As someone who writes and trains about issues of leadership and workplace culture in China, I often engage in conversations with friends, colleagues, and clients about their workplace relationship problems. The complaints of “my boss is like x” or “my employee is like y” definitely vary in detail, but they nearly all boil down to the lack of one foundational principle: trust.
In many of the worst cases which are sadly all-too-common, a leader can actually end up developing paranoia, a symptom of mental disorder characterized by “intense anxious or fearful feelings and thoughts often related to persecution, threat, or conspiracy”.
Trust may be the single greatest common ingredient in successful teams, yet why is it so often neglected?
I once spoke to an executive in China who, when I mentioned the idea of trust being necessary for a successful team, said, “I don’t want to encourage trust on my team. If my people are afraid of me and each other, they work harder. If they trust each other and me, they’ll get lazy.”
I believe that kind of thinking is small-minded and unproductive, and there are volumes of management science that support my case.
In his book The Speed of Trust, Stephen M. R. Covey explains why trust is so important in today’s economy.
In the research that his firm conducted, they found that high trust increases speed and reduces cost in all relationships, interactions, and transactions. High trust also increases value – value to shareholders and value to customers.
Covey cites a Watson Wyatt 2002 study, in which high-trust organizations outperformed low-trust organizations in total return to shareholders by 286 percent. Covey also found that high-trust organizations also consistently create and deliver more value to their customers through accelerated growth, enhanced innovation, improved collaboration, stronger partnering, better execution, and heightened loyalty.
It’s more than just a trend. The benefits of trust, and detriments of a lack of it are an economic principle. Trust always affects two measurable outcomes – speed and cost. When trust goes down, speed goes down and cost goes up. This creates what Covey calls a “trust tax”. When trust goes up, speed goes up and cost goes down. This creates a “trust dividend.” It’s that simple, and that predictable.
Issues of trust are certainly not exclusive to China but I think China has some unique social conditions which can make it more difficult to build trust.
The big-city system of social organization in China is, in large part, only a few decades old, and the networks of relationships that maintained the rural small-town social order don’t apply in a large city.
There are also scarce resources, and according to my own experience, many people fear that if they trust others, they will be taken advantage of, and fail while their peers get rich.
Finally, the lack of transparency in political and organizational systems coupled with an indirect communication style can lead individuals to constantly be worried about what is happening behind their backs.
Regardless of the reason, I think many people who have lived in both China and abroad can just feel it. There seems to be an element of trust that is kind of missing here.
Thankfully, there is a great deal of research that has been done on this topic in the fields of management theory and organizational psychology, and very clear, simple approaches that leaders can use to create a culture of trust in their organizations.
Givers and takers
According to Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant, those who are largely responsible for creating a culture of mistrust can be identified in one word: Takers.
“Takers are the kinds of people who are always trying to get as much as possible from others,” said Grant in a 2014 talk. “They never want to give anything back unless they have to. They excel at important skills like social loafing, freeriding, and shirking. They’re the people who raise their hands and volunteer for the interesting, visible, and important projects, leave the grunt work for everyone else, and then walk away with the lion’s share of the credit for collective accomplishments.”
While some takers are narcissists and psychopaths, many takers simply become that way because they’ve been burned one too many times in the past, and would rather be the person taking advantage of others than getting taken advantage of.
Luckily, most people are not takers. According to Grant’s data, globally only about 8 percent of people consistently display “taker” behavior. On the opposite end of the spectrum are what Grant calls “givers”.
A giver is not a philanthropist of volunteer, but just the kind of person who likes being helpful to others. “You might be a giver if you’re someone who frequently provides mentoring to others, who shares knowledge, who makes introductions, or just shows up early or stays late to support the people around you,” says Grant.
Many of us like the idea of being a giver, but in professional life, we know that there are takers out there, so out of precaution, most of us choose a third style: we become “matchers”.
“Matchers try to keep an even balance of give and take: I do something for you, if you do something for me,” says Grant. “It’s almost like being an accountant in all of your relationships, tracking debits and credits and making sure that everything is even and fair.”
Grant compared the success of givers, takers and matchers, trying to identify who were the most productive, and who were the least productive. He collected data from salespeople, engineers, bank employees, medical students and more across a wide range of countries and cultures, tracking their success in achievement in their KPIs vs giving, taking, or matching styles.
The results, in the end, were quite consistent in who were most successful, least successful, and who fell in the middle.
Many people optimistically assume that the takers would finish last. Actually, they don’t. The group who consistently performed worse in all fields were the givers.
“They are usually so busy looking out for the needs of others that they have trouble getting their own stuff done,” says Grant. They are the example from the airplane safety video of the person who applies the oxygen mask to the person next to them, while failing to put it on themselves.So if givers finish last, who finishes first?
Well, it’s not the takers. According to Grant’s research, takers tend to rise quickly, but also fall quickly. They fall at the hands of matchers. Since matchers believe in an eye for an eye, they naturally become upset when they see takers’ imbalanced reciprocity, and usually actively try to take these people down.
The most common way they do this is through the good, old-fashioned tool of gossip, spreading the word amongst their friends that the taker is not someone to be trusted.
There’s another group who take down the takers as well: other takers. After all, if you were an athlete who took illegal performance-enhancing drugs, it would ruin your advantage if all the other athletes were also taking them, right? No one spots a taker as easily as another taker, so very often the one quickest to point the finger at others for being a taker is in fact a taker himself.
Because of this, the more a taker succeeds, the harder it is for them to continue, because the more enemies they have made.
So then, you say, matchers must be the most successful, right? Wrong. According to Grant, the group of people who are consistently the most successful, across industries and cultures, were the givers again.
This begs the question: what is the difference between the givers who succeed and who fail? The answer gets us back to our initial topic: an environment of trust.
