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Building Partner-Friendly Environments at Work
by Daniel D. Elash, Ph.D. and James R. Long, Ph.D.


Business doesn't occur in a vacuum. It happens in a marketplace comprised of workers, collaborators, stakeholders and competitors. There are buyers, sellers, advisors and workers and skeptics all engaged in an intricate society of commerce. Sociological studies have clearly shown that the populace needs to trust their social institutions for civilization to flourish. We must have confidence in our personal safety while living in close proximity with others. We must be able to count on the behaviors of others to be reasonably predictable. We have to be able to feel certain that deferred goals and delayed gratification still can be attained later, that paper script will be accepted for goods and services, that personal industry will produce personal security. Civilization disappears when uncertainty rules. In the wake of barbarians trampling upon the agreed upon conventions, the Dark Ages quickly emerged after the fall of Rome.

You might wonder about the appropriateness of discussing the dark ages and the fall of Rome in the introduction to a business article. A recent survey of U.S. workers found that 13% have experienced fear, intimidation or harassment at work. The year 2001 showed the highest annual increase in employment related litigation since 1995. A 1999 Hudson Institute study of 3000 American workers found that 56% believe that their company does not care about them. Between 1995 and 2000, there were 61,484 mergers and acquisitions and 320,258 layoffs. (Workplace Exchange, June 2002). These statistics shed light on the sources of cynicism, self-centeredness, and apathy found in many work settings.

A recent story in the USA Today newspaper detailed a study in which an alarmingly high number of CEO's admitted to cheating at golf. This story broke in the midst of a national crisis of confidence in corporate America. When we look up from our desks we see Enron, Tyco, Rite-Aid, WorldCom, ImClone, Xerox, Andersen, their executives and their communities in a whirl of accusations of fraud and duplicity. These names are in the news today because they are suspected of trampling the rules, abusing the faith of workers, defrauding investors, or elevating chicanery over ethics. Commentators and pundits are discussing these corporate breaches in light of the "theory of roaches," i.e. if you see a few there are probably hundreds more lurking just beyond sight. The faith of the stakeholders in the business culture has been severely shaken. If collaborative enterprise is to work, there must be a better understanding at the macro business level of the importance of reassurance. Employees at the micro level of business require this if there is to be extraordinary performance in your workplace.

Trust and Partnerships

Collaborative relationships create the necessary connections inside an organization needed to act effectively upon its strategic intent. They are the key to the effective sharing of needed information. We refer to these relationship interconnections as thought partnerships. A thought partnership is a relationship formed among two or more people, in a value creating enterprise, for the purpose of generating social or intellectual value. Thought partnerships cannot be genuine or have a lasting constructive effect if trust isn't present. Therefore, the presence of trust in thought partnerships is an important catalyst in the development of a culture of trust. As more of these relationship interconnections grow among individual participants in the organization's world of work, a mini society emerges and the foundation of a trust culture is formed. Developing a trust culture is not an easy undertaking. Look around you. Listen to the cynical conversations in the corporate cubicles when new goals, initiatives, and activities are announced. Look at the number of people of who don't passionately engage in their work. Observe how many people hold back or simply go through the motions having decided from past experience to keep themselves at arm length from real involvement.

The problem, unfortunately, is that old-fashioned assembly lines or piecework shops could carry on in a psychologically bleak environment. Business leaders did not identify cultural issues as relevant to the creation of value for a very long time. Those were the days when workers were referred to as "hands." Now, in modern, networked organizations, where workers need to think, collaborate and make independent decisions about how to create and deliver value, the need for collaboration often outstrips the ability of the organization's leaders to build a culture of trust. "In a trust-based organization, leadership is a form of emotional custodianship …" "These right-brain qualities join with traditional, rational left-brain skills to make up the core of this new type of leadership." (Ciancutti & Steding, p209) It is hard for leaders to challenge their own assumptions and traditions, often based in years-gone-by academic theory. Yet, if they do not, they can become counter-productive given the reality of today's business climate.

