Strategic Comms: Pt 30 – Build Trust, Establish Dialogue, Be Transparent

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(This is the 30th in a continuing series on strategic communications. Click here for earlier segments)

By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group

Communication plays a critical role in building trust, and trust plays a critical role in any organization.  In fact, trust not only enhances employee satisfaction but also the bottom line.  Though, this should come as no surprise as both employee satisfaction and business results have a linear relationship.

For instance, one study found that hotels whose employees strongly trusted their managers were substantially more profitable than those whose managers scored average or lower.[1]  What is surprising is that half of all managers don’t trust their leaders. [2]  This would surely change if managers were aware of the correlation between trust and performance.

However, building trust isn’t just about demonstrating character and integrity.  It also includes expressing a belief in others, which can be achieved by entrusting people with significant and meaningful responsibility.  When it comes to your customers (i.e., residents of the communities in which you propose to operate), trust can be primarily engendered through establishing a dialogue with the community and operating in a transparent fashion.

Additionally, developers need to keep in mind that building trust is a process and that it is best built through interpersonal communication.  Therefore, although phones and direct mail are effective voter outreach tools, there is no substitute for meeting with residents personally.  These meetings can occur in large-scale or small-scale formats, provided they are controlled events (see Strategic Communications Part 9: Don’t Let the Mob Rule: http://bit.ly/xECBat), or via door-to-door canvassing.

Regardless of the type of meeting, developers should know that there is likely to be a lot of uncertainty among residents about them and their development plans.  As such, developers should be prepared to disclose as much information about their project as possible and they should offer to maintain an open line of communication as questions arise about their project.

This approach is supported by Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT), which was developed by Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese.  This theory states that a primary goal of people during initial interactions is to increase their ability to make predictions about one another in order to make sense of the communication experience.  URT involves both proactive and retroactive processes through which people attempt to reduce uncertainly in anticipation of a communicative episode and make sense of those events after they have occurred.

Further, by not establishing trust, you are likely to increase uncertainty.  And, according to the theory, increases in uncertainty will result in increases in information-seeking behavior.  This will likely only create further distrust as residents feel the need to find answers for themselves.

So, developers who fail to foster trust internally among their employees and externally among their customers risk a loss of both their profits and project.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics.  He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communications and the performing arts. Email Eagan@tscg.biz



[1] Tony Simons, “The High Cost of Lost Trust,” Harvard Business Review, September (2002), 1.

[2] Robert F. Hurley, “Decision to Trust,” Harvard Business Review, September (2006), 1.

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