust.

In my new book, The 10 Laws of Trust, I lay out attitudes and behaviors you can count on to increase the odds that the flow of trust in your enterprise will not be interrupted. Their implementation will arrest the decline of trust and keep you from burning all of your energy to protect against low-trust behavior on the part of others.

Scientists point out that a good theory is one that predicts outcomes, giving us a sense of causality. One should expect a correlation between certain behaviors and the development of predictable trust within a team. And while no one has scientifically tested these 10 Laws, I’ve spent a lifetime assessing them to figure out what works and what doesn’t. My bottom line is that investing in trust works to create abundance and is far superior to hoarding power, harboring suspicions, or barricading oneself behind gotcha controls.

Being smart about whom to trust, when to trust, and how to nurture organizational trust is key to implementing the 10 Laws. Understanding these truths about the very nature of trust—its preconditions, varieties, underpinnings, and risks—prepares a leader to undertake the job of building a high-trust organization.

Excerpted from The 10 Laws of Trust: Building the Bonds that Make a Business Great. Copyright © 2019 by Joel Peterson. Published by HarperCollins.


Trust is the glue that holds an organization together.

JetBlue Chairman Joel Peterson provides the playbook for establishing and maintaining a culture of trust that breaks down the operational silos and CYA mentality that plague many organizations, in this groundbreaking expanded edition of The 10 Laws of Trust.

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