If we assume that people must work together to create the value promised by their corporations, then they have to do more than mindlessly engage in repetitive work. Co-workers also have to help one another evolve their thinking and stretch their paradigms. They need to capture the savvy of everyone involved. They have to create and sustain thought partnerships in some of the following ways:

  • Offering people experiences that generate new awareness;

  • Defining the gap between what people want and what they do;

  • Challenging illogical conclusions drawn from experience;

  • Connecting or distancing new ideas and developments to old assumptions.

We can all think of instances where people work together as thought partners in a variety of task-oriented activities such as: learning/teaching, process improvement, innovation, mental model building, team working and/or problem solving. However, we don't have a term based upon ongoing processes that encompass a shared vision and a network of mutually complementary and authentic relationships, striving to contribute to social innovation. "Companies are inventing new ways of doing business together that are bringing unprecedented gains in profit and competitiveness…the emerging term for these new relationships is partnering."(See Rackham et. al., 1996) We are offering the term "thought partners" as a way to talk about, to consider and to explore the nature of these relationships. In order to understand the culture required to support thought partnering we need to look at our assumptions about how organizations function.

The IRI Model:

The IRI Model (Identity, Relationships, Information) is our idea of how organizations function as systems. While the Model arises from ideas derived from science (post-Newtonian physics and modern biology), its principles are highly relevant to today's networked organizations.

The IRI Model begins by thinking about the system as a whole. Every system has an identity, which provides answers to key questions about that system. Who are we? What is our purpose? What are our boundaries? The answers to these questions define the system's identity. The leader's role, at whatever level of the organization, involves articulating and disseminating a common identity throughout the organization. Leaders must attend to the conversations of the workforce and act to create and sustain a focused sense of shared identity.

Next, all organizational outcomes require relationships with other members of the system: an individual within a system can never function in isolation. Organizations have tried to re-invent themselves to accommodate changing market requirements. This is why organizational silos have proven to be so troublesome as collaboration and cross-functional partnering has grown in importance. Key questions emerge about organizational relationships: with whom must I interact to accomplish the organization's mission? How must I interact in order for the system to function optimally? Leaders must be astute at tending to and enabling effective collaborative relationships. These relationships, to work optimally, cannot be dictated but must prove to be successful by adding value to everyone involved.

In organizations, relationships become formalized as processes. A robust system views its processes as opportunities for conversation about operational and strategic concerns. It then facilitates the kinds of relationships that will enable those conversations to take place: What are we doing well? What could we do better? What does the environment have to say about us? What do we have to learn in order to do the things that we don't now do well? Leaders need to model the concern about the answers to these questions and cannot do so without listening well.

In this networked organization, everyone is expected to look beyond their job to think about ways to improve the system as a whole. Relationships, then, are the key to the IRI model. Ultimately, because relationships center on trust, it is crucial for organizations to seek ways to establish and enhance trusting relationships. It is only through the evolution of a trusting work culture that highly refined relationship skills essential in networked organizations can develop.

Finally, identity-focused action-relationships in networked organizations require quick, targeted sharing of information: what information has to flow within the relationship in order to fulfill the purpose of the system. Systems find ways to transmit vital information, often in spite of formal processes. Fundamental to this transmission are opportunities for people to talk together about the work and to listen accurately to what others have to say.

The IRI Model shows that systems achieve results through interdependent processes. Heightened effectiveness and efficiency arises when all relationships within the system are maximized. In such maximized systems, required information flows with little resistance. No matter where I sit in such a system, I have to be able to determine what now needs to happen from a relationship standpoint that will allow the right kind of information to flow so that we can accomplish what is required. As such, real value creation takes place within the relationships; the level of intimacy that the relationships attain ultimately determines the company's potential for success.

