The formula that breeds confidence

A psychological assessment that defines individuals’ impact at work will help managers trust their teams to deliver, writes Dr John Mervyn-Smith

Picture the scene: two parents playing in the park with their young children. One of the kids, a two-year-old, is being tossed into the air and caught. The child squeals with delight and pleads for more. They trust, implicitly, that they will be caught, that they are safe.

Such observations suggest that trust is ‘hard-wired’, that, as social animals, we are prepared to depend upon, and trust in, others. Yet many managers and leaders fail to trust their employees. Why?

The answer lies in the fact that nurture inevitably shapes nature when it comes to trust.

We all have experiences of being supported and of being let down, and these experiences shape our expectations of colleagues. Optimists continue to trust until they have been let down, while pessimists will be wary from the outset. They are slow to trust until they know they can, that it is safe to do so.

We develop constructs to help in this process of trust that are often a product of experience and received wisdom: for example, “you can always trust a surgeon”. The most common construct that shapes our expectations of trust is that of ‘perceived similarity’.

Most of us would like to consider ourselves to be trustworthy. If we see ourselves as trustworthy, then we are inclined to trust people who are like us. Many selection decisions, conscious or unconscious, will be influenced by this assumption and the expectations that go with it. Conversely, of course, this approach to trust means that people are wary of difference, suspicious of strangeness and strangers. It is easy to see this wariness as part of a survival instinct.

But our inability to trust those who are different to us is bad for business. Different people have different talents – and we need to be able to trust those who operate in a different way to ourselves, or who have very different personalities to our own, if our organization is to thrive.

Respect and trust frequently top the list of what employees value most. However, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2015 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement survey – just 33% of employees say they are very satisfied with the respect they receive at work. Similarly, only 28% said they were very satisfied with the trust between themselves and senior management. Clearly something is going wrong.

Trust in the workplace

At work, trust is particularly valued. Hierarchical relationships are unequal when it comes to power and dependence – and this inequality can become unbearable when people cannot trust their boss.

It’s no surprise, then, that employee engagement surveys regularly highlight the importance of managers being ‘consistent’ and ‘fi rm but fair’. Th ese qualities make people predictable, and it is this predictability that makes people trustworthy. Whether it’s doing the ‘right’ thing or the ‘wrong’ thing, we can develop an expectation of how someone will behave if we see them as consistent.

The interdependence of our relationships at work means that trust has to be a two-way affair, if we are to be at our happiest and most productive. People want to trust their managers, managers want to trust their staff – and employees want to trust colleagues in their team.

The expectations factor

The reality in modern business is that people all too rarely know what to expect of one another. In any relationship, unrealistic expectations are most likely to lead to disappointment and a sense of being let down.

For more than half a century, management consultants have used measures of personality to facilitate the development of trust. The assumption here is that if we understand another’s personality, we are more likely to trust them. There is some logic in this approach.

However, human beings tend to judge one another on what they do, not their intentions. We base trust upon a judgment of what we can rely upon; reliability is the basis for trust. Knowing someone is warm or outgoing, detached or analytical, doesn’t tell us if they are reliable or trustworthy. It is their deeds not their words that tell us this: we assume that past actions are a reliable predictor of future actions. The past is all we have to go on.

Organizations with which we are working are starting to use The GC Index. This new organometric defines an individual’s contribution and impact at work and, therefore, predicts what they will actually do in any given situation. It provides a useful framework for thinking about what we can expect of people at work; what we can trust them to do – and not to do. It gives managers a very clear understanding of the people in their team; they will know what to expect of them, what to ask of them and how to ‘stretch’ them.

The GC Index

The GC Index describes five roles that people take on at work; five different ways of making an impact. These roles developed from three years of research that initially focused upon transformative individuals with the capacity to deliver meaningful change to their organization – people known as ‘game changers’.

As the research developed, it became quickly apparent that these individuals are most effective when they have around them people performing four other key and complementary roles: playmakers, implementers, polishers and strategists (see infographic, above).

Given the adaptability of human nature, many individuals will be able to move between one or two roles over time but, nonetheless, most individuals will have a preference for making a particular contribution – their natural inclination.


Dr John Mervyn-Smith is chief psychologist and director at the GC Index