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A Culture of Trust

One of my favorite authors, Warren Bennis, recently teamed with James O’Toole to write a powerful commentary on the subject of candor and trust.  It can be found in the June issue of the Harvard Business Review (p. 54).  It is primarily directed toward business and is fueled by increasingly vile breaches of ethics over the past few years, but it clearly resonates just as well for public leaders.  

As I read the article, I compared the cited research with other data and commentary posted over the years in other books and journals.  All are worth repeating and certainly make sense for elected and professional managers throughout municipal, state and federal government.  Among the recommendations that seem most germane to public managers and decision makers are:

  • Tell the Truth
  • Encourage people to speak truth to power
  • Reward contrarians
  • Know how to have difficult conversations (crucial confrontations)
  • Use multiple/ diverse information sources
  • Admit your mistakes
  • Build a culture that supports transparency
  • Share information and data openly

A successful public manager must embrace and embody these characteristics, particularly in a world that has lost its openness, trust, and belief in traditional systems. With a struggling economy and, in many areas, a future that appears bleak, communities need leaders who reflect character, commitment, and a willingness to confront reality. With so many ‘converging variables’ (many cited in earlier blogs), every community and public agencies at all levels need an entirely new level of candor and truth. During many programs and conversations about the future, I have asked people if they would prefer to know the facts in order to make an informed decision or not be told and just find out when something bad happened. Overwhelmingly but often reluctantly, people virtually always choose to know the facts so they can plan and prepare.

The Country, states, and every community are no different. I noted a week or so ago that it is time for many public managers and elected officials to begin developing criteria for performing triage on public services. The days of telling agencies to find another 5 or 10 percent to cut are almost over. The real question is, “What does the community truly need at this point and to prepare for a predicted future? And, ultimately, what is the best use of finite resources?” To reduce not only service levels but to potentially eliminate entire programs requires open, forthright discussion about choices, value and overall contribution for dollars spent.

Citizens need truth in government and truth breeds trust. Various polls have shown that the average citizen does not think highly of government. The same can be said of the public’s general view of elected officials. Why is that? Historically, has government been transparent, understandable, approachable, and accessible?  Has it always been seen as fair, equitable, and essential? To all, the answer is ‘no.’ So…if public managers and elected leaders are to build trust, understanding, and support for the enormously difficult decisions that are just now beginning to emerge, the above list just might be a reasonable guide. 

Preparing for a challenging future will take all the intelligence, candor, creativity, and spirit we can muster. Share everything, be interested in everything, and explore every option. An open, collaborative culture will make a huge difference. How does your culture measure up? Are you Prepared for Challenge?

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.