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Trust Is Hard-Earned, Easily Lost, Difficult To Reestablish. . . And Key To Absolutely Everything

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at November 12, 2021

“Trust is hard-earned, easily lost, and difficult to reestablish.”

Truer words have never been written by Carol Folt, President of the University of Southern California whose letter to us faculty and the rest of the USC community a few days ago bore the truthy tagline “Commitment to Candor.” If you have to assure us from the get-go that you are “committed to candor”, that’s not a great sign as it prompts the reader to ask “what’s been happening up until now?” A better title might have been, “We have been royally f’ing up, for a very long time, and now we’re going to try to fix it.” Needless to say, I am not holding my breath for that one.  

I love teaching at USC and more than that, I love and admire my wonderful undergraduate students. But as a business ethics expert and an employee of this university, writing my usual column on diversity, equity and inclusion feels a bit like fiddling while Rome burns. So, I am compelled to speak up on the challenges at my own institution and the lessons therein that can be applied more generally. 

USC’s continued dissembling and spinning gets right to the heart of President Folt’s observation about trust, how hard it is to gain and how easy it is to lose. She’s spot-on—simply put, trust is essential to every organization. And if any group of people should understand this, it’s the administration at USC, which is unfortunately living through every painful word of Folt’s statement as I write.

After a numbing series of well-publicized scandals that were to varying degrees swept under the rug by an administration that seems to have a broom at the ready in every corner, the feeling lingers that this university is committed to anything but the truth. And the unvarnished truth is of course a prerequisite for gaining that elusive thing called trust.

So if truth is a prerequisite for trust, what is trust a prerequisite for? Absolutely everything. When I was 10 years old, I read a bestselling book called “If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, You’ll Probably End Up Somewhere Else”. Its main topic was goal-setting and since I have never been much of a life planner, I didn’t retain much from that little book except for one thing that has stuck with me ever since. It’s a Chinese proverb that goes like this: your health can be represented by the number 1, and everything else in life—your hobbies, your family, your friends, your work, are represented with a zero. When you have your health, you start with 1, and all the other good things in life are added on to give you infinite wealth: 1,000,000,000. . . but take away your health, e.g. remove the number 1, and you are left with nothing, just a long row of zeros. And so it is with trust, the essential ingredient to all programs, initiatives and efforts. Without it, everything that leadership undertakes will seem hollow at best.

Why is that? When you undertake any initiative that asks employees to work together to achieve real, meaningful change, human nature tells us that most people will naturally be skeptical and are likely to resist. Managers will push back on limits to their autonomy and an increased workload. Training sessions will be seen as just another chore, something else on everyone’s long to-do list.  And this is doubly true with something like the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives that I research, which are already emotionally fraught and carry a heightened potential for conflict and resistance. Try to enact a successful DEI initiative in a low-trust environment and you have a recipe for disaster— the same program that may be perceived as sincere and supportive in an environment with a high level of trust can take on a cynical, “CYA” patina without it.

We researched one large, global tech company that understands this implicitly. They have established a culture of trust right from the top with a strong diversity, equity and belonging program that begins with a company-wide blog called “Nothing Left Unsaid”. Through this blog, everyone, starting with C-Suite executives, shares their real selves, warts and all, with stories of addiction, serious illness and mental health challenges. Leadership talks straight with their employees about challenges at the firm and encourages all their managers to do the same, no matter how painful the truth. They forthrightly admit mistakes when they happen and in plain English. Candor is assumed.  The result is a high level of trust, job satisfaction and morale, including among employees of color and other marginalized groups.

At USC, various DEI initiatives—and other programs aimed at improving the “culture” have been initiated.  But here’s the truth—initiating such programs without fixing the underlying loss of trust is like planting a rose bush in arid sand. It will never take root, and it will certainly never thrive. You’re right, President Folt—trust is indeed “hard-earned, easily lost, and difficult to reestablish.” And until USC—again, where I am privileged to teach the most wonderful undergraduate students in the world, bar none—gets its act together and truly “commits to candor”, they will have failed to earn the trust of an understandably skeptical community of faculty, staff, and most important, those wonderful students themselves, who are hurting and looking for leadership to fill the deep void that exists now in its place.

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