Monday, April 1, 2019

Culture Insights from The Speed of Trust by Stephen M.R. Covey

In The Speed of Trust,* Stephen M.R. Covey posits that trust is the key competency that allows individuals (especially leaders), groups, organizations, and societies to work at optimum speed and cost.  In his view, “Leadership is getting results in a way that inspires trust.” (p. 40)  We saw the book mentioned in an NRC personnel development memo** and figured it was worth a look. 

Covey presents a model of trust made up of a framework, language to describe the framework’s components, and a set of recommended behaviors.  The framework consists of self trust, relationship trust and stakeholder trust.  Self trust is about building personal credibility; relationship trust is built on one’s behavior with others; and stakeholder trust is built within organizations, in markets (i.e., with customers), and over the larger society.  His model is not overly complicated but it has a lot of parts, as shown in the following figure.

Figure by Safetymatters

4 Cores of credibility 

Covey begins by describing how the individual can learn to trust him or herself.  This is basically an internal process of developing the 4 Cores of credibility: character attributes (integrity and intent) and competence attributes (capabilities and results).  Improvement in these areas increases self-confidence and one’s ability to project a trust-inspiring strength of character.  Integrity includes clarifying values and following them.  Intent includes a transparent, as opposed to hidden, agenda that drives one’s behavior.  Capabilities include the talents, skills, and knowledge, coupled with continuous improvement, that enable excellent performance.  Results, e.g., achieving goals and keeping commitments, are sine qua non for establishing and maintaining credibility and trust.

13 Behaviors  

The next step is learning how to trust and be trusted by others.  This is a social process, i.e., it is created through individual behavior and interaction with others.  Covey details 13 types of behavior to which the individual must attend.  Some types flow primarily, but not exclusively, from character, others from competence, and still others from a combination of the two.  He notes that “. . . the quickest way to decrease trust is to violate a behavior of character, while the quickest way to increase trust is to demonstrate a behavior of competence.” (p. 133)  Covey provides examples of each desired behavior, its opposite, and its “counterfeit” version, i.e., where people are espousing the desired behavior but actually avoiding doing it.  He describes the problems associated with underdoing and overdoing each behavior (an illustration of the Goldilocks Principle).  Behavioral change is possible if the individual has a compelling sense of purpose.  Each behavior type is guided by a set of principles, different for each behavior, as shown in the following figure.

Figure by Safetymatters

Organizational alignment

The third step is establishing trust throughout an organization.  The primary mechanism for accomplishing this is alignment of the organization’s visible symbols, underlying structures, and systems with the ideals expressed in the 4 Cores and 13 Behaviors, e.g., making and keeping commitments and accounting for results.  He describes the “taxes” associated with a low-trust organization and the “dividends” associated with a high-trust organization.  Beyond that, there is nothing new in this section.

Market and societal trust

We’ll briefly address the final topics.  Market trust is about an entity’s brand or reputation in the outside world.  Building a strong brand involves using the 4 Cores to establish, maintain or strengthen one’s reputation.  Societal trust is built on contribution, the value an entity creates in the world through ethical behavior, win-win business dealings, philanthropy and other forms of corporate social responsibility.     

Our Perspective 

Covey provides a comprehensive model of how trust is integral to relationships at every level of complexity, from the self to global relations.
The fundamental importance of trust is not new news.  We have long said organization-wide trust is vital to a strong safety culture.  Trust is a lubricant for organizational friction which, like physical friction, slows down activities, and makes them more expensive.  In our Safetysim*** management simulator, trust was an input variable that affected speed and effectiveness of problem resolution and overall cost performance. 

Covey’s treatment of culture is incomplete.  While he connects some of his behaviors or principles to organizational culture,**** he never actually defines culture.  It appears he thinks culture is something that “just is” or, perhaps, a consequence or artifact of performing the behaviors he prescribes.  It’s reasonable to assume Covey believes motivated individuals can behave their way to a better culture, saying “. . . behave your way into the person you want to be.” (pp. 87, 130)  His view is consistent with culture change theorists who believe people will eventually develop desired values if they model desired behavior long enough.  His recipe for cultural change boils down to “Just do it.”  We prefer a more explicit definition of culture, something along the spectrum from the straightforward notion of culture as an underlying set of values to the idea of culture as an emergent property of a complex socio-technical system. 

Trust is not the only candidate for the primary leadership or organizational competence.  The same or similar arguments could also be made about respect.  (Covey mentions respect but only as one of his 13 behaviors.)  Two-way respect is also essential for organizational success.  This leads to an interesting question: Could you respect a leader without trusting him/her?  How about some of the famous hard-ass bosses of management lore, like Harold Geneen?  Or General Patton? 

Covey is obviously a true believer in his message and his presentation has a fervor one normally associates with religious zeal.  He also includes many examples of family situations and describes how his prescriptions can be applied to families.  (Helpful if you want to manage your family like a little factory.)  Covey is a devout Mormon and his faith comes through in his writing. 

The book is an easy read.  Like many books written by successful consultants, it is interspersed with endorsements and quotes from business and political notables.  Covey includes a couple of useful self-assessment surveys.  He also offers a valuable observation: “. . . people tend to judge others based on behavior and judge themselves based on intent.” (p. 301)

Bottom line: This book is worth your time if lack of trust is a problem in your organization.

*  Stephen M. R. Covey, The Speed of Trust (New York: Free Press, 2016).  If the author’s name sounds familiar, it may be because his father, Stephen R. Covey, wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a popular self-help book.

**  “Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 FEORP Plan Accomplishments and Successful/Promising Practices at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC),” Dec. 17, 2018.  ADAMS ML18351A243.  The agency uses The Speed of Trust concepts in manager and employee training. 

***  Safetysim is a management training simulation tool developed by Safetymatters’ Bob Cudlin.

****  For example, “A transparent culture of learning and growing will generally create credibility and trust, . . .” (p. 117)