OI Quick Tip #4: How trust – or lack of it – affects innovation, and what you can do

Cheryl Perkins CoDev 2015 Chair

Practical insights from Cheryl Perkins, CoDev 2015 Chairperson

Quick Tip #4: How trust – or lack of it – affects innovation, and what you can do

To loosely paraphrase Anton Chekhov, ‘you must trust in people for innovation to become possible.’ Leaders and managers of people need to realize this; their words and actions can build teams — or walls. Breaking the will to share and loss of trust are silent killers of innovation. Employees or other participants in the innovation community simply go through the motions and look like they are onboard, driving innovation, when in fact they may have undetectably become disinterested or even fearful of their own job security. In many cases, they hold back or save their best ideas for another opportunity. Worse yet, they may act (or react) without thinking, making it difficult for the team to succeed.

How do you recognize the signs of diminished trust in your organization?

Often lack of trust is masked by subtle forms of resistance. “I don’t have time,” consistent lateness for meetings, not returning calls or emails, not sharing information, and — one of the most common barriers facing innovators at many levels — Not-Invented Here (NIH). NIH syndrome may appear to be an organizational and process issue, but it is actually a trust or People Fatigue issue. While ‘innovation’ remains the mantra, only familiar kinds of innovation from insiders or trusted allies are welcome. And when trust is badly broken, even internal innovation is blocked.

chekhov trust quote
What are some of the common causes of trust breakdown?

As mentioned, job insecurity is one cause – particularly after mergers, acquisitions, reorganizations, layoffs or other major changes. Communicating and demonstrating open innovation’s ability to ease the workload by providing a diversity of ideas and solutions to specific challenges can help overcome fears and concerns. However, easing the workload may not be enough if people feel burned, burnt out, or suspect ulterior motives. Easier workload can imply NO workload, i.e. job loss. Another cause is lack of recognition for jobs well done. A Quick Tip reader commented on a previous post that “an area that is overlooked is the performance appraisal. While management promotes teamwork through open innovation the performance appraisal all too often reflects a ‘what have YOU done lately’ focus. This can negate all the positive feelings of accomplishment and create an atmosphere of distrust.” He is quite right. For people to do their best work, they must feel that it will be recognized and rewarded. And they must feel their job and future are secure.

So, what can you do to build or restore trust?

Be very truthful! Tell people where their career is headed. Map out a clear career path, provide frequent feedback and have performance reviews which are encouraging and honest. Let the dialogue be two-way, tell people it is okay to bring up concerns or fears (and mean it). If financial performance is not meeting expectations, work together on solutions. Also do not overlook internal innovation. External innovation and collaboration are not really the goal, creating business value is. Don’t punish or humiliate people who make mistakes when trying something new. As Chekhov said, you must trust and believe in people. Ideas will flow freely, risks will be taken, sharing will be genuine, and innovation will flourish.