4 Steps to Achieving Organizational Agility Through Trust

October 15, 2019 Derek Irvine

3-minute read

woman doing a back bend

We are in the midst of a trust crisis in the workplace. In the era of #MeToo, “fake news,” pay equity, business integrity failures, and an ever-evolving political climate, trust is severely eroded. Yet trust is essential for organizations to grow, evolve, and succeed in a competitive market. Research from the World Economic Forum shows that trust is the glue that binds employees to employers.

Agility and trust

According to McKinsey & Company, the most successful organizations are agile and respond quickly to changes in the marketplace, like rapid advancements in technology and the emergence of new competitors. In fact, 78% of agile organizations rank in the top quartile of organizational health, the best indicator of long-term performance.

The underlying fabric of an agile organization is a culture of trust: trust among employees and leaders, among teams, and among peers. There are four primary attributes of an agile organization, and trust underpins each one:

1. Create shared purpose. Agile organizations co-create value with a wide range of stakeholders, including customers, employees, and investors. They have a flexible and distributed approach to innovating, enabling employees to quickly make decisions and seize opportunities without extensive leadership overhead.

This approach is only practical when everyone is working toward a common, shared purpose, fueled by a culture of trust. Shared purpose creates the guiding principles by which individual units, departments, and even individual employees can make decisions. According to Trust Edge, “83% of people say they would not follow a leader they don’t trust.” Trust is the key building block for shared purpose.

2. Build a network of empowered teams. Agile organizations are composed of top leadership along with a network of flexible, scalable teams with minimal traditional hierarchy. Business value is delivered by small, co-located, cross-functional, and self-organizing teams.

The most important ingredient for team success, according to research from Google and Harvard Business Review, is a sense of psychological safety. Without it, individuals are not comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas, and collaboration is diminished. In a psychologically safe and trusting environment, individuals can speak their minds, be creative, and take risks without fear of being fired. Team members feel accepted and respected.

3. Continuously experiment. Agile organizations work in a rapid cycle of thinking, doing, experimenting, and iterating. Projects span weeks, not months. Employees learn to embrace change as part of doing business.

Leaders must model learning through mistakes. This includes being public about their own mistakes and learnings from them. The 2019 Trust Outlook shows that more than 89% of U.S. employees would trust their senior leaders more if they were transparent about mistakes. Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, believes that building a culture of trust is about leaders showing vulnerability and admitting mistakes to their teams.

4. Put employees at the center of what you do. An agile organizational culture puts people at the center, which engages and empowers each individual. Cultural norms are reinforced through trust-driven positive peer behavior and influence, rather than rules, processes, and hierarchy. Management empowers employees, looks to them for insight and innovation, and understands the value each individual brings to the organization. In this environment, trust is interwoven through the entire cultural fabric.

Agile organizations grow, learn, and anticipate change. Creating this type of organization is much more than a strategy. It is about building a culture of trust where people are emotionally connected to each other and the organizational mission and purpose. Through this connection, employees are empowered and motivated to do the best work of their lives.


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About the Author

Derek Irvine

Derek is senior vice president, client strategy and consulting, at Workhuman.

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