Ensuring trust, responsibility and accountability in your business

You can’t develop a culture of trust with your clients or customers if you don’t have an ethos of trust within you own organisation advises Peter Wood.

I spent a number of days in a mountaineering hut in the Alps a few years ago. I was with a group of climbing friends, and one of them had been on several adventurous expeditions, including one trip to the South Atlantic. During that trip, their small sailing vessel had been caught in a severe southern storm, and the boat had capsized three times. I remember listening to his recollections of that life-changing experience. His memorable words were: “You know, Peter, if we hadn’t known each other and trusted each other we wouldn’t have survived.”

Trust makes teams work – without it a team is just a collection of individuals. I’ve seen many definitions of trust, but the one that resonates with me is: “The expectation that team members will fulfil the responsibilities placed upon them by the rest of the team.”

In my view, there are two ways that you, the business owner, can build a business:- you can choose to be the autocratic “Boss” or, on the other hand, you can work to develop a culture of trust within your organisation.

Q – Teams need a culture of trust to make big decisions, and without it, they don’t thrive, they don’t develop and they don’t grow

If you’ve chosen to be the “Boss”, you’ll be trying to build a business around telling people what to do. There’s a problem with that approach: if you are not there to tell them what to do, no one takes the initiative and your staff will choose to do as little as possible.

Building a business around trust and shared responsibilities is a far better approach. Then, if you are not there, your team has the confidence to make decisions on their own, and your business works without you being there all day, every day.

You get the freedom to take time away from the business – play golf, take a holiday, or spend time with your family. And if you want to sell the business at some stage in the future, you can. No one wants to buy a business where the owner is working in the business and every decision revolves around him or her.

Ethos of trust

Developing your team, enabling them in their roles and supporting them in their responsibilities ensures your business is substantially more valuable, and will in time grow to become a real financial asset. And remember, you can’t develop a culture of trust with your clients or customers if you don’t have an ethos of trust within you own organisation.

I’ve seen both management styles in my career. On one hand, I’ve worked with inspirational leaders who intuitively know that trust is the best way to get the most out of their people. I worked with such an exemplary leader a number of years ago, and when his organisation had occasion to hire a new events manager, her story illustrated how that organisation’s culture of trust empowered and encouraged staff to give their best and become key elements in the team.

I had a coffee with her a few months after she joined, and she told me how she felt she could do her job so much better because she was given the space and responsibility to make her own decisions. She was happy in her job, and in my experience, happy staff give their best.

It’s something I’m passionate about – having worked in organisations where staff ‘happiness’ is an essential ingredient of culture, I believe I have a responsibility to share that ethos and culture with my own clients and their teams.

I’ve also seen organisations where trust is non-existent, and staff are micro-managed to try to make sure they are being productive. It doesn’t work. In those organisations staff do what they need to do and do no more, no one takes responsibility (in fact they try to pass responsibility on to someone else), and when it comes to major decisions and bigger projects, those organisations cannot make (nor act on) strategic decisions. Teams need a culture of trust to make big decisions, and without it, they don’t thrive, they don’t develop and they don’t grow.

Responsibility and accountability

But it’s not just about trust – it’s also about responsibility. Trust and responsibility are two sides to one coin. You can’t develop an ethos of trust without defining individual responsibilities.

Don’t confuse “Roles” and “Responsibilities” – they are not the same. I was visiting a business colleague a few months ago, and we were discussing one of his employees. “What does he do in the company?” I asked. “He drives the truck” was my colleague’s reply. “I know that”, I thought to myself, and asked a second question “So what’s his responsibility?” This time my colleague’s reply was far more enlightening: “To make sure the load is delivered to the customer!”

Understanding the structure of responsibilities within an organisation will give insights into the practical dynamics of team relationships as well as the underlying culture of that organisation. And there’s another element in the equation – Accountability.

Accountability could be defined as the acceptance of responsibility for one’s own actions, and that acceptance by an individual implies a willingness to be judged on performance by others. To bring accountability, everyone on the team needs to be questioned – “What actions did you take to fulfil your responsibilities? How do you justify what you did?”

Actions taken by one team member may not always be self-explanatory to others, and the process of allowing team members to explain their actions and justifying why those steps were taken is an essential ingredient of building a culture of respect, interpersonal trust, and long-term team cohesiveness.

A couple of months ago I met a young businessman for a coffee, and we had a conversation about his growth plans for his business. To fulfil his vision, he realised that he’d need to step back into the sales arena, but to do that, he knew he’d need to employ a van driver. For a young businessman, it was a significant step, and his biggest concern was his future responsibilities towards his prospective employee.

“What happens if it fails?”, he asked. “How can I be sure I’ll have enough cash to pay him?” He thought about that for a while, and then after a few minutes of introspection he asked me “Peter, Do I need to create a plan?”

Yes, you do, as a business owner it’s a responsibility that rests on your shoulders. In the today’s commercial world risk is always present, failure is always a distinct possibility, and failing to plan is tantamount to planning to fail. When I saw that young businessman looking ahead with concern and responsibility towards his future employee, I also felt the beginnings of a business culture based on core values of responsibility and trust.

Earlier in this article I’ve defined team trust as the expectation that each member will fulfil the responsibilities placed upon them by the rest of the team. But there’s a deeper definition of trust that I sometimes use – “the sense that team members are comfortable with others on the team making decisions that affect them all”. In high performance teams, whether in business or in sport, decisions often need to be made by individuals “on-the-spot” and without reference to the team as a whole. Maybe it’s the salesperson in front of a client, making a decision to accept a deal that’s outside their terms of guidance. The team need to accept the individual’s decision and work from there. Without trust that a key individual made the right decision, no team can operate in a long term, cohesive manner.

So remember that trio of TRUST, RESPONSIBILITY and ACCOUNTABILITY, and keep in mind how that trio applies to YOU:

  • You are the business owner and leader, and that culture of TRUST starts with you.
  • And it’s your RESPONSIBILITY to create a viable business plan. And lastly, remember that you too are ACCOUNTABLE. You cannot hold others ACCOUNTABLE if they do not see you as being also held ACCOUNTABLE.
  • You are ACCOUNTABLE to your business plan and to the rest of your management team.

  Main image: Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Peter Wood
Peter Wood is the owner of Iridium Management. He has many years’ experience in business, and uses his knowledge and skill to help companies find a path to growth and success. His passion is mountaineering, and he uses some of the lessons learnt on adventures to inspire leadership in organisations, and to encourage teams to focus, collaborate and work effectively together.