Ultimately, because relationships center on trust, it is crucial for organizations to seek ways to establish and enhance trusting relationships. In their research on partnering, Rackham et al (pg 75) investigated factors common to all successful partnerships. They discovered that in all of their inquiries, "trust" was "the most consistent theme" and the "most compelling factor" in the success of partnerships. Over 80% of those interviewed saw trust as the most important precondition for a successful partnership. Therefore, trust is fundamental to the successful development of thought partnerships, which in turn supports a robust organizational system. In their book, In Good Company, Cohen and Prusak refer to this capability within an organization as its "social capital," a guide for determining enhanced organizational capability.

Fundamental Principles of a Trust Culture

The successful development of a trust culture is an ongoing process. Trust must be built, if it is simply given, then it isn't really trust. It may be naiveté. It may be foolishness. It isn't trust. A unilateral commitment by the organization is necessary to carefully maintain the trust awarded to the organization by its participants. Establishing trust is the key to the development of highly effective work relationships. A trusting work culture is characterized by consistency of purpose, commitment to the mutual sharing of information, willingness to collaborate, and the desire to contribute toward value creation. A trust culture can be developed faster and more successfully if organizational leaders assume responsibility for modeling behavior that promotes the development of trusting relationships. Deliberate and consistent modeling helps alleviate natural fears, defensiveness and negative attitudes among workers, venders and customers. Continued emphasis on thought partnering as a means of trust building within an organizational system encourages the development of rich collaborative conversations among all participants within and outside the organization. An organization's capability to have rich conversations among workers, vendors, and customers determines its "social capital." The continued value placed on the quality and intimacy of these thought partnerships becomes the cornerstone of an organization's trust culture.

Once a trust culture develops, the natural interest and desire of people to contribute to the betterment of the organization must be carefully nurtured and protected. This requires the constant vigilance of the leaders in the organization to apply sound principles to insure that the trust culture will continue to thrive. It cannot be accomplished by decree. The fast pace of business, the little time available to adjust and the importance of timing demand the maximum performance of all leaders in support of the trust culture.

Issues of Trust

Talking about trust is simply too general to prove instructive. You have to ask, "Trust to do what, or not do what?" Are we talking about stealing paperclips, keeping confidences, doing what you say, meaning what you say you mean, telling the truth, etc. etc? We'd like to explore trust issues by looking at the necessity for trustworthiness around identity, relationships and information.

Trust and Identity:

Corporate identity is defined by the implicit and explicit definitions of the organization's purpose, values and goals. People want to be a part of an enterprise that appreciates and respects their effort and commitment. A statement of purpose is first and foremost a statement of self-definition. This means that the corporation needs to be careful when articulating its purpose, its reason for being. Organizations claim noble purposes and lofty missions without articulating a vision that is understandable, believable or attainable in the eyes of the employees. When the denizens of executive row act in contrast to its stated purpose, cynicism spreads like wildfire. When people sense the real purpose and the stated purpose are two different things, loyalty fades and workers tend to feel exploited. Trust is broken.

Most companies proudly display their core values. They use those statements to underwrite their promises to customers and other stakeholders, to bolster their identity and to differentiate themselves from their competitors. However, in hard times, are the platitudes shelved in favor of shortcuts to bolster the short-term bottom line? When people sense that those values are situational or fair weather values, they do not perceive them to be genuine and often fail to embrace them Trust is broken.

Each year the business announces its goals and objectives. It rolls out the new plan and expects people to enthusiastically sign on. There may be new initiatives. There are metrics and deliverables. People are told that their evaluations and rewards will be based upon their performance in relation to those goals. What happens when workers see goals missed, assets diminished or mistakes made but executives are still lavishly rewarded? What do you think is reasonable when workers see politics and personalities influencing these outcomes? When jobs are cut or contracts broken as companies maneuver to influence short-term stock prices, integrity is lost and people lose their passion and have difficulty investing of themselves in an effort to accomplish stated goals. Trust is broken.

Perception is reality in these situations. Trust is not ensured by good intentions. It is ensured by the consistent and close relationship between stated intentions and impacts. When people doubt the cause and effect nature of stated intentions and impacts they disengage. Their distrust is not easily repaired. Companies must carefully nurture and maintain their identity as trustworthy entities if they are to seriously expect a culture of collaboration to exist.

