March 5th, 2015

Increasing workforce diversity has been an ongoing topic for several decades. In one recent example, Silicon Valley tech companies have come under fire for being overwhelmingly white and Asian in general, and white and male among their leadership ranks. But some would argue a more diverse leadership and workforce could throw a monkey wrench into the performance these companies have been known for. (This argument would be made only behind closed doors, of course.)

Yet, consciously or unconsciously many companies do resist increasing diversity, in part because they fear performance will take a hit if the mess with the formula. And they are right if they leave trust out of the equation. The point too often overlooked in this debate is that diversity without trust is a performance killer.

Increasing diversity of any kind – culture, race, gender, age, communication style, etc. – without paying explicit attention to trust and then expecting people to work well together is naïve at best. Unless the trust issues that come with diversity of any stripe are addressed it will almost surely become a serious threat to performance.

The need to build and maintain trusting relationships is fundamental to getting good work done in any situation. But people who see each other as “different from me” have to overcome the initial barrier of perceived difference on the way to building trust, something people who see each other as “like me” do not.

The Key Is Trust

Trust is what actually unlocks the enormous potential of a diverse workforce, translating itinto performance and success.

When people trust each other, ideas and information flow quickly and freely. Team members are creative, open and supportive. They coordinate action effectively vertically and horizontally. They consistently deliver results.

This is true for a completely homogeneous workforce. But when people with very different perspectives come together in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect, performance increases even more.

Any effort to diversify the workplace has to include explicit support for trust building to succeed. In my experience, high diversity together with high trust can be a real powerhouse, even more innovative and productive than homogeneous companies with strong trust. But high diversity paired with low trust is a disaster.

Build a Culture of Trust for Diversity Driven Performance

Here are five building blocks necessary to create an company culture of trust that can exploit the full power of diversity.

  1. An explicit commitment to build and sustain trust. This has to start with the company’s leadership, but it can’t stop there. Leaders have to be willing and able to build strong trust themselves and help those who work for them do so, as well.
  2. A common language for talking about trust. Building and maintaining a culture of trust requires that people talk about it. To do so, people need a shared vocabulary of trust. A common language can come from any one of several good trust frameworks, including the work of Stephen M.R. Covey (The Speed of Trust), Charles Green (Trust Based Selling), or the framework I have successfully used with numerous clients and describe in The Thin Book of Trust. The important thing is to pick one that works for your company and use it.
  3. Alignment on company values, mission and vision. When everyone clearly knows and believes in their company’s values, mission and vision there is a strong foundation on which to build trust and collaboration. People can focus is on how to execute trusting they are all working toward the same goal.
  4. Top down, bottom up commitment to transparency. Transparent communication fosters trust. The absence of credible information breeds distrust. A commitment to transparency is a commitment to trust. It’s that simple.
  5. Policies, procedures, and systems that support interpersonal and social trust. Often people will make a commitment to building trust but fail to examine their company’s infrastructure to determine how well it supports trust. Each policy, procedure and system a company has in place has the potential to support or undermine trust. This infrastructure, built right, can sustain both social trust and interpersonal trust. Social trust is part of the basic fabric of a society, group, or organization. When there is social trust people believe they are part of an organization that values and supports them, and will treat them fairly. Interpersonal trust is part of the fabric of the individual relationships we have with each other. In the workplace it supports connection, collaboration, transparency, sharing, and common endeavor.