Trust and Accountability

Dr. Arlena Jung

Trust and accountability are more important than ever.

The increasing complexity of work tasks, the inreasing rapidly changing customer demands, a trend towards values emphasizing autonomy and independence - all developments calling for new work forms. agility and new work and as well as virtual and distributed teams depend on both accountability and a cooperative, solution oriented mindset.

Without mutual trust all efforts in this direction a deemed to fail. So what can team leaders and managers do in order to facilitate both trust and accountability in their teams and companies?

Trust and Control

Perhaps you are familiar with the saying "Trust is good. Control is better." (Lenin)? This saying is (in my opinion) based on a widely spread misunderstanding about what trust actually means. Trust is implicitly equated with the relinquishment of control.

In order to hand over responsibility to my employees I must not only have confidence in their competence. I must also trust in their sense of responsibility. So far sound reasoning. If trust is seen as a necessary requirement for handing over responsibility and trust is equated with the relinquishment of control things become a little more difficult. This is what trust implies for many leaders...and their employees.

Trust in Mature Teams

Trust and accountability without contorl can work out just least if you have very muture teams with a high degree team identity. In a mature team haben die Mitarbeiter eine tiefe Überzeugung, die anstehenden Herausforderungen selbstständig meistern zu können. Sie bringen Lust an Gestaltung und Verantwortungsübernahme mit. Wenn ich in diesem Kontext Vertrauen schenke, erzeuge ich mit meinem Vertrauen einen Raum, der mit Energie und Tatendrang gefüllt wird. Reife Teams mit erfahrenen, souveränen und verantwortungsbewussten Mitarbeitern kommen ab dem ersten Tag wunderbar mit Selbststeuerung, agile tools and practices form day one.

Trust and Hierarchy

There will, however, always be teams, that have to first develop the mindset needed for agil tools and practices, flat hiearchies and new work. And this especially in fimrs that have only just begun a transformation process from hierarchical to agil organisations. In these companies employess have been socialized into hierarchical structures. And in these structures they have learned to hand over responsibility and to trust in the experience and expertise of their superiors. In a hierarchichal structure employees often have not had sufficient opportunities the competences and skilled needed in agil team let alone a deep sense of self-efficiacy. And now they are expected to function as self-sufficient teams in no need of leadership?

Let us sharpen the picture a little an think of an organizational context inwhich mistakes and weak performance is punished with degradation and the threat of consequences. In these contexts employees will not only lack sufficient trust in themselves but also in their superiors. A sense of security and adequacy is an indesensible prerequiste for an intrinsice drive to take on responsibility. Without these two prerequistes taking on responsibility not only feels like a risk. It is a risk unwisely taken.

Unfortuntaley managers wishing their employess would take on more responsibilty while at the same time punishing mistakes and inadquate performance is not all that rare. Without realizing it their are creating an atmosphere that is demotivating. And how do they react to their increasingly insecure and demotivated employees? Time and again with and increasingly tight regime of comand and controll.

Control in the sense of a hiearchical command and contol is indeed extremly destructive in terms of motivating employees to take on more responsibility. It has all the components of a self fulfilling prophecy and all the ingredients needed to create a spiral of demotivation and mistrust.

Spiral of Mistrust

What we often see is a negativ spiral of lack of confidence and trust, increasingly detailled requirements, instructions and controlls, lack of self-confidence, demotivation and desidentification. Demotivation and desidentiication are a common, not however, a necessary consequence of command and control structures.

Employees that have a strong inner drive to achieve something and go forward in their careers might react differently. Lack of trust and controllling behaviour will reduce both their identification with team or company goals and their willingness to cooperate just as it will with any other employee. There drive might well remain. What I have then done with my controlling behaviour as a superior is sown the seeds for opportunism, micro politics and power games.

Spiral of Trust

Not only can lack of trust function as a self fulfilling prophecy. So can trust. What we the experience is the dynamic of a positiv upward spiral of trust, high performance and the willingness to cooperate.

Trust is a strong motivator. Trust begins with confidence. Showing my employees that I trust them and have confidence in them is sign of respect and appreciation. With the trust I place in them I am not only expressing expectations . I am also telling them what I think of them. And unlike when I signal a lack of trust this message is very positiv. More often then not this alone wil be a strong motivator evoking the wish in my employees to not disappoint my expectations and upheld the positiv image I have of them.

Collaboration based on mutual trust has in addition the positiv side effect of reducing complexity. Instead of constantly having to second guess the actions and the motivation of my colleagues and employees, instead of always having to be careful not be taken advantages of or double played I can rely on them to do their best to meet our common goals.