Trust and Relationships:

A trust based relationship among all thought partnerships within the organization, particularly those involving corporate executives, is based upon the presence of commitment and integrity.

People want to know if their supposed partners share a commitment to the same goals and objectives as they do. What can I expect? What will you do to contribute to our success? Without a sense of shared commitment, partnerships fail to thrive. Glib promises fade in the light of day-to-day interchanges. Whether they talk about it directly or not, people notice when the commitment of others does not match their expectations or their requirements for success. The damage is even more severe when there is a lack of leadership responsiveness followed by criticism that the commitment of a co-worker is lacking. The failings of leadership become the burden of the employees. Trust is broken.

A subset of commitment revolves around preparation. Many companies tolerate inadequate preparation as acceptable bolstered by the shared myth that we don't have time. At other times it is sustained by the notion that competent workers should know what to do, implicitly, without having to do more preparation. When people come to meetings under prepared, old assumptions are maintained because it's too much work to dispute them, and people base decisions on outdated information. If you won't take the time and spend the effort to become well prepared, you don't merit the trust of your teammates. Trust is broken.

Integrity really refers to the consistent manner in which you display dependability and reliability. Are you communicating in an open and forthright manner? Will you do what you say? Is your word your bond? Can I, or should I, invest the effort that you said would be needed to achieve our goals? If I do and you didn't do your part, the likelihood of my doing that again is diminished. Trust can develop more readily if the organization's leadership is consistent in exhibiting trusting behavior across situations and over time. Integrity requires your doing what you said you would do in spite of intervening factors. Corporations, leaders and potential thought partners need to be accepted as entities with integrity if high performance collaboration is to be attained. It doesn't take many disconnects in this area before it becomes everyone for themselves. Trust is broken.

Trust and Information:

Corporate issues of relationships revolve around questions of accuracy, authenticity and anticipation. Is the information I'm getting accurate or not? WorldCom's current problems are an extreme example that illustrates the point. Once again, intention is irrelevant. Indeed, misinformation, shared by someone who absolutely believes in its accuracy can be harder to recognize than an outright lie. Corporation standards of accuracy and acceptable levels of error vary. However, when biased information is tolerated, when half-truths are accepted, when there are no consequences for failures to share critical information, partnering becomes difficult or impossible. Trust is broken.

Information can be compromised but inauthentic communication styles cannot easily be masked. People who go through the motions act differently than those who are emotionally invested in their endeavors. Authenticity is required both in speaking or listening. While superficial social skills are valuable for maintaining civility, more authentic interaction is required for serious collaboration. If the ethic in your company condones sarcasm, gossip, ridicule, facileness or insincerity, the milieu becomes contaminated. Trust is broken.

If we know what our colleagues are going to do, we can anticipate their needs and support their efforts. If we have an intimate awareness of our partners' plans and strategies, we know how to interpret new data in relation to their intentions. If they know our intentions, they can do the same. To be able to anticipate the impact of developments or prepare for the implications of events and occurrences, we must have clear and cogent conversations. On-going dialogue about the work is essential. Without these capabilities, our value as partners is diminished. They can't count on us, or we them, as we could do if we had a legacy of shared communications about ideas and intentions. We would function more as individuals with the danger of disconnect and the potential for reemerging departmental silos. Trust would be diminished if not broken.

Trust and Competitive Advantage:

Can a trust culture help an organization achieve a competitive advantage? A trust culture cannot be purchased, stolen or duplicated by the latest technologies. A trust culture allows an organization to function as a system in which partnerships are formed throughout as everyone contributes to the betterment of the organization. The vertical organizational structure, commonplace in the industrial era, assumed that workers would be driven by external sources of motivation. Leadership was authoritarian, often motivating workers by utilizing fear tactics. Today's organization is less vertical, less reliant on a single leader at the top, and more dependent on the intrinsic motivating factors of all network participants. Contemporary organizational networks create the capability for every system component to communicate with every other component.

