How trustworthy is trust?

RTWMatters team

Trust is a key predictor of organisational success, says the Great Places to Work Institute. What matters is not only how much others trust you, but how trusting YOU are.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re an employee of Southwest Airlines, working nine to five at Florida’s airport. A fifteen year old girl approaches you, with her 11 year old brother and 13 year old friend in tow. “Three tickets to Nashville, Tennessee,” she says. She’s got the money to pay for the tickets, no problem. And since it’s a domestic flight, and the kids are all under 18, there’s no need to see identification. Do you trust her?

Apparently, you do. The trio traipses through security, boards a plane, and, after travelling nearly 1000 kms, disembarks safely in Nashville.

Problem number one: the kids’ parents have no idea where they are. Problem number two: the kids are trying to get to Dollywood, a Dolly Parton themed amusement park that is 300 kms away from Nashville. The kids are now far from home and stranded.  

For anyone who’s had personal experience of US airline security since 9/11, this is a hard-to-believe story—but it really happened. The Guardian reports that Mark Orwoll, an aviation commentator at Travel and Leisure magazine, was flabbergasted—and horrified by the blind trust exhibited by airline staff. "Alarm bells,” Orwoll wrote on his blog, “should have been ringing like Notre Dame Cathedral on Bastille Day."

Trust certainly has its pitfalls—but it also has its advantages.

According to Robert Levering, author of A Great Place to Work and co-founder of the Great Places to Work Institute, “trust between managers and employees is the primary defining characteristic of the very best workplaces.”

Organisational trust is not simply a feel-good phenomenon. Levering argues that there is a correlation between the level of trust within an organisation and business outcomes including productivity, customer satisfaction and financial return.

In an article for Corrections Today magazine, Levering describes a “famous 1998 study published in the Harvard Business Review article “The Employee-Customer-Profit Chain at Sears”” that shows how “an increase in employee satisfaction at a store resulted in an increase in customer satisfaction, which in turn resulted in higher profitability for the store”.

He also refers to research by a Wall Street investment service that compares the financial results of a portfolio of stocks of companies that have a high internal trust rating, with a portfolio of an established stock market index (Standard & Poor's 500). “The results,” Leverin says, “were dramatic.” Portfolios held by the companies with a culture of trust “would have outperformed the S&P 500 by a ratio of almost five-to-one.”

In the workers’ compensation context, Australian research shows that claimants who are viewed with suspicion, and who don’t trust their employer to look after them, tend to feel dissatisfied with the system, and have poorer financial, social and health outcomes. (Read more about this research here.)  

So how can trust be nurtured in the workplace? And can you really assess or measure something as intangible as trust?

Levering thinks so. Established in San Francisco in 1991, his Great Places to Work Institute now has affiliate offices in nearly 55 countries, including Australia.

Companies decide to take part, then employees conduct the assessments on which the “best company” rankings are based. Firstly, in-house Human Resources staff conduct a “culture audit”, assessing their organisation’s policies, practices and procedures.

Next, all employees complete a “trust index” survey which addresses the five factors that the Great Places to Work Institute has concluded are essential to organisational trust:

  1. Credibility;
  2. Respect;
  3. Fairness;
  4. Pride; and
  5. Camaraderie.

In 2010, according to the Australian branch of the Great Places to Work Institute, the data storage and management firm NetApp was Australia’s best place to work. (NetApp is also the number one place to work in Switzerland, and makes it into the top five in France and Canada too.)

Almost ten years later, in 2019, Australia's number one place to work is another tech company, SalesForce.


NetApp, so the company press release from 2010, is committed to “a strong, egalitarian workplace culture” and “adopts a down-to-earth approach...where employee input is encouraged and valued”.

But, as then Australian Council of Trade Unions Media Coordinator Mark Phillips noted, most of the high-ranking organisations on the Great Places to Work list “were the usual suspects in media, IT, and other ‘cool’ industries”.

“As usual in these types of surveys,” he said, “A lot of emphasis is put on things like video gaming machines, gyms, ‘cool’ meeting rooms or bean bags.  They sound like a lot of fun and might make a workplace more 'interesting'. Heck, who wouldn’t want to relax playing some video games in a bean bag!

“But these things don't necessarily mean a workplace is the best place to work in. In fact these kinds of things can be window dressing for terrible workplaces.”

In 2019, tech companies still dominate the list, although a few more traditional industries are on there too.

For Phillips, whatever the industry, great places to work get the basics right: freedom from harassment, bullying and intimidation, good Occupational Health and Safety practices, inclusive employment and job and income security.

Levering concedes that surveyed workers are usually quick to mention the perks on offer in their industry and company, but argues that “good benefits alone do not create a great workplace.”

“Almost every imaginable type of organization has been on the Fortune list,” Levering says, “From Wall Street investment houses and mass market retailers to small non-profit hospitals and consulting firms…. The main variable is the attitude and behaviour of the management rather than the type of organisation.”

Like the hapless staff at Southwest Airlines, we're all capable of too much trust. We're also capable of missing out on good things because we don't trust enough. And as the ACTU points out, organisations sometimes substitute rhetoric and hollow gestures for genuine, trust-nurturing action.

The good news is that there are concrete things you can do to nurture a culture within your organisation, team or department that is neither naïve nor overly guarded, but appropriately and genuinely trusting.

Elsewhere, RTWMatters offers practical tips for cultivating trust. For now, we'll leave you to ponder the really big question posed by the Florida runaways' trust-exploiting shenanigans: just why was a trio of kids hightailing it to Dollywood?

Published 15 August, 2010 | Updated 05 November, 2019