Thus trust is not only a cognitive affair. In order to truely understand the impact trust can have on working relations we need to consider its emotional affective dimensions. Trusting someone means being able to rely on them and to be sure they mean well by me. And being able to do this gives us a deep sense of security and safety but also of belonging and solidarity.

Mistrust and the Loss of Trust Hurt!

Lack and especially the loss of trust hurts in a very literal way. This is due to very fundamental needs. Neuroscientific studies have shown that when probands feel unfairly treated the anterior insula is activated. This is a region of the brain responsibel for processing pain.

Many experiments in game theory show that probands more often than not prefer not to recieve any reward than accept one they experience as not being fair. The most well known of these experiments are the ultimatum game and the dictator game..

The need to be treated fairly is apparently not restricted to human beings. Animal experiments have shown that monkeys and dogs that witness other animals recieving a better reward than they do, refuse to go on doing what is required of them to recieve their reward. Sometimes not recieving any reward at all simply feels better than accepting the degradation inherent to an unfair reward. Perhaps you are familiar with the feeling?

We all have a deep need to trust and be trusted. The question is, how can we prevent the development of mistrust and sow the seeds for a postiv upward dynamic of mutual trust, cooperation and the drive of high perfomance teams to fulfill common goals?

The Trust Dilemma

In order to gain and maintain an competitive edge in dynamic and volatil markets companies need motivated, creative and responsible employees. In order to develop their creativity and a sense of purpose employees need supervisors and leaders that trust and have confidence in them. Only then will they get the space and positive feedback they need to befome truely engaged and take resonspibility for finding innovative solutions to challenges as they arise.

For many leaders the result is a dilemma. For many work is no longer characterised by routine tasks and standardised procedures. Producing goods and services that meet the quality standards customers expect can be very demanding. Of course there are individual employees that seem up to the challenge. Many leaders feel that leaving their employees alone with these challenges would be risky to say the least. It contradicts their sense of responsibility and often raises not completely unjustified anxities.

The type of anxity many leaders experience in these situations is a result of a dilemma: Feeling the need to hand over responsibility without having confidence their the ability of their employees to perform as required and trust in their sense of responsbility. In these situations what many leaders experience is a sense of loss of control. The higher the stakes the more difficult it becomes to deal with the sense of a loss of control.

At the same time many leaders feel they no choice.. The higher paced their work is and the more complex the tasks at hand the less they are able to keep an eye on things to the extent necessary for real quality control. They in other words must let their employees work independently. They must must

Trust and the "Leap of Faith"

People often associate trust with a "leap of faith". In the skate boarding community the "leap of faith" is the name of a 6 meter jump from a staircase in an american high school in california. This jump is known as one of the most difficult world wide. No one has managed it so far without getting seriously injured.

Manager risk a lot when taking a leap of faith. If employees don't deliver in the required quality, the financial costs may be high. In some cases there may even be legal consequences. If colleagues abuse my trust it can cost me important opportunities and seriously impair my career.

Even if my employees don't end up disappointing me trust that is based on a leap of faith can have high costs. More likely than not I won't really be able to let go. If I am not truely convinced that my employees are both competent and reliable enough to fulfill their tasks as required micro management.

When managers think they have to relinquish control in order to hand over responsibility what often happens is that they end up creating what is known in psychology as "double binds". Managers start conveying contradictory messages. They convey that they expect more their employees to take on more responsibilities, decide for themselves and find their own solutions. At the same time they let them feel that they are not convinced they have what it takes to do just that. erwarten, gleichzeitig ihnen aber nicht zutrauen die Aufgaben eigenständig in der erforderlichen Qualität zu erfüllen.

What leaders are then saying is basically:"I expect you to take responsibility for dealing with all the challenges of your work on your own although I don't really think you have what it takes to get the job done."

Schlimmstenfalls kommt die Botschaft in einem für den Mitarbeiter noch schwierigen Gewand: "Deal with the challenges of your job as you see fit but also as I see fit even thought I can't really tell you how that would be since it is your area of expertise and not mine." The invitation to take on responsibility and work more independently then feels like a trap in which he or she can only lose in the long run.


With these double binds leaders greatly inhibit any intrinsic motivation their employees may have. More often than not this happens without any bad intentions. It is simply born from the dilemma of having to hand over responsibilities to employees they don't truely trust.

Trust and Double Contingency

Trust has to do with a phenomenon described in Luhmann's systems theory as double contingency . If I meet a stranger I don't know if he is trustworthy or not. Hence the situation is contingent. Dependent on wether he is trustworthy I am well advised to take different courses of action. Systems theorists speak of double contingency because my behaviour is equally contingent for the stranger. Neither does he know wether I am trustworthy nor wether I percieve him as being trustworthy. He, however, does know that what course of action I choose will depend on these two factors. This is a basic characterstic of a social least initially. So how then to people manage to build trust?

