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Why Companies Need a Culture of Trust to Sustain High Performance

Pressure for results in volatile times are when companies are most vulnerable. Trust becomes more crucial than ever.


In a Nutshell

  • Trust is needed the most in periods of rapid growth or change

  • A high trust culture safeguards high performance

  • Trust and sustainability are intertwined


The pressure that companies face today is at an all-time high.

High performance and growth amidst an economy prone to disruption compounds the pressure to sustain growth, create stability, and achieve revenue goals consistently.

High performance means high vulnerability

Companies are constantly vulnerable to changing market forces and uncertainty, more so in times of high growth and high performance.

Uber experienced “disruptive technology and explosive growth” and then grew to be the “highest valued start-up” by 2016, Investopedia says in The Story of Uber.

But only a year after peak performance, on June 2017, Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick was forced into resignation. “After a little more than two months it was announced that Dara Khosrowshahi — then-CEO of Expedia — would take over.”

In 2017 the company was faced with two major crises: first, performance—sustainability of the business model, and second, culture issues, such as low trust.

The New Yorker reports that "Uber was spending billions of dollars to subsidize rides in order to keep rates low and passengers coming back. Its competitors were doing the same thing. The only way Uber could become profitable was to both increase the volume of rides and raise the price of each one. But as long as Lyft or another rival was offering discounts, increasing fares was impossible, because consumers would simply switch to the cheaper app. And as long as venture capital continued to flow into ride-hailing, Uber’s rivals would continue to offer discounted rides.... In 2017, Uber grew substantially, but it also reported $4.47 billion in losses."

Investopedia reports that: "2017 was a rough year for Uber. The troubles began in February, when a former female Uber engineer ousted the company for its sexist culture in a 3000 word blog post. It was alleged that Uber's corporate culture was highly hostile, sexist and quite offensive to most people. The post quickly went viral and a number of high-level employees were let go or resigned for reasons relating to the allegations in the following months. Following the blog post, the board called for an internal investigation which became known as the "Holder Investigation" (it was lead by former Attorney General, Eric Holder). The investigation resulted in 47 recommendations intended to improve the culture and work environment, and, according to Uber, the firing of more than 20 staff members."

The sustainability of the company was at risk and the “hostile culture” needed a do-over.

Times of growth are when trust is needed the most

“Trust is especially vulnerable during periods of rapid growth or change, or when the team is virtual,” says Trust consultancy Reina, in a report co-created with CCL (Center for Creative Leadership).

Times of great financial success can also be times of great internal turmoil in a company.

Internal teams face uncertainty as the pressure to perform becomes all too real, and takes a negative toll on culture and the relationships within the organisation. A highly successful company can turn into a place where everyone has to watch their back—even a founder and CEO.

Some warning signs of a culture at risk are:

  • High pressure and high stress environment

  • Performance - driven attitudes

  • Results prioritised over people

It is often during seasons of high success that a culture check is needed the most.

Trust transforms culture and safeguards high performance

Leaders need to take charge and set the tone before the culture becomes high-stress and low-trust. As in Uber’s case, once culture takes a nosedive, it’s difficult to restore. It’s easier to build trust than to re-build it.

Uber’s current CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has his work cut out for him, and he knows that trust is one of his top priorities.

In In Just 8 Words, Uber's New CEO Gave a Master Class in Leadership, Inc says: “By admitting to his understandable terror with eight simple words—I have to tell you I am scared—Khosrowshahi expresses just the sort of vulnerability that kills shame and allows a team to trust that if they also experience failure and fear..., their leader will understand and support them.”

Google’s research supports vulnerability as an element of developing trust.

In Google Spent Years Studying Effective Teams. This Single Quality Contributed Most to Their Success, Inc shares Google’s findings on a two-year study on high performing teams: "In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea."

Creating a culture of trust and safeguarding psychological safety will ensure sustainability in the long run, and the ability for the team to withstand crises or outside threat.

Keeping trust high starts with giving people priority

When Uber’s “hostile” culture was exposed and challenged, this was a turning point for the company. And they looked for a leader who could fix the culture.

The New Yorker points out that former CEO Travis Kalanick of Uber never found his “Sheryl Sandberg”.

“Kalanick never found his 'Sheryl,' the grownup in the room exemplified by Sheryl Sandberg, whom Mark Zuckerberg brought in four years after starting Facebook,” The New Yorker stated.

Elon Musk, in his 2014 USC Marshall School of Business Undergraduate Commencement Speech, highlighted that people are the key to a company’s success: "If you’re creating a company or you’re joining a company, the most important thing is to attract great people. All a company is is a group of people that are gathered to create a product or service. And so depending on how talented and how hardworking that group is, and the degree to which they are focused, cohesively, in a good direction, that will determine the success of the company. So do whatever you can to gather great people."

A key characteristic of a culture of trust is placing high value on people and relationships.

Great Place to Work, in The Business Case for a High Trust Culture, shares:

So what is a high-trust culture? It is a workplace where trust-based relationships are highly valued. In our 30 years of research, we have found that employees experience high levels of trust in the workplace when they:

  • ‍Believe leaders are credible (i.e., competent, communicative, honest)

  • Believe they are treated with respect as people and professionals

  • Believe the workplace is fundamentally fair

Trust and sustainability: an inseparable link

“The companies that nurture a culture of high-trust are the ones that will move beyond surviving to thriving in the 21st century,” says Great Place to Work.

And to quote Warren Buffett: “Trust is like the air we breathe. When it is present, nobody really notices. But when it’s absent, everybody notices.”

As history shows, trust is a non-negotiable for sustainability. It’s time for leaders to take notice.


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