August 6, 2019
Dave Odom: What makes an institution trustworthy?
Predictability and transparency help people know how to do their work and why decisions have been made. And they set the stage to create a sense of agency, writes the executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.
We need institutions, and they disappoint us. That puts all of us in a bind.
We depend on institutions to organize our daily activities, from driving to schooling to recycling. We may feel compelled to entrust our health care, our search for information and our spiritual vitality to institutions. Even when we don’t choose to interact with institutions, we rely on their structures, traditions and services.
Yet sometimes, the more we know about an institution, the less we trust it. Why? Because over and over again, we witness institutions acting to preserve themselves even as their employees and constituents suffer.
Occasionally, we get our hopes up that we can trust a particular institution. Maybe one champions a cause that is beyond itself, like universal clean water or freedom for the unjustly imprisoned or health care for the forgotten. Perhaps we see the institution reflect its missional commitments by selecting women or people of color as senior leaders. From the outside, we can see evidence that the institution is creating the conditions for all people to thrive.
But from the inside of the institutions where we serve, what does trustworthiness look like?
It looks, first, like predictability. In trustworthy institutions, workers and volunteers know how to do their work. They know where to go for resources. Effective, clear processes help them get the work done.
Second, it looks like transparency. Leaders within trustworthy institutions take time to explain the “why” of a decision. They describe who was involved, how options were weighed and the reasons for the final choice. This may not lead to universal agreement, but it does ensure that no one is surprised.
Once trust is established, creating a sense of agency among participants is the next step to helping all thrive. I have been reading about “flat” organizations — those in which people choose their own projects and have the authority to make decisions. For example, Valve, a game development company, describes itself as “boss-free since 1996.” The company’s new employee orientation handbook clarifies expectations and explains that employees are free to focus on their customers because, as a self-funded entity, Valve has no shareholders or funders to satisfy.
That points to a regular challenge in institutional life: so many people have a claim on the direction of the work. Institutional leaders must serve donors, customers, volunteers and longtime friends. That can create the impression that an institution has more bosses than the people who appear on the org chart. In response, employees will often trust a segment of the institution rather than the whole place.
When I worked for a 900-bed hospital, my job was once reclassified in a way that changed my vacation and sick leave. The director of payroll called to explain the change and its implications, saying she was reaching out to me personally because the policy seemed unfair to her. Her attention surprised me. She was responsible for the payroll for 5,000 people. She promised to remedy my situation as soon as the policy allowed and explained when and how I could follow up. Six months later, she did exactly what she had promised.
At that same hospital, the CEO once apologetically explained to managers that a strategy being rolled out did not make good sense but was necessary to comply with new Medicare and Medicaid procedures. He was transparent about the situation the hospital faced and the choices senior leaders had made.
This hospital was not perfectly trustworthy. Yet it had leaders like the payroll director and the CEO who explained decisions and how to navigate them. In my 15 years there, I came to understand how to do my job and whom I should approach when I was stuck.
I meet people who don’t want to go through the pain of figuring out whom and how to trust in an institution. They prefer to start their own organizations or to work with others in smaller, often scrappier enterprises. Such organizations can create and re-create services much more quickly. Such places are great learning environments.
At some point, though, even small places end up relating to large institutions, such as government offices, industry groups, suppliers or funders. Eventually, we all must evaluate which institutions we can trust and how we should interact with them.
Christian institutions that serve congregations are strengthened when they are embedded in networks of dependencies and partnerships. My current work involves creating opportunities to develop the trust necessary for those interconnections to form and grow.
I do this work because I believe that creating the conditions for human flourishing across generations requires healthy, mission-oriented institutions. Given the current state of the world, we need leaders who are renovating existing institutions as well as those who are creating new ones. This requires that we develop or reinvent systems that are predictable and transparent while also creating conditions that give participants the agency to clarify mission and work beyond an institution’s self-interest.