Innovation’s Executive Trust Trap

27 Feb

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In the March edition of the Harvard Business Review, David DeSteno gives some useful advice to help increase the level of trust inside organisations (summary at the end of this blog).

I’m currently working with a guerilla negotiator to help a major record label untangle the trust issue.  Why?  Because trust and innovation performance are dynamically related, and the music industry needs innovation.

Managers who don’t trust their teams don’t encourage innovation for risk of ‘screw-ups’.  Employees who don’t trust their managers aren’t motivated to take risks for fear of screw-up repercussions.

Capability and character are two useful lenses to consider why trust is lacking; but often the deeper root issue is a culture of fear within the organisation that few executives are ever happy to acknowledge.  The idea seems ludicrous to them.

Yet a senior manager in one of the world’s biggest cell phone companies recently told me that despite an outward reputation for innovation, employees are petrified to take the smallest of risks. “It’s hard enough to survive here, let alone try something new,” he told me. There’s even widespread anxiety about talking to customers for fear of hearing something that would contradict management’s vision of success.

So why the guerilla negotiator?  It’s part of a wider program to build leadership innovation capability in multiple dimensions, but the negotiator is an expert trust builder amidst conditions of extreme uncertainty and ambiguity.  Something that most executives are becoming increasingly familiar with.

Finally, here are David DeSteno’s proposed tips from the Harvard Business Review article to prompt trustworthiness in new or potential partners’ behavior:

  • Be generous. Feelings of gratitude foster trustworthy behavior. 
Giving new partners a reason to feel grateful to you is a win-win: They benefit in the short term from your generosity, and you reap the rewards of their loyalty.
  • Find commonality. Emphasizing common ground increases the likelihood that your counterpart will see you as someone with whom it’s possible to build a lasting and beneficial relationship.
  • Don’t punish. Threats of punishment can prevent untrustworthy behavior in the moment but can be counterproductive in the long term: new partners may be less likely to take risks to support one another.
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