Vertrauen, das auf ein „leap of faith“ basiert, ist psychologisch wie auch wirtschaftlich potentiell schädlich. Vertrauen, das eine solide, gesunde und nachhaltige Grundlage hat, ist evidenzbasiert. Wenn ich diese Evidenz brauche, um vertrauen, loslassen und damit nachhaltig Verantwortung abgeben zu können, sind wir nicht wieder bei dem alten Modell von Kontrolle gelandet, das ja auch schädlich sein soll?

No. In order to overcome the double contingency of all human relationships we need what I like to call bridges of trust.

Building Bridges of Trust

What managers and employees need are not fear inducing leaps of faith. They need bridges that bridge the gap between their expectations and the abilites of their employees, between starting and ending points, between what they know and what they don't know.

VertrauensdilemmaBei der Gestaltung von Vertrauensbrücken ist es wichtig, sich als Führungskraft selbst gut zu kennen. Ich will keine wackelige Hängebrücke, sondern eine Brücke, die für mich in meiner gegenwärtigen Situation mit den ganz konkreten Mitarbeitern, den ganz konkreten Aufgaben und meinen ganz konkreten Bedenken und Unsicherheiten eine solide Grundlage bildet. So sind beim Bau von Vertrauensbrücken ganz wichtige und absolut essentielle Zutaten: Selbstwahrnehmung, Selbstempathie und Selbstreflektion.

Quality Control as a Bridge of Trust

One key element of trust bridges is quality control. In terms of leadership psychology quality control is a tricky issue. Control can quickly be interpreted as a sign of lack of trust and confidence in the competence of employees. When this happens more often than not long discussions characterised by justifications and counter attacks are the unwanted result. If quality control is a key element in the construction of bridges of trust how then can they be constructed in a way that they don't lead directly to a negativ downward spiral of mistrust and demotivation?

One key factor is placing the focus on the content not the person. Quality control is about controllling work not controlling people. And that means I am looking collaboratively with my employees at the results of their work basen on shared quality criteria. Together we examine the work process in oder to understand challenges, stumbeling stones with the goal of continual improvement.

When thinking of what mindset quality control is characterised in your area of responsibility it is important to note that it will never be completely possible to seperate the content from the person. Ideally my employees identify with their work. Ideally delivering results that are up to par is a personal goal that they experience as being both important and valuable and from which they derive a sense of purpose. Only if my employees identify with their work will they be intrinsically motivated. Und nur intrinsisch motivierte Mitarbeiter sind bereit und willens in Verantwortung zu gehen.

Trust - a Question of Mindset

Trust is also a question of mindset. In my role as a leader I should be aware in which mindset I engage with my employees and what messages my dialogs convey. If quality control is to be conducive to mutual trust I enter into the dialogs with my employees expecting to hear success stories about what they have achieved. I see quality control as an opportunity to be updated and express my apprieciation for theire work and acknowledge their achievements.

In my role and responsibiltiy as their supervisor my attention not only directed to judging the quality of work results but also to understanding the work process and developing shared quality criteria. The effect of maintaining a regulat dialog about the work process and quality criteria on building robust bridges of trust can barely be overestimated.

I am interested in developing a team culture in which problems are openly adressed in a timely fashion. Problems are seen as a normal part of work life and challenges that want to be solved.

And when my employees do not perform as expected and met the quality standards we agreed on? It is neither my primary and foremost concern to find out who is to blame nor to let off steem be critising them.

My primary concern is to understand the how the perspectives and explanations of my employees and what they see as plausibel solutions. Instead of accusing and demanding I act as a partner ready to help and support looking for solutions and staying constructive. The message I then convey is one of shared responsibility and solidarity. When challenges emerge I intensify the degree of my engagement. Showing strength and loyalty in theses situations will enhance the trust of my employees in my creating deep and long term commitments.

The mindset still common to so many supervisor-employee relationsship of"I control and judge you"is replaced by a mindset of"We control, optimize and overcome challenges together as partners oriented to achieving a common goal" . This mindset is embedded in a continual and open dialog about quality criteria, the work process and overriding goals.

Trust and Transparency

Facilitating trust and accountability means assuring transparency in terms of

  • Arbeitsprozesse und Arbeitsabläufe sowie Qualitätkriterien
  • die operativen Herausforderungen meiner Mitarbeiter und
  • die Arbeitsergebnisse meiner Mitarbeiter

Qualitätskontrolle födert Vertrauen und Verantwortungsübergabe, wenn mein Fokus und meine Energie auf die Sicherstellung von Transparenz für alle Beteiligte gerichtet ist. Das Ziel ist gemeinsam auf Augenhöhe gemeinsam den Weg nach vorn zu definieren und immer wieder neu zu definieren. Dafür ist Transparenz unerlässlich.

