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Building Trust v Encouraging Performance: HR's role

Building Trust v Encouraging Performance: HR's role

Some organisations have this twisted thought that they need to get the “most out of people” to stay competitive and place productivity at the core of their culture by rewarding performance. 


TRIGGER WARNING: Employees are people. They are not a towel management can ‘wring out’ to see how much they can get out. The only genuine way to get the most out of an employee is to figure out what environment they need to work in to feel trusted and be themselves. When we work in a trusting environment, we want to perform to our best and are more likely to collaborate, take risks and create better outcomes.

So what’s more important: building trust or encouraging performance?

Let’s define the terms and then look at the problem.


Definition & Problem

Performance is a skills-based metric measured in output, results, or achievements. It’s often a key indicator of how well someone can achieve company goals and targets.

Trust is the belief that you have in someone's reliability, truth and the overall likeability of their character. You have to trust the people around you to work happily and productively around them.

Have you heard management complain that there are no more “good people” or that it’s “hard to keep good people”? More often than not, they’re referring to a person's character and trustworthiness, not their ability to meet KPIs.


The Truth

The only common factor in failed employee relationships is, that’s right, you guessed it—the organisation! Take it with a grain of salt, but if there are no more “good people” to hire, there’s only one constant in those employees leaving—the organisation itself. 

In our opinion, it’s not about the person, it’s about the environment. You can take a good person and put them in a bad environment and they will do the wrong thing. Conversely, you can take someone who is perceived as untrustworthy and place them in a trusting environment where they become a valuable team member.

Who is responsible for creating trust? HR and management. So, how do you build trust? You create an environment where people feel safe to be themselves and as a result, feel trusted to make better decisions and collaborate. 

As an HR manager, it’s your role to manage people, and no one knows people better than you! Performance and skills will always be there. Trust is more challenging to forge because it’s a feeling, not a skill. 

It’s not easy to strike a balance between performance and trust. And if it were, we’d all nail it! So what should you focus on more? And what does your organisation value more? 

Let’s look at the most high-performing organisations and see what we can learn about performance and trust.



Navy SEALs are an organisation that values performance more than any other organisation on the planet, attracting some of the highest achievers. So how do SEALs deal with this problem of performance and trust? 

First off, unlike balance sheets and quarterly earnings, for SEALs, performance is a matter of life and death. And so a KPI might be, can I trust you with my life? Will you save the hostages? Despite what management might think, employee KPIs aren’t always life and death. And what about trust? For SEALs, it means what are you like off the battlefield? What’s your character like? Can I trust you to look after my family if I’m gone? 

Now, it doesn’t matter if you’re on the battlefield or in the sales department, no one wants to work with someone untrustworthy or low-performing. In reality, you end up with someone who is a mix. But what is the right mix, and can you create an environment that cultivates the correct mix? The short answer is yes. 

The SEALs learnt that they would rather go into battle with someone who is a medium or low performer but highly trustworthy over the person who is a high performer and ranks low to medium in trustworthiness. In other words, the most high-performing organisation value trust over performance.

What does this tell us about the rest of us, organisations that value performance over trust? Well, the problem is that we need more trust metrics. We have hundreds of metrics to measure performance and no accurate metrics to measure trustworthiness. As a result, we promote toxicity by creating an environment that rewards performance over trust. 

It’s important to note that performance is relative. Low performance for SEALs means that soldiers are still in the top 1% of humans and can complete tasks at an acceptable standard, like keeping civilians alive and eliminating targets. For your organisation, performance might mean that an employee meets sales KPIs but might not exceed targets. 

So if the most high-performing organisation values trust over performance, what can we take from that, and how can we develop and integrate trust into an organisation?

Well, first off. There is no silver bullet. You can’t instruct or expect employees to trust a colleague if they feel unsafe or if they feel like their job security is at risk. We can't achieve anything great until we feel we can completely trust the person to the left or the person to the right.

Trust is important because when your employees are surrounded by others who believe what they believe, they are more confident to take risks. They’re more confident to experiment because they’ve bought into the shared goals and want to work towards something.


HR Role

We know from experience that employees do not trust some HR managers. And so employees and perhaps some managers try to bypass HR. Why? Because there is a lack of trust. 

And this of course doesn’t necessarily mean that there are untrustworthy employees. It just simply means that there is a lack of trust. So it’s essential to build and cultivate trust in an organisation so HR can adequately manage and represent the lifeblood of an organisation— its people!

Ultimately, HR's role is crucial in creating a workspace where employees are motivated to perform not out of fear or obligation but because they trust the people around them and want to buy into an organisation's success.

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