Organisation Trust (or Lack of) Will Make or Break Success in Navigating Through and Beyond COVID-19

Setting the Context for Change

The global COVID-19 crisis thrusted businesses around the world into an uncertain and volatile environment. Almost overnight, many were caught off-guard as they started wandering into uncharted territory, with sudden work-from-home policies and travel bans. Organisations which depended heavily on on-site operations or were not equipped for the situation, stopped work; many moved towards remote working by making adjustments and waited to tide over the crisis; and yet others took the opportunity to fundamentally relook and adapt the way they do business.

Same Crisis, Different Response. Why?

Evidently, businesses were not tackling the crisis on equal footing. Some were hit harder than others and everything that went wrong appeared to be beyond one’s control.

In truth, we chose how we reacted to the situation. What became apparent was that businesses reacted and responded differently to the crisis. While some businesses hoped to “wait out” the crisis, others immediately employed new strategies to adapt and transform their business. Why might the response differ from organisation to organisation? What determines the way organisations react and respond?

If an organisation is a living matter, its corporate culture is akin to its DNA; it is a set of principles that guides decision-making and “The Way We Work” in response to any situation. Research has continuously shown that organisations with healthy and strong cultures are more resilient and achieve better outcomes, such as engaged employees, loyal customers, and improved financial performance. Senior partner at McKinsey, Tanguy Catlin, has even dubbed culture to be an “amplifier” (MIT CIO Symposium 2018), amplifying the effects of 3 key pillars supporting the growth and returns of businesses – Excellent Strategy, Enabling Structure and Systems, and Competent Workforce. Without the “amplifier”, it does not matter how excellent your 3 pillars are; it all leads to sub-optimal performance.

“Bad companies are destroyed by crisis, good companies survive them, great companies are improved by them”

- Intel’s former CEO Andy Grove

In times of uncertainty, culture is crucial in determining how your organisation navigates the business environment during and post-crisis. What lies here is an opportunity in crisis. With the right culture, it can bring an organisation from “bad to good”, and “good to great”.

What opportunity has COVID-19 presented?

In late April 2020, Barrett Values Centre conducted a global survey to understand the impact of COVID-19 on organisation culture and what employees desired moving forward. Approximately 1,400 employees responded to the survey. Based on survey findings, organisations experienced significant cultural “shift” due to COVID, moving from performance, control, and hierarchy to one that is focused on people, adaptability and working together.

Illustration by Barrett Values Centre

Building Organisation Trust as a Foundation to Navigating the Future

Given the positive developments in terms of what people desire, what can go wrong? The challenge often comes when what is espoused is different from what is done in practice.

“No trust with team members. Nearly 4 in 5 people report that their team members are typically not willing to acknowledge their weaknesses to one another, which highlights the pervasive lack of vulnerability-based trust throughout the workplace”

Source: Wiley, State of Team 2020 Report

It has been well established that the foundation of any high performing culture is Organisation Trust. In navigating a post-crisis environment, trust has become more important than ever. Without organisation trust, there is lack of “psychological safety”, often resulting in observable limiting behaviours such as:

  • Avoid taking risks (cannot rely on others to watch their backs)

  • Focus only on things they know and are in control of (draw “lines”)

  • Fail to hold others accountable, even when it is the right thing to do (avoid conflict)

  • Start to blame others when things go wrong

  • Hoard information

  • Say yes, but mean no (or very slow to act)

  • Lack of drive and discipline to make things happen (problems hold them back)

  • Look to someone else to lead and make the decision (no ownership)

“Trust is like the air we breathe, nobody really notices, but when it’s absent, everybody notices.”