Trust Reinvented: Building a Culture of Accountability in an Uncertain World

Published On: June 23, 20206.2 min read

A Crisis of Trust

Examined in isolation, the events of 2020 are disorienting— a string of high severity, low probability events. When considered as symptoms of broader trends however, a central thread emerges: the erosion of trust. 

Alternative depictions of “facts” by media and the exposure of injustices in longstanding institutions continue to decrease our society’s levels of trust. Research shows trust becomes most important in situations in which people lack the knowledge needed to make a decision and is therefore critical in crisis situations like COVID-19. 

Additionally, crises like a pandemic can have lasting negative impacts on levels of trust in a society, even generations later. Using the US General Social Survey, researchers found Americans with ancestors from countries with high Spanish Flu mortality in 1919 displayed lower levels of trust even generations later.  

Trust in the Future

For leaders in business, entrepreneurship, and the non-profit sector, these broader societal trends hold signficant consequences. Trust plays a critical role in every transaction, whether with clients, suppliers, or employees. A renewed commitment to establishing trust will be critical to success in the coming years. 

With good reason, Patrick Lencioni chooses trust as the most essential element of a functional team culture in his book 5 Dysfunctions of a Team (see graphic). 


As our societies reinvent themselves for an age of increased information, our organizations must also adapt. The top down dispersal of information is no longer a viable means of establishing trust. In an age where information can be so easily shared and accessed, transparency and full accountability are imperative for any organization.

To understand how trust develops within an organization, let’s examine its importance within three facets of management: People, Process, and Purpose.

Trust in Your People

Leaders seeking to build trust within their teams in this new world need to intentionally prioritize cultures of openness and vulnerability. When employees feel they can share ideas and information without fear of reprisal, the quality of output improves tremendously. Trust requires accountability, and accountability requires a willingness to own mistakes. 

When so often “The coverup is worst than the crime”, the consequences of not owning up to a mistake typically far outweigh the consequences of the mistake itself. Fostering the openness and vulnerability to admit mistakes keeps slip-ups from turning into full blown crises. This accountability also translates into productivity. 

Researchers at Kellog School of Management demonstrated the value of openness by measuring an icebreaker’s effect on output from a brainstorming session. One group of participants was asked to share the most embarrassing moment of their last 6 months prior to brainstorming ideas, while another was asked to share their proudest moment of the past 6 months. The group who shared embarrassing moments generated 26% more ideas than the pride group and a 15% wider range of ideas.

As leaders, owning your own mistakes is critical to establishing accountability and trust in your teams. Even as information flows are no longer top-down, establishing a culture of vulnerability still relies on the example set at the top. In one Stanford University study, participants were split into groups and presented with news clippings about a failure of then Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger– one clip with the governor owning his mistakes and one with the governor blaming special interests. When later asked to explain an unrelated personal failure, participants who had read about the governor passing blame were twice as likely as other participants to blame someone else for their own slip ups. 

Establishing a culture of trust clearly relies on the vulnerability and accountability to own mistakes, starting at your organization’s highest level. As Alexander Pope put it, “To err is human, to forgive divine.”

Trust in Your Process

The next component of building trust and accountability is establishing processes that support the open flow of information. Processes that only enable information to cascade downward in an organization are no longer enough to power good organizational decision making and alignment. This information flow boosts agility and provides competitive advantage. As Scaling Up author Verne Harnish puts it, “Whoever has the best first-hand intel wins.” 

The ability to share accurate, timely information across an organization enables leaders to make informed decisions and effectively build alignment around what matters. Only when employees feel their voices are heard in decision making processes can trust and accountability thrive. You wouldn’t hand wax a rental car. So why should team-members feel accountable for organizational goals they don’t believe in. 

We’ve written extensively on this blog on the importance of effective communication, transparent tracking of goals, and frequent opportunity for open and honest feedback. But these processes are only effective at creating trust when they are truly embraced by every member of an organization, from the C-suite to the frontline worker. 

Trust in Your Purpose

The final, and arguably most important, component of building trust is establishing a shared set of values and goals in your organization. Transparently developing your organization’s Core Values, Core Purpose, and broader vision (BHAG) are critical steps towards creating the shared sense of purpose that powers trust. When all members of a team feel they share the same values and objectives, accountability and trust will thrive. 

Robert Solomon breaks down this connection in his book Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships, and Life. Trust, says Solomon, “is not bound up with knowledge so much as it is with freedom, the openness to the unknown.” 

As a manager, for instance, trust may give you freedom to focus on identifying new strategic opportunities instead of monitoring whether your reports are getting their work done. In exchange trust gives your team the freedom to act quickly and with autonomy to solve problems before they boil over into crises that require your intervention. 

When teams share a set of values and greater purpose, they are free to trust one another to make progress goals with benefits to all. Under this scenario, greater trust and accountability leads to more freedom, not less. 

Establishing and sharing a purpose gives credibility to your brand, brings meaning to your team’s work, and builds trust that the whole team is working towards shared goals greater than themselves. This idea has motivated Simon Sinek’s Start With Why and the movement to more mission driven businesses including B-corps and triple-bottom-line businesses. 

A New Age of Trust

The question posed by Robert Solomon — “How can we create trust, especially where distrust and even paranoia reign supreme?” — remains more relevant today than it did when he wrote Building Trust some twenty years ago. 

The first step, may be acknowledging that at its heart, we are experiencing not only a crisis of trust, but a crisis of leadership. “The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me,” says Peter Drucker, “never say ‘I.’ And that’s not because they have trained themselves not to say ‘I.’ They don’t think ‘I.’ They think ‘we’; they think ‘team.’ They accept responsibility and don’t sidestep it, but ‘we’ gets the credit…. This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done.”

 Following the example of leaders who embrace transparency and accountability, our society will be able to rebuild the trust we badly need. 

To learn more about how transparent goal tracking can build trust and accountability in your team, read our Quick Start Guide to Goal Planning and Tracking!


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