Strange Brew: Trust as the Real Head of an Alliance

Posted By: Jon Lavietes Member Resources, Collaborative Connections,

It’s rare when a year goes by without examining the role of trust in partnerships at ASAP. This month, the Collaborative Connection Monthly webinar and roundtable series took its turn at applying various euphemisms, analogies, and metaphors to the essentialness of trust in business partnerships. 

One such analogy might be a fine British ale—the kind one who knows their way around such libations might prefer, such as this month’s featured guest, Frank Lee, CEO of the Institute for Collaborative Working, who expressed his love for unfiltered “real ales” made from traditional ingredients, matured in a barrel, and served without the use of carbon dioxide or other manipulations to create a “false head.” It’s nice when you can depend on a beverage being smooth and refreshing—and when you know what you’re going to get. 

Brewing Confidence 

As attendees of “When You Win, We Win: The Trust Factor in Partnering” learned, it's not that different in business collaborations. 

“It’s all about confidence to me. Can I rely on you as a partner, as an individual I’m working with, as an organization I’m working with?” said Lee.  

This reliability manifests itself in many ways, great and small, in the big picture and on a day-to-day basis. For example, organizations expect their partners to follow through on formal contracted agreements, as well as undocumented promises made verbally, pertaining to a partnership’s main objectives. On the ground, the individuals carrying out key initiatives expect their counterparts to deliver documents on time, prepare for meetings adequately, and honor their word to the greatest possible extent that they can with every deliverable and interaction. 

“If people give you confidence—they say we will do this thing at a certain time, in a certain way, at my price—and they don’t, then that trust won over a certain period of time is lost,” said Lee. 

“You Know When You Don’t Have It” 

Lee reiterated the universal rule: without trust, an alliance is pretty much dead in the water. 

“It’s really the most crucial aspect. If you don’t have it, I don’t think you have a collaborative relationship,” said Lee.

Pretty heavy stuff for a force with such an ineffable quality, although Lee invoked the spirit of the late U.S. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart when asked how one might know when you have it.  

“You know when you don’t have it,” he said. 

Upon Further Review, Trust Has a Structure

But just because you can’t see or touch it doesn’t mean you can’t measure it. Lee was once an auditor of the ISO 44001 business collaboration standard. He noted that its cousin, the ISO 44002, also details various elements of trust—he specified performance, honesty, commitment, information sharing, and going the extra mile. 

Lee outlined some of his auditing methods during the event. He preferred either meeting with people for tea or coffee or in some other “low-key, informal” setting, or being a fly on the wall during company meetings—or better yet, videoconference calls, where you can more easily blend into the background on mute with your camera off. 

“Very quickly, people forget you’re actually there, and that meeting becomes very authentic,” said Lee. “You start to get some real feedback from people.”

Lee was simultaneously evaluating individuals’ trustworthiness, their perceptions of trust levels within the partnership, and their overall operating environment.

“It’s a mix of competence, culture, process, and systems—systems being the way we operate together, the way we follow through within the organization,” said Lee. 

For instance, when companies institute commission structures that disincentivize salespeople from working with partners or are plagued by not-invented-here syndrome, “collaborating with others within your organization can become very, very difficult,” said Lee. “It’s really important for those systems to create that culture and environment in which people feel that it’s good to collaborate and they’re not punished for doing so.”

Developing Trust in a Brand-New Coopetitor 

The ISO standard’s principles come in handy in coopetition-based alliances. Lee recommended colocating and organizing regular social gatherings in order to build trust on an emotional level. By agreeing on the collaboration’s underlying purpose and objectives, as well as the rules of engagement, particularly around the sharing of data, up front, “a culture of what is almost a third organization” is created, according to Lee, a “branding” exercise of sorts that aims to create trust in an initiative with a competitor.

Believe You Can Bring Back Trust—or No One Else Will 

How do you regain trust once it is lost? Right away, “you have to openly admit the cause of trust being lost. You have to communicate the change, and you have to believe in it, as well,” said Lee. Otherwise, “no one else will.”    

But that’s only step one. It will take time and an ongoing commitment to gain that trust back. Each day, stakeholders, particularly senior management, must “always do the right thing—not the popular thing, not the easy thing, not the hard thing, not the cheap thing, not the expensive thing,” said Lee. 

Of course, along the way, one might convene parties at a bar for a pint, in good times or in bad, when trust is strong or when it needs to be rebuilt. Moderator John Parker, principal of John Parker Associates, even offered to buy Lee a pint at London’s Bishop’s Finger pub in the future.  

“And I’ll drink it,” replied Lee. 

That’s something you can depend on.