The one quality every workplace needs

"Results happen when people work together and build relationships, and trust is at the core of that."

If Nan S. Russell had her way, every business would be built on one essential element: trust. Unfortunately, trust is the one thing missing from many businesses today. “Trust is at an all-time low in workplaces across the country,” says the leadership expert and author of the new book, “Trust, Inc.: How to Create a Business Culture That Will Ignite Passion, Engagement, and Innovation.” In the following Q&A, Russell explains why trust is essential to today’s workplace, what leaders can do to build a culture of trust and why she believes “the best workplaces are yet to come.”

Q: Why trust? What makes this leadership quality so essential right now?
Russell: Trust is at an all-time low in workplaces across the country. Also, a lot of organizations right now are focusing on engagement and innovation, but you can’t build those things without trust. Another reason trust is key has to do with this whole shift that happened as a result of the most recent recession. The way in which things happen at work is different today, and it’s past the time to wait for company initiatives to make things happen. Results happen when people work together and build relationships, and trust is at the core of that.

Q: Do you think the reason trust is at an all-time low stems from the most recent recession?
Russell: I don’t think it’s the only reason, but I think that was the icing on the cake. I think the way in which people traditionally thought about work — “If I do a good job, I’m going to keep my job” and “If I was promised a pension, I’m going to get it” — got blown apart for a lot of people. The world got turned upside down at work, and I think that changed a lot of things.

Q: What companies or leaders, in your opinion, really get the trust factor right?
Russell: The easiest way to determine that is to look and see where we have major innovation and engagement. I would put Virgin Airlines and similar organizations near the top — organizations where people understand that [creating a culture of trust] is about individual contributions and bringing people together to make a difference. There are wonderful workplace cultures out there, but only about 3 percent that naturally do that.

Q: At the beginning of the book, you say you believe the best workplaces are yet to come. What do you mean by that? What are we still missing?
Russell: For the kinds of innovation and problem-solving we need as organizations — and as a country — we need more people who are actively engaged in bringing the best of who they are to work, and the only way you’re going to do that is to create cultures where the best people can show up and do that kind of work. My feeling is that, eventually, we’ll get to a point where the really best people, the top performers, aren’t going to choose to work at companies that don’t offer them the ability to do great work.

Q: So you believe trust will be the determining factor in what enables companies to thrive moving forward?
Russell: I think that organizations founded on authentic trust and on relationships that have mutually beneficial results are going to need to evolve. Leaders are going to start to recognize that the kind of talent they need have other options, and that talent isn’t going to choose to work in environments that don’t let them do the kinds of things they can do.

Q: You talk a lot in the book about how one can build trust, but what happens to make you lose it?
Russell: It’s often the very simple things that cause trust to be lost. For example, if I tell you you’re going to have your review next week, and I don’t deliver that, or I’m a stickler for everyone getting everything done on time, but I don’t deliver the things you need from me, or I don’t answer your emails — those everyday behaviors say to the person, “The relationship doesn’t matter.” And if you don’t demonstrate the relationship matters, you’ll never be able to re-build that trust.

Q: In the book, you say it’s impossible to ignite engagement in your employees if you’re not engaged yourself. So how do you re-engage yourself?
Russell: Re-engagement can happen if you start to challenge yourself in different ways. For example, you might start working on a personal goal outside of work or take on a project that really excites you. Another solution is to surround yourself with people who are engaged. Sometimes just that simple act –in and of itself — can change the dynamic. The biggest thing people have to recognize when they start to feel disengaged is the impact on those around them. Because re-engaging isn’t just about what you owe yourself — it’s about what you owe the people you lead.

Q: If there’s only one thing you want people to walk away with knowing from this book, what would it be?
Russell: Hope. There is such pain and frustration in many cultures, where so many talented people get shut down. Organizations have really become, if not toxic, really sick in the last 10 years. I want people to understand there is a way in which everything we want — for ourselves, for the companies we work for and for our country — can happen by owning it ourselves, at a local level. Because trust is a local issue: It’s about small groups of people doing really good things together, and people working for people. It’s not the solution to everything, but it is a solution for people in an everyday life. So there is hope that we can recreate that energy and enthusiasm, and trust is necessary in order to do that.