Difficult Employee! Now what?

We are all occasionally confronted with difficult employees. No matter how much we try to engage in a constructive dialog, no matter how well we construct our bridges of trust they remain unreliable low performers. What to do with employees from whom I can simply not count on getting the results I need?

If after repeated conversations there is no notabel improvement in the quality of their work it is time to change your mindset. In these contexts handing over responsibility simply does not make sense. In all likelyhood you are dealing with employees that are lacking the necessary drive, competence or sense of responsibility.

If this is the case and you have already tried everything I described there is no point investing endless amounts of energy in trying to achieve a goal that cannot be achieved. In these cases it is essential to develop pragmatic alternatives.

Depending on the organizational context these might entail redefining the responsibilities of your employee or finding someone else for the position. If this is not a realistic alternativ your best option might be to simply accept that trusting this person to deliver in the quality you expect will just lead to endless and frustrating conversations. The best you can do is to factor in the additional time and effort you need to make sure your customers get high quality results as a micro manager.

Verantwortung mitarbeiterorientiert Denken

Time and time again I experience in my work as a coach and consultant that leaders are convinced to have already tried everything, often unaware of the double binds they convey or the potential of well designed bridges of trust. Even with intially difficult employees it is important to stay engaged and keep a dialog going.

If the usual measures don't bring any improvement the first step is always to find time for an open discussion with a genuine interest in understanding the individual drives, inhibitions and issues of this specific employee. How does he explain the quality of his work? What are his ideas and suggestions as to how an improvement could be achieved?

It is important to remember that real change is difficult. With strategies that make sense and are accomodated to the specific needs, characteristics and abilites of my "difficult employees" in can facilitate a positiv development. This is what it means to live the role of a leader as a facilitator and mentor. If all dialogs and agreements remain without effect the only sensibel and responsibel strategy is to change my mindset and choose a different strategy.

Triangel of Trust

When thinking about accountability the focus is usally and understandably primarly placed on the quality of the work and not on the quality of relationships. Since accountability has to do with trust this is not enough. Sowing the seeds for working relationships based on trust and mutual respect means understanding that trust not only has an emotional dimension. It is also evidence based. When talking about how to facilitate a solid foundation for trust based relationships I like to use the idea of a triangel of trust. Trust is based on:

  • transparency concerning results and the work process
  • coherence on a behavioural level
  • shared and transparent expectations, norms, quality criteria, values, goals and interests

Vertrauen und Transparenz

Only if what I say and how I say it are coherent with what I will people trust me. Recognizing values, norms, mindsets, goals and expectations in others that are similar to mine is also has a positiv influenc on trust. The impression that my colleagues not all that different from me enhances my ability to empathize and identifiy with them. Base on this observation of similarities I more or less conciously assume that what they exerpience, what motivates them and how they judge situations is not all that different from what I experience, what motivates me and how I judge situations. I trust in my ability to anticipate what how they will behave, have a feeling I can count on them and trust them. In short when people register similarities even on the surface level of clothing and habitus the experience the situation as being less contingent, the leap of faith necessary to trust someone doesn't feel so

In my role and responsibility as a leader I am well advicsed to regularly find time for team building events which me and my colleagues can get to know eachother personally. Our brains have a tendency to fill the unknown, all the little "black boxes" in our interpersonal relationships with assumptions. And when tensions and conflicts arise these assumptions lead to insecurities, doubts and fears or even stigmatisations - an excellent foundation for the development of a downward spiral of mistrust.

Creating contexts in which the personal relationships can be intensified, recognizing similarities and creating contexts in which differences become understandable on the other hand provides an excellent foundation for the development of trust. These contexts provide space and time for all sorts of social clues - verbal and nonverbal - about the value systems and cognitive landscapes of my colleagues. Personal connections enhance our willingness to cooperate and to work together constructively on finding solutions to challenging situations. The intimacy built in these contexts will provide an important backdrop for dealing with internal tensions, high workloads and challenging situations. Team building is always important when it comes to trust and accountability. In hetergenous and distriputed teams they are more often than not key success factors.

Finding Solutions

Verantwortungsübergabe kann ebenso wenig wie ein kooperatives und lösungsorientiertes Miteinander ohne Vertrauen gelingen. So sind in der heutigen Arbeitswelt robuste Vertrauensbrücken eine zentrale Erfolgsfaktor. Für Agilität, New Work sowie Führung auf Distanz sind sie eine unverzichtbare Voraussetzung. Falls Sie sich Unterstützung auf diesem Weg wünschen, stehen wir Ihnen gerne als Sparringspartner und Berater zur Seite.

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