According to Grant, the givers who are most successful are ones who surround themselves with the right people. This should not only include other givers, but matchers as well, because matchers are able to focus on the most crucial task: keeping takers out.
This is so important because the negative impact of just one taker is three times the positive impact of a giver. When takers are around, the water is poisoned for givers.
Understanding this dynamic can be very helpful in seeing how difficult it is to build a trusting team culture, and how easily that can be destroyed. Once you have a few takers on a team, it disrupts the balance of relationships.
The givers get taken advantage of, and often fail. The matchers, seeing that the norm of reciprocity no longer exists, realize that they also must act as takers as well in order to survive. Everyone spends most of their energy trying to protect themselves from other team members, rather than focused on their collective goals.
In contrast, when teams are made of givers and matchers, a positive cycle is created, in which people share information and resources, look out for and trust each other, and feel safe.
This way, they can worry less about protecting themselves from internal threats and focus on achieving shared external goals. Rather than being taken advantage of, givers are respected and admired for their contributions to the team, and matchers give more in order to keep a balance.
This collaborative spirit builds a group that is creating value that is more than the sum of its parts. This is not just feel-good “chicken soup.” Building a culture of givers has a real-world impact on business.
In a landmark project, a team led by Nathan Podsakoff of the University of Arizona examined 38 studies of organizational behavior, representing more than 3,500 business units and many different industries, and found that the link between employee giving and desirable business outcomes was surprisingly robust.
Higher rates of giving were predictive of higher unit profitability, productivity, efficiency, and customer satisfaction, along with lower costs and turnover rates. When employees act like givers, they facilitate efficient problem solving and coordination and build cohesive, supportive cultures that appeal to customers, suppliers and top talent alike.
A leader’s challenge in building a giving culture
How can you build a culture of givers? The responsibility lies more heavily on leaders than anywhere else. It is the leaders’ responsibility to clarify the values of the group, and to define who gets in and who is left out. For those trying to benefit from the positive outcomes of a trusting team, that means making sure that takers are firmly kept out.
While that sounds like a relatively easy task, it definitely is not, especially when you consider one of the key characteristics of most takers: they tend to be very good at kissing-up to their bosses.
“Takers are very good fakers when dealing with powerful people,” says Grant. “But they find that it’s a lot of work to pretend they care about everyone they interact with, so they let their guard down a little bit with peers and subordinates who let them see their true colors.” Because of this phenomenon, the leader often has the worst vantage point to identify takers, givers, and matchers.
To build a culture of trust, leaders must look after not just the interests of themselves, but that of the entire group as a collective. This is more difficult than it may seem, especially if the leader themselves does not feel they are in a culture of trust.
How can leaders build a culture of trust?
1) Make sure the benefits are worth the effort. Let’s be honest. In some industries, it benefits to have a lot of self-motivated takers. However, in today’s white-collar, service sector, and internet-focused workplace, three things are increasingly important: teamwork, innovation, and responsiveness to the customer. For all three of these, the data shows that the more trusting a team is, the better it performs.
2) Use a 360 feedback tool but be smart about it. To reduce the kiss-up/kick-down effect of takers, it can be helpful to implement a 360 feedback tool, in which employees are evaluated not only by their direct managers, but their peers and subordinates as well. It should be noted, however, that this approach can have negative downsides if done poorly. In some cases, in-fighting can come about as a result of the negative feedback given out in the process. In others, employees spend too much time being “nice guys” rather than getting work done. To address these two issues, companies can encourage 360 feedback to focus limited areas, with a strengths-based focus. They can also not rely on 360 alone, but integrate it as part of a larger holistic performance management system which holds employees accountable to team goals.
3) Encourage “otherish giving.” In addition to environment, one important differentiator between successful and unsuccessful givers is what Grant calls “selfless” vs “otherish” giving. While a selfless giver simply gives without any interest in themselves, the otherish giver is consistently looking to benefit both themselves and others in their interactions, creating win-win benefits in their relationships. By doing this, they create value for both themselves and the group, and create valuable support networks of peers invested in their success as they climb the corporate ladder.
4) Turn givers into agents for a cause, rather than their self-interest. In Grant’s research, he found that for many givers, they were less likely do work aggressively when working simply for their own self-interest. However, when working on behalf of others, givers would often be the most tenacious. To motivate givers to work harder, it can be helpful to send them the message that they are working on behalf of someone else, like their family, their colleagues, their customers, or the company’s larger mission.
5) Perspective taking > Empathy. One of the great things about givers is that they easily put themselves in the shoes of others. This is a useful and honorable trait and useful professionally, but in business it must be measured. If an individual is too focused on the emotions of others, their judgment can easily be clouded. In this situation, it can be helpful to focus on perspective-taking rather than empathy: thinking about what others are thinking and feeling, rather than simply feeling what others are feeling.
6) Call out takers. Let it be known that you do not accept takers on your team. Be willing to criticize taking behavior, and encourage team members to do the same. However, remember to always be supportive of the person, but tough on the behavior. This way, the individual feels more empowered and encouraged to change.
A few months ago, I had lunch with a former colleague of mine. As a vice president of HR of a Chinese tech company that was quickly expanding globally, she was concerned about her ability to maintain a strong team culture. After introducing her to the concept of givers, takers, and matchers, she laughed.
“I think most Chinese people are takers” she said.
I disagree with that. In my experience, I have found most Chinese people to be, like most people in the world, matchers. In fact, I’ve found Chinese people to be really reliable matchers, which is one reason why most of my friends are Chinese.
However, I have found that people in China, like many others, are strongly influenced by their leaders. It is therefore a leader’s responsibility to think about something greater than themselves, to think of the bigger picture and bring together a cohesive team.
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