Building Trust in the IT Organization

By Oliver Kaven Print this article Print

IT executives face a number of well-known trust issues.

To the extent that IT people are seen as wizards, they will not be seen as entirely trustworthy. Magic, however useful, is hard to trust. And mistrust makes for losers on both sides. Much effort is wasted “keeping an eye on each other,” and neither IT nor the rest of the organization gets the most out of each other.

If “getting the most out of each other” sounds Machiavellian, I’d like to put it in a different light. A growing body of research into the neurological process of the human brain—along with the best evidence from psychology, sociology and anthropology—shows that “getting the most out of each other” has a basis in evolutionary biology and that trust is how our brains are wired to do exactly that. This turns out to be a key to better and more effective leadership, including IT leadership.

Every species that exists today is here because it evolved a way to survive. Homo sapiens evolved a unique set of four innate drives:

to acquire: to secure essential resources, such as food, shelter and a mate;

to defend: to protect yourself and your loved ones from threats;

to bond: to form long-term, mutual-ly caring relationships;

to comprehend: to understand yourself and your environment, and then to inquire, imagine and invent.

These drives can obviously conflict with each other, but the need to balance all four drives and their inherent contradictions is what makes humans much more versatile than other species.

In particular, because we have both a drive to bond and a drive to comprehend, we have evolved a set of skills for surviving through group problem solving and group effort rather than through instinct. These are the skills that allow a group of individuals to fulfill their own four drives and help others fulfill theirs.

The skills, which I write about in my article “The Biological Basis of Morality,” are pretty obvious and universal: Help others get what they need; don’t steal it from them. Tell the truth; don’t lie. Make fair exchanges; don’t cheat. All of which can be summed up by the rule: “Be trustworthy.” (These skills can also be summed up as the Golden Rule or as Google’s corporate motto, “Don’t be evil.”)

Put another way, because we can and do trust each other, we can get much more out of each other. This was true of prehistoric family units and hunting parties, and it’s true of your organization and the IT team you lead.

IT executives face a number of well-known trust issues:

• What you do—or what you prevent (i.e., malware)—is often hard for others to discern, so they have to trust you.

• You need top management’s support for things they may not understand.

• Your staff members often speak a language no one else understands, and they may also have a different culture from the rest of the company.

• Problems lurk in IT itself. You aren’t to blame, but you will be held responsible, especially if you gave people the impression that their technology would not cause any problems.

As an IT leader, you can get the most out of your organization—resources, cooperation and status (that is, being listened to)—by providing the most to your organization in terms of the four drives:

to acquire: If possible, show how your project will help make the organization more profitable or more competitive: Make a business case. However, if this is not what a particular project—such as a firewall improvement—has to offer, don’t pretend it does.

to defend: If possible, show how your project will defend the organization against harm, being sure to balance the potential harm with the “harm” of devoting scarce resources to this particular project.

to bond: This can take many forms, beginning with an effort to be as familiar as possible with others’ experiences of what IT does. There’s no reason the IT staff can’t be liked and appreciated as people who help and support the business.

to comprehend: An obvious opening here is simply to help people understand how their IT resources work, how to get the most out of them, where the problems come from and so on. This can take different forms, depending on whether you are working with the top management committee to get funding or with users. Treat others as partners in solving a problem or planning a project, so that you can educate each other.

None of these are new suggestions. What is new is to see them, not as tactical moves or simply trying to be well-liked, but as behavior that’s in line with the structure of the human brain. Because we are not the biggest, fastest, strongest or meanest of creatures, we have evolved to get the most out of each other by being able to trust each other enough to work together.

Paul Lawrence, the author of Driven to Lead, is a management and leadership expert and a Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Organizational Behavior Emeritus at Harvard Business School.

This article was originally published on 2011-07-28
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