Why too much trust hurts innovation

Research shows that too much trust decreases innovation. Read what ‘trust’ is and how it affects your workplace and innovation.

Most managers understand that trust is a key ingredient to effective collaboration and innovation yet few actively try to cultivate and nourish trust in their own organization to achieve the right mix between trust and constructive tension.

The trust gap between theory and practice
Over 80% of managers believe trust is important to have good work relationships that enable effective collaboration and superior results. So why do only 40 or so percent actually take action to build and maintain trust within their organization? Obviously, there is a disconnect between the theory and the practice. Why is that?

My assumption is that ‘trust’ is perceived as an ‘intangible’ that managers like to stay away from because they find it hard to measure and to manage. It further requires an individual to open which comes with vulnerability. Perhaps we also fall easily into the only so human trap of making over-confident assumptions when it comes to ourselves and our single-sided perception of the trust we believe to have established with people we work with….

What is trust?
Let’s take a closer look – what makes up trustful work relationships? Trust is the degree that people trust one another, so trust is an interpersonal phenomenon. It comes down to three factors that make up trust at the workplace as Karen Sobel Lojeski, NYU professor at Stony Brook and CEO of Virtual Distance International, identifies:

  • Benevolence  –  co-workers have your best interest at heart
  • Ability  –  co-workers have the knowledge and ability to get the job done
  • Integrity  –  co-workers will do what they promise.

Trust is the ‘glue’
Trust is the social ‘glue’ that holds together teams and organizations. It is critical for success of virtual teams, i.e. the increasing trend of co-workers worked separated from another and spread across different countries and time zones. With a lack of trust productivity dwindles as does the willingness to share information. Instead, our energy gets wasted every day on avoiding perceived threats from others.

Innovation needs trust
High trust correlates with more successful innovation – why? When colleagues trust another they open up and share information. Besides the obvious benefit of cross-fertilization that leads to more ideas and creative approaches, by giving away your views and knowledge you become vulnerable as an individual and even more so in a competitive professional environment. This openness comes with a risk to fail that people are only willing to take if failure is acceptable among colleagues and does not come with repercussions.

Sharing ideas alone is not enough though. Asking thoughtful questions, constructive criticism and mutual support lead to better solutions while curbing hostility and competitiveness. Opening up happens when a task-related conflict will not easily deteriorate into a personal conflict. Innovation within an organization relies on trust among colleagues as a key ingredient that cannot be substituted.

Too much trust impedes innovation!
So, how much trust is needed? And can there be too much trust? The MIT’s Sloan School of Management (MIT Sloan Management Review, Summer 2010, Vol. 51, No. 4) offers some answers. An increasing level of trust leads to more effective innovation, as we expect, but the researchers also observed that there is a limit after which the correlation negates and where innovation declines with too much trust. What happened here?

Too much mutual trust deteriorates the innovative effectiveness of partners. Where trust sparked creativity and led to better solutions earlier constructive criticism and challenging each others ideas now suffers. Finding the ‘sweet spot’ is the tough part where a high level of trust consistently fuels innovation and leads to best results.

Take-home message for managers
Should managers reduce investing in trust? Certainly not!

A high level of trust remains the most crucial requirement to build a solid relationship between people that becomes the basis for effective collaboration and innovation. Most organizations seem to suffer from a lack of trust more than anything. It makes collaboration a drag and leads to poor results and mediocre solutions.

Actively building trustful relationships is an important part of a manager’s role and even more so in virtual teams, when the team members work separated by barriers of location, time, culture, language and others. Trust must be built and nurtured actively especially when face-to-face communication is not possible and becomes replaced by using less-rich digital media (video conferencing, phone, email, etc.).

When trust is getting very high, however, we need vigilance and a reality check. You do not want to lose constructive argument and challenging dialogue between team members that turn creative ideas into innovative solutions.

Author: Stephan Klaschka

Stephan Klaschka is an awarded innovation executive, C-level consultant, Intrapreneur, and serial entrepreneur with over 25 years of international work experience. He held various senior business operations, strategy, regulatory compliance and innovation roles with Boehringer Ingelheim, leaving as Director of Global Innovation Management and Strategy. In this first-of-its-kind position, Stephan's work was central to the new growth rejuvenation strategy as a catalyst to initiate and drive pivotal innovations, leadership development, and disruptive and digital transformation across the Boehringer Ingelheim group worldwide. He has recently served as CEO interim of the "German Institute for Telemedicine and Health Promotion" (DITG). Stephan holds Masters Degrees in Computer Science, Management, and Business Administration as well as advanced degrees in Strategy, Innovation, and Leadership from leading schools in Europe and the United States. PMP certified. He has published extensively and created award-winning workshops on topics including intrapreneurship, healthcare, pharma, and new technologies. Stephan currently consults independently out of New York.

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