Reporting Incidents and near misses is central to the success of a Safety Management System (SMS). In a safety survey we did for one organization, it was revealed that the top reason why employees do not report incidents is “lack of trust in management”. In other words, the employees didn’t trust that the management would not use their reports against them. Put more bluntly, employees believed management would punish them for their reporting. That is why developing, maintaining and repairing trust is critical if your goal is to create better safety outcomes.
Trust is a part of every thought and action, yet we continually overlook its importance and, at times, even its existence. Trust exists in all types of relationships: Employees must trust their leaders; safety managers must trust workers; c-level executives must trust their managers; and so on.
Part of the challenge is that trust has traditionally been thought of as a moral issue. When we said we distrusted someone we were implying they were a “bad” person; if we trusted them they were “good”. Trusting and being trusted were seen as indicating a person’s character and quality. In this sense, trust was a moral issue; it was about the “goodness or badness” of the other person. So, is there a more useful way to define trust? We find there is. One simple, clear way is to think of it is as ‘the emotion that allows people to coordinate action’. Because organizations exist to produce results through coordinated actions, trust clearly has a central role in making organizations work. Another way of thinking about trust is that it is a tool for gauging the risk of interacting with others. In this revised interpretation of trust, it is a skill that can be learned, practiced and developed. Being aware of what constitutes trust, choosing to develop the habits that generate trust and practicing those habits will all result in a higher level of trust. Teamwork can be thought of as “trust in action,” which means that team members understand they have blind spots and consider it safe to follow the lead of others on the team.
A fundamental problem in many organizations is that there is not an agreed definition of what trust is and how it is created, maintained or repaired. Sometimes, words such as “reliability” or “confidence” are voiced, but at the root, they are talking about trust. When we asked leaders in our survey what trust meant in their organizations, the most common responses were “Well, we don’t have a specific definition, but we all know what it is” and “It is difficult to put into words, but we all know it when we see it.” These are simply ways of saying, “We don’t know.” If these leaders don’t know how to clearly articulate what trust is how can they be sure that they are living it and how can they teach it to new employees so that it becomes (and remains) a value that is practiced in the company?
An emerging trend is to promote a concept called “Just Culture,” which can foster fearless reporting. At the core of Just Culture lies the phenomenon of trust, which allows people to interact with others freely. Just Culture is an atmosphere of trust in which people are encouraged—even rewarded—for providing essential safety-related information. Under Just Culture conditions, individuals are not blamed for “honest mistakes” while still being held accountable for willful violations and gross negligence.
An organization can elevate its safety performance by creating a shared interpretation of trust, by articulating it, by learning to teach it and by using it as a tool within the organization. No matter what type of organizations we’ve worked with or where in the world they are based we find that trust is one of the biggest missing skills we encounter.