by Tom Kaneshige

CIO 100: How to Build an IT Culture of Trust

Aug 24, 2010
CIOIT Leadership

What makes one IT team perform better than another? Trust. From the CIO 100 Symposium this week, here's expert advice on how IT leaders can foster a culture of trust, not fear.

What’s the secret to a high-performing team? Trust. This was one of the key themes at the CIO 100 symposium in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., which kicked off this week.

Many IT staffs toil under type-A managers who foster fear and distrust, says Frank Wander, CIO at The Guardian Life Insurance Company and a conference keynote speaker. “The higher the stress, distrust and anger, the slower the project moves,” he says, adding, “Companies might as well be throwing their money away.”

CIO 100 conference attendees told me that their organizations have all sorts of team problems, from a culture of blame at the highest levels to IT workers resentful about job cuts and long hours of yesteryear. IT workers might be glad to be collecting a paycheck, but they’re certainly not glad to be on the job, attendees said.

“Yet it’s this glad-to-be-here attitude that you need to create,” says John Foley, a former pilot of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and another keynote speaker at the conference.

Foley peppered his speech with fascinating details about the culture and precision of the Blue Angels aerial team. In one formation, the planes fly only 18 inches apart. How does the Blue Angels create a culture with this kind of high performance and trust?

Tools You Can Use

One of Foley’s tools is the debriefing meetings pilots have after every flight. In this meeting, no detail is too big or too small to be brought up, from personality clashes to the way they march to their airplanes. Usually, the most senior guy goes first, brings up what he did wrong, and then concludes with the words, “I’ll fix it.” This self-accountability from the top sets the tone for the culture of trust.

Another Foley tool: verbal contracts. By telling other team members what you are going to do, or even being told what not to do, builds a level of trust and leads to greater levels of execution, he says. That’s because verbal contracts carry the weight of personal responsibility.

Lastly, the Blue Angels pilots, engineers and ground crew will often finish a conversation with the words, “Glad to be here.” This attitude of gratefulness is a key ingredient for building trust between team members, Foley says.

Conversely, a distrustful culture leads to fear, which leads to a kind of paralysis of creativity, Wander says. Wander is often called in to fix major problems at companies. He’s had six major turnarounds. The number one reason for failure, he says, is a culture of fear. “I’ve fired a lot of people” who had fostered fear in the workplace, he says.

He cites the natural tendencies of human beings to succumb to fear, as well as an uncaring management tradition stemming from assembly-line production, as root causes for why so many IT departments have “emotionally toxic work environments.”

Only be reversing this trend and caring for employees can CIOs release the human potential for creativity, Wander says. “Trust energizes the place.”

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple for Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Tom at