A trust culture encourages the development of rich relationships. It facilitates the freedom to be creative and innovative. Day-to-day business activities occur without the energy drain associated with frustration, conflict, suspicion, blame, and false commitments. Issues within or among components are resolved without delay and often without the intervention of leaders.

"Many of today's leaders have not been trained in the emotional aspects of high-performance team life." (Ciancutti and Steding, p.209) High performance teamwork is impossible without a culture of trust. Because teams share responsibility for their work, ideas are developed and refined by the collective effort of the team. The process includes the ability to dialogue, disagree respectfully and creates better outcomes or products. When people work in a trust culture, their willingness to offer more creates a larger, more robust bank of knowledge within the organization. The result is an organization whose collective contribution is greater than the sum of the individual parts.


Thought partnerships provide a modern-day mechanism that enables organizations to be creative, highly productive and responsive to an ever-changing market. The success of thought partnering is based upon the need for open dialogue, intimacy, risk-taking and relationship-building skills. All of these elements cannot adequately exist without the presence of trust. As we have noted, the development of a trust-based organization must begin at the top with the executive leadership not only "talking-the-talk" but "walking-the-walk." Thought partnerships become a key building block for the evolution of a trust-based culture.

Many leaders are intellectually aware of the value of a well functioning trust-based organization. They are not just theoretical; they do exist in reality. However, there are lots of people in executive positions that are uncomfortable admitting that they may need help in changing their leadership style or in implementing a trust-based organizational culture. Many leaders have sought the help of IT specialists to address the modern changes in office machinery. Developing a comfort level in seeking help with the profound changes in how organizations function is daunting but an equally important decision. It is not a sign of weakness to not know all there is to know about either subject.

So, for those who are working on developing a trust-based culture, how do we know if your effort is making a difference? Trust is a significant source of "social capital," the emotional and psychological equivalent to financial capital. Organizations with a trust culture are rich in social capital. Although the literature is just beginning to provide the evidence, we know that an organization rich in social capital has higher rates of retention and lower rates of turnover. Organizations that are rich in social capital are more innovative, more creative, better organized, more efficient, more productive and more profitable. Just ask your people.


Ciancutti, A., & Steding, T., Built On Trust, Contemporary Books, 2001

Ciancutti, A., & Steding, T., "Trust Fund," Business 2.0, (2000, June) p.105-112

Cohen, D. & Prusak, L., In Good Company, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 2001.

Rackham, N., Friedman, L., and Ruff, R., Getting Partnering Right, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1996

Wheatley, M., Leadership and the New Science, published by Berret-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 1992.

"Who do you trust?" Workplace Exchange, June, 2002


The Authors

Dan Elash

Daniel D. Elash, Ph.D is the principal of Syntient. Dan's Doctoral Degree is in Psychology from the University of Kansas. Dan's consultant expertise includes enhancing organizational capability through collaboration and facilitating change at the individual, team and organizational levels. Dan is a speaker and teacher who places strong emphasis on developing social innovation in client organizations. His goal is to help client companies realize their untapped potential.  Dan uses communication and community building as fundamental platforms for generating and sustaining personal and organizational capability.

E-mail: and visit .

James R. Long, Ph.D. - Jim Long is a principal and senior consultant with PERSOMA Management, Inc. Jim holds a Doctorate in Rehabilitation Counseling from the University of Pittsburgh. His leadership experience includes roles as military officer, manager, executive coach, consultant, business principal and board member. Jim has always had an interest in viewing organizations as systems. He has first-hand managerial experience leading organizations during various stages of change, in both growth-oriented and downsizing circumstances. He has worked with both small and large profit and non-profit organizations and firms. His clientele includes organizations in healthcare, technology and manufacturing areas. Jim has worked with individual leaders, executive teams and leadership groups of managers. Jim can be reached at or by calling 412-824-5359.

Many more articles in Collaborative Thinking and Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2002 by Daniel D. Elash and James R. Long . All rights reserved.

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