How to build trust and collaboration

Rita Karachun, CPA, CGMA, has an easy strategy for building trust in the workplace, and all it requires is a change in thinking.

“If you assume everyone has a positive intent at the start, I think it levels the playing field,” she said. “Don’t assume that they may be trying to do something wrong.”

Karachun, SVP and global controller at Merck, was one of five panellists who spoke at a recent event sponsored by the CGMA designation and Bloomberg Radio in New York. The discussion on guiding better business decisions included a focus on issues of trust and collaboration in the workplace.
A CGMA report, Joining the Dots: Decision Making for a New Era, surveyed senior executives at large organisations from 16 countries. Results showed 43% of executive teams see a need to improve levels of trust with fellow executives, while 65% of the total workforce said levels of trust between leaders and employees need to improve.

What’s more, 57% of executive teams see a need to improve active collaboration with fellow executives, while 70% of the total workforce called for more active collaboration between leaders and employees.

Panellists discussed ways in which their own organisations build trust and collaboration.

Assume positive intent

Karachun pointed out that gaps in information sharing, or even different perspectives, can sometimes lend themselves to a lack of trust between co-workers and lead employees to have a negative view of one another’s intentions. Building bridges – perhaps through acts as simple as having lunch with a co-worker to get to know them – can help close those gaps, she said.

Stephen Rivera, CPA, CGMA, worldwide senior director at Johnson & Johnson, said his company places a high value on ethical behaviour, which he believes lends itself to building trust.

“I think we have that foundation out there,” he said. “It’s kind of in our brain and how we think about what we do, how we operate, making the right decisions.”

Communicate and collaborate

When employees and managers communicate openly, it’s easier to build trust, said Ash Noah, CPA, FCMA, CGMA, vice president of CGMA external relations for the American Institute of CPAs. The relationship between the leadership team and employees is affected when breakdowns in communication occur. That can lead to employees not understanding the leadership team’s strategy, or the leadership team thinking their employees don’t understand the landscape of the organisation, when that may not in fact be true.

“There are these gaps that break down trust,” he said.

It’s easy for employees to focus on their own perspective, or to try to outdo each other instead, Noah said.

“The one thing that we did as a finance function [dealing with cross-functional matters]: When we got the answers, we didn’t go and present them as our answers,” he said. “We asked the operations and sales people to actually present the solution. So that really increased trust [and credibility]. They trusted finance more now because we didn’t stand up and say, ‘Hey, you guys were all wrong, this is what is really going on.’”

Karachun echoed the sentiment that a lack of trust can easily stem from thinking, “I’m right, and they’re wrong.” If employees share, rather than thinking, “I have information, and information is power to me,” that leads to better trust and collaboration, she said.

“What I try to tell my team is that, when you find something out, your first question should be who else needs to know this?” she said.

That could be someone else on the same team or someone in another division, Karachun said.

“I think that starts to build trust because people will say, well this person wants to partner with me, and they’re willing to give me the information that I need so we can make a decision that’s right for Merck, or at whatever company, in its totality,” she said.

Work at professional relationships

Professional relationships require work and regular maintenance, just like the relationships in one’s personal life, Karachun said.
“You have to look at the relationships at work in the same way," she said, "because at the end of the day, you may know you’re right, but if you can’t get everyone to go along with you, there’s no point to it.”

Rivera said employees are more willing to talk and collaborate if rather than simply saying “No, we can’t do this,” or “I’m right, and you’re wrong,” groups within an organisation instead work to prove value to one another.

Accountability is key

At the Bose Corp., Jim Waddell, corporate controller, said the company has implemented a metric around collaboration.

“People around the organisation … are responsible for putting forth what they have done over the course of the year that has been super collaborative,” he said.

Teams score each idea on a scale of one to ten and share that information with senior leaders, he said.

Bose also measures itself against other companies, Waddell said. Senior leaders can look at factors such as sales, growth, cash flow, and management of working capital and of debt, and examine how Bose compares with other companies. In doing so, the comparison helps facilitate discussions about areas of success and areas of improvement, which leads to better collaboration, he said.

“The facts don’t lie,” Waddell said.

Lea Hart is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this story, please contact Ken Tysiac (, a CGMA Magazine editorial director.