Is trust the key to improving collaboration (in an ESN)?

To set the stage here, I’ve started a class in a graduate certificate program at Northwestern. It focuses on learning and organizational change, and as part of the class, we are required to write a series of three posts on a topic of interest to us individually. My original plan was to just post my first blog internally to the site we use for school and then post subsequent ones externally. But a little birdie reminded me that sometimes it is helpful for others to see the whole process, so here I am, starting my own external blog. About time, perhaps? Anyway, here it is, with some minor editing for a different audience.

Supporting an enterprise social network is my day job, so I naturally do a lot of thinking about what I can do to help build engagement. We’ve done well, but appear to have hit a plateau. Many people I talk to seem focused on the platform – if it only did this, if we could only change that. I think I was in that same place mentally for a long time when I first started in my current role. And to be fair, I still go there sometimes. But being in class – doing the reading, listening to people talk and ask questions and poke holes – I keep hearing references to trust. And actually, I heard it in a community managers’ webinar I attended recently. Our speaker (Michael Sampson) mentioned that if people don’t believe that what they say will truly be heard and seriously considered for action, they stop really trying to collaborate. At that point, they instead pay lip service to the process. And I recognized my frustration with certain supposed collaborations in that statement of his. I can see times where I’ve pretended to collaborate because I saw the end was already decided; or others where I’ve been frustrated because I thought that it was an honest collaboration and put a lot of time and energy in, only to find out that my input was ignored. So in terms of what I am working on here, I would define trust as a lack of fear – fear of judgement, fear of repercussions, fear of disappointment, fear of being ignored.

Because of this, in my series of posts for class, I want to focus on trust. I’m looking for a variety of articles, books, blogs, etc. that reference trust in relationship to collaboration and social networking. My goal is to hopefully tease out what it takes to build trust within this context. I’m certain the answer will be, “it depends”, and so in the end what I hope to come away with is a new series of tools. Perhaps I’ll be able to start to craft a playbook. I know that when companies feel or genuinely find that they’ve hit an engagement plateau they are often all too willing to use the tool as a scapegoat. Setting aside any personal feelings I have for the platform, I know that focusing on the tool is missing the point. Sure, having a “better” platform could help move the needle a few percentage points. Good design and excellent user experience is important, after all. But in the long run, people need to want to participate, to feel safe participating, and to feel that participating will help improve work in some way. Removing a false barrier, an excuse, isn’t really going to make a significant, sustained difference.

I’ve already spotted a few good references in our textbook, and in one or two other articles. But I really want to dig in and flesh this out. What things can be done to build trust in a way that frees people of the fears they have about collaboration? I’m very curious to hear of any great resources that I should be including in my quest.


  1. Trisha Liu · April 21, 2015

    Great post Tracy, congratulations on starting your blog! I’m glad you decided to make your first post public. I love that you’re exploring trust. It’s an interest of mine too. I am going to look through my bookmarks and see what I might have for you. A few months back, I became a lot more interested in employee engagement and employee empowerment, and trust is a big factor. I also love how you framed trust as a lack of fear. I don’t know if I’ve thought of it that way before. What first comes to mind for me is “comfort” and….. then yes, “a feeling of security that I’m not going to get hurt.” Your definition takes it to a deeper level. I look forward to seeing how your exploration unfolds.


  2. Andrew Carusone (@acaruson) · May 13, 2015

    I agree. A great start Tracy.

    Regarding trust, Michael is right. However, “trust” is essentially an outcome. It’s the result of employees, at every level, being “trustworthy”. You and I both know that “People are the platform”…and those in leadership can’t fall into the lazy trap of believing there’s a silver bullet, on a technology shelf somewhere, that will put their workforce one click away from higher performance via greater collaboration.

    People are still people, even at work. So their greatest motivating forces are “Acceptance” (needing to know they matter, significant, etc.)…and “Fear of rejection”. So when challenged to contribute, whether it’s in a meeting, conference call, replying to an email or on an ESN…being confident they have “permission NOT to know” matters a great deal. God forbid they blow it and their peers discover they aren’t the expert their resume portrays…or someone gets mad…or grades their paper. What happens to their sense of “acceptance” then? Or Rejection? Regardless of whether it’s real or perceived.

    Change is hard…and every patriot is a lonely person at the beginning of a revolution. So as long as it’s a gamble to risk sharing the precious information and expertise people believe makes them valuable…and as long as leadership isn’t trustworthy when they declare its safe to do so…the use of ESNs will remain a good barometer of enterprise trust, openness and/or the lack there of.

    (There were more people waving goodbye and good luck to those on the Mayflower…and whispering better them than me…than there were people aboard the ship.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • tracymmaurer · May 14, 2015

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply, Andrew. And so good to hear from you!

      I definitely agree with your closing statement – that participation in ESNs is a good barometer or trust and openness in a company, though I hadn’t previously thought to put it that way. Appreciate being pushed to think more deeply.

      Hope all is well. We should catch up some time!


  3. finnern · July 28, 2015

    I am a bit late to this post, hope it still helps. My hunch is, that play may be the fasted way to trust. I posted about how trust and play go hand in hand:

    What do you think? Could play be the fastest way to get to trust in enterprise social networks?


    • tracymmaurer · July 29, 2015

      I agree that works for some. Others are suspicious of play, seeming to feel that if something is fun or playful, it can’t possibly be work and therefore they shouldn’t engage in it during work hours. While I know how ridiculous that is, I have heard it many times. There are so many facets that it just isn’t easy to get it right.


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