By Wally Hauck

Trust Is Essential for the Health of an Organization – Part 2
28 November 2017 | 10:07 am

In a recent blog I promised to expand and clarify how a leader can, and must, predictably manage the variation in trust to produce desired results.  Therefore, the purpose of this 4-part series of blogs is to clarify why trust is so important, define and appreciate a definition for trust, to clarify the most effective way to think about trust, and to provide a framework for a predictable method for building and maintaining trust.  It needs to be predictable.

To accomplish this requires two important sets of ideas.   The first is an appreciation of the right definition of trust. We adopted The International Association of Business Communicators definition of trust: “a willingness to be vulnerable because of the presence of integrity, concern, competence and shared objectives.”

Second, I suggested we adopt a leadership structure of THINK – BEHAVE – IMPROVE (TBI). This structure will give us an introduction to how an optimum leader thinks, how an optimum leader behaves and how an optimum leader acts to improve both behaviors and the system within which they and their team members operate.  In this blog we will expand and clarify the THINK portion of the structure.

Leadership theory is so challenging because it’s paradoxical. We want control, but we don’t want micro-management.  We want freedom to act, but we must avoid chaos.  What is the best way of thinking about the world (about people and problems) that will enable us to manage the variation in trust and deal with the complexity and the paradox?  The answer is ‘systems thinking.’

As recently as 2012, a nurse, in an Ohio Hospital, accidently discarded a kidney that was awaiting a transplant and had been provided by a living donor.  The nurse had been on break, had been replaced by a different nurse, and was therefore unaware the kidney was submerged in an ice filled sludge.  She purposely disposed of the contents into a disposal hopper thinking the kidney was still in the operating room because “that’s what usually happens.”

The hospital suspended the two nurses after the incident; one was later fired, and the other resigned.  Furthermore, a surgeon was stripped of his title as director of some surgical services.  What a tragedy on many levels.

The nurse who discarded the kidney had walked past a doctor and other nurses carrying the container.  Should someone have noticed?  Should someone have said something?  How was she to know?  If we embrace the typical “industrial age” model of management, which uses command and control leadership strategies and focuses on holding people accountable for results, the act of firing the nurse makes total sense.  The general rule in this model is: “results were not achieved and someone (or perhaps multiple people) must be at fault!”  That’s the prevalent philosophy most of us were taught.  That model continues to dominate in our schools and our organizations yet today, i.e. “someone must be held accountable for the results.”  This model cannot create optimum trust.

Systems thinking is a way to see the world recognizing the interdependency of the parts of the whole. The interdependency idea helps us to realize that each part of the system (each employee) is impacted by and can impact all the other parts.  This idea makes cooperation and the quality of communication essential for achievement of the aim or purpose for which the system was created. Everyone cooperating and communicating fosters trust.

The industrial age model can be described using two different metaphors.  The first, “an organization is like a machine”. In this metaphor all parts can be individually evaluated for efficiency and effectiveness and are easily replaceable.  Furthermore, the parts serve no purpose on their own.  The parts each perform only to serve the machine.  They cannot make independent decisions.  Management is by domination.  The parts are dominated by their position in the workings of the machine.

The second metaphor is: “organization is like a human body”.  This is where the parts (the organs, the extremities) have no other purpose than to serve the whole.  Management of the parts is by command and control.  The parts serve the “head” because the “head” makes all decisions.  The parts have no decision-making skill nor purpose separate from serving the “head”.

A more useful metaphor for the systems thinking approach is “an organization is like an orchestra”.   In this metaphor the parts can exercise choice.  An orchestra and an organization are social systems.  A social system is self-organizing and self-regulating.  The parts cannot be controlled.  They instead can be influenced because they all have choice.  They can choose to serve the community (and the customer).  The quality of the interactions and the cooperation between the parts are the most important factors in achieving the purpose of the whole (the community).  It’s not about replacing the parts when a mistake occurs.  It’s about the parts understanding the purpose of the social system (to produce beautiful music), understanding their roles and responsibilities in that system, and how they can cooperate with each other.  These elements enable the system to produce the desired outcomes (e.g. beautiful music to be enjoyed or a successful operation).

In 2016 Wells Fargo fired 5,000 employees for creating millions of unauthorized bank and credit card accounts.  Customers complained, and leadership acted.  The employees were incentivized by the Wells Fargo leadership to sell a certain number of new accounts to banking customers within a certain timeframe.  More so, they were threatened by that leadership with disciplinary action if these stretch goals were not met.

To save their careers they created new accounts using customer data and without customer knowledge. Did the employees do this completely on their own or did the policies influence them?  What they did was wrong and there is no defending it.  Simply stated, in a social system, one part will influence the other and to remove root causes requires a new way of thinking about leadership and the impact it has on the parts and on the community. Wells Fargo leadership blamed the people, yet their incentive policy contributed to the inappropriate behaviors.

In our hospital example, there was probably a dozen or more hand-offs that occurred in that operating room between the surgery preparation time and the time the nurse returned from her break.  Each of those hand-offs was an opportunity for effective communication and cooperation.  Information about the location of the kidney was a hand-off.  What to do with the slush was a hand-off.  Each of those hand-offs was a process that could be improved.  To blame the nurse(s) does nothing to improve those hand-offs and therefore, nothing to prevent a reoccurrence.

If we fired every nurse and every bank employee in the country and replaced them all with highly trained substitutes would anything improve?  It’s unlikely because the system did not change.  Systems thinking provides every leader with the best opportunity to create an environment where trust can flourish.  The first section of our leadership structure is labeled THINK.  It means an optimum leader who wants to effectively manage the variation in trust must embrace systems thinking and the metaphor of the orchestra.  Do you want optimum trust?  Have you embraced “systems thinking”?

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