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The Art of Building Trust in Business: Culture

Executive Summary

Accountability and trust may seem to contradict each other, but when it comes to your business's culture, they actually go hand-in-hand.

  • Without clarity and accountability, even the best employee can become a liability.
  • Your employees can only perform at their best when they have a clear vision of what winning looks like, understand the specific goals they need to own, and are empowered to carry them out.
  • In order to build a business culture of trust, empower employees by not separating power from responsibility and accountability. Employees need to feel that you are entrusting them with big-picture outcomes, not just menial tasks.

President Harry Truman famously kept a sign on his Oval Office desk that read THE BUCK STOPS HERE! What most people don’t remember is the other half of the message. The side facing the president read I’M FROM MISSOURI. A native of the Show-Me State, Truman knew

that when you’ve been entrusted with power, you’re accountable for how you use it. That meant “showing” results—and never passing “the buck.” Harry Truman made accountability a political brand.


Trust grows when expectations are unambiguous. People need to know what winning looks like and where they stand on the path to victory. Trust comes with a scoreboard, with clarity around how results will be measured. Having no gauges is a setup for confusion. When people know what they’re expected to achieve, they can focus on doing it rather than trying to figure out what matters most. They can trust the system.

If a basketball coach is focusing on offense, the metric will lean toward the points his team puts on the board. If he’s concentrating on defense, the measure will lean toward how many points the other team scores. The respective emphases are not the same, and both are different from simply saying, “Play your best.” Neither one is objectively better; a coach’s choice of what to emphasize will depend on the skills of the players and his expectation of what will lead to victory. Depending on the opponent, the coach can reinforce offense or defense. Without clarity, a freelancing or bewildered player is disconnected from the game plan and becomes a liability.

You don’t have to be a student of the NBA to recognize that any number of teams had star individuals who were unable to lead their teams anywhere, while some NBA teams were great not because of one great player but because several players worked together under an accountability system established by the coach. The San Antonio Spurs of 2014, the New York Knicks of 1970 (and plenty of champions in between) won titles because each player was accountable to a system. As with basketball, companies perform best when expectations are clear, where roles are focused, and where teammates can rely on each other. In that environment, trust can develop and reliable interdependencies can flourish.

Salesforce, for example, has institutionalized accountability. Chairman and co-CEO Marc Benioff created V2MOM to give the company a “high level of organizational alignment and communication while growing at breakneck speeds.”

V2MOM, an acronym for Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, and Measures, makes accountability a hallmark for the company and for each employee. V2MOM establishes a total alignment around the measures by which people can be held accountable.

  • “Vision” lays out what you aim to do.
  • “Values” describes what’s important about that vision—articulating the
  • principles and beliefs that guided it.
  • “Methods” identifies the steps needed to get the job done by everyone, whereas
  • “Obstacles” describes what stands in the way.
  • “Measures” provide a metric to let people know when the vision had been attained.

According to Benioff, V2MOM guides every decision at Salesforce and gives a “detailed map of where we were going, as well as a compass to direct us there.”


Here are four suggestions for creating a culture in which trust is secured by accountability:

1)   Define what winning looks like.

It’s easier to succeed when we have a sense of what we’re trying to achieve. Without clarity about outcomes, nobody can be accountable. Leaders need to start with a clear vision everyone can remember—not only with budgets and time frames but also with specific results team members own. It’s not enough to set vague goals, no matter how elevated—We Want to Be Number One—if there’s no way to measure results. Without sufficiently sharp definition, accountability can’t live. Without accountability, trust erodes.

Some years ago, FranklinCovey conducted a survey of thousands of employees across multiple industries showing that trust levels weren’t very high in most companies. That conclusion correlated with the inability of employees, even leaders, to articulate the central goals of their respective enterprises. In one telling case, nine top executives were asked to list their company’s top three objectives. The tally: twenty-four different goals.

It’s little wonder team members don’t really trust what they’re being told if the targets are ever-moving, hazy, or entirely unknown. Clarity empowers people; ambiguity cripples them. And without clarity around winning, it’s hard to set up the scoreboard around measures of accountability.

2)   Set clear expectations.

Say you’re given authority to build a new facility and you’re responsible for its timely, cost-effective completion. Now imagine that no one gives you a budget, a timetable, a list of aesthetic requirements, or any other measure that helps assess your work. You proudly get the building done in eighteen months for $40 million, only to learn that the people who had “empowered” you expected it six months sooner and $10 million cheaper. You had the power. You took responsibility. But no one set up accountability criteria. That’s the kind of pseudo empowerment that ends careers and destroys companies. Unfortunately, in many organizations, the trio of power, responsibility, and accountability get separated. This leaves no one fully empowered and no one fully accountable. In this vacuum, trust withers.

3)   Expect accountability to enhance trust.

Many leaders are only too happy to give team members the power to carry out all kinds of mini-assignments and contributory tasks. But that’s not enough to harness the power of trust or the accountability that accompanies it. Unless people are also given responsibility for big-picture outcomes, they know leaders don’t trust them with the important stuff. On the other hand, if leaders are willing to collaborate with team members on the overall objectives, most team members will rise to the challenge, feeling trusted with outcomes, not just tasks.

4)   Accompany accountability with credit.

When team members succeed in achieving broader objectives, the best leaders step aside and allow them to take the glory. And if teams stumble, the most trustworthy leaders step in to absorb the blame. (Players take the wins; coaches take the losses.) Nothing kills trust faster than a leader who calls shots and makes assignments, only to blame everyone else when things go wrong. Trust wilts in the presence of leaders who absorb the limelight. It grows when they reflect it on their team members.

If you haven’t spent much time in a high-trust environment, accountability may initially feel like mistrust. Some people might ask, “Is it really trust if you’re constantly asked to account for the power you’ve been granted?” The answer is yes. To prosper, organizational trust has to be protected from misuse. Without accountability, trust doesn’t have a chance. But like the image of pulling up carrots to see if they’re still growing, too frequent measures will kill trust and arrest growth.

High-trust accountability should be about removing obstacles rather than citing failures. It should feel less like doling out blame and more like people paying attention and, then, celebrating successes. There’s no point in trusting individuals if what they do with our trust doesn’t come close to what we expect. Conversely, it’s no good being trusted if we’re not sure what we’re supposed to do with another’s trust. If we don’t have a clear sense of responsibility for outcomes, we may lose trust altogether, even when we act in good faith.

Accountability illuminates trust and makes empowerment work by giving people the clarity and confidence they need to be trustworthy in meeting objectives and the knowledge that they’ll be given credit for success.

Excerpted with permission from The 10 Laws of Trust: Expanded Edition by Joel Peterson, copyright Joel C. Peterson with David A. Kaplan.

Bring It Home

“Umm…while you’re working on that, is there something I’m supposed to be doing?” That was the question I recently got from a client. Mistakenly, I’d assumed she knew the steps she needed to take next, and the order she needed to take them. I was wrong. My poor client wasn’t trying to sit on her hands. She was just stuck in the unknown. She needed me to give her direction—clear direction with actionable steps.

Have you seen a lack of clarity or accountability erode trust within an organization and its business culture? What steps could have been taken to prevent it? Comment below to share your solution.“~ HarperCollins Leadership Essentials

Joel Peterson

Joel Peterson is the chairman of JetBlue Airways and the founding partner of Peterson Partners, a Salt Lake City-based investment management firm. Joel is on the faculty at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University and has been since 1992.

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