Trust—Hard to Earn and Easy to Lose

Cracked cement symbolizing broken trust between people or partieRegardless of the lens through which each of us views the OPM data breach, we can all agree that its historical significance and impact on federal employee trust is rather extraordinary.

While an investigation into how the data breach occurred and what corrective action might be necessary to prevent future breaches is best left to the experts, the way in which this type of non-routine matter is handled by agency leaders has a real bearing on trust. Trust is so hard to gain and sustain—and it can evaporate quickly, depending on how leaders respond to and manage through the unexpected.

While it is inevitable that the unexpected will occur, and only so much can be controlled by leadership, here are four local action steps that can help.

  1. Create a strategic plan. Define important and common terms so that—regardless of time zone, role, tenure, or level of experience—information is processed and acted upon according to common practices and standards. Without a common framework, there is risk that an individual or team could misinterpret an action and inadvertently cause an undesired outcome. For instance, a decision could be made that is not consistent with the necessary actions to reduce or eliminate an undesired variance. It is critical for leadership to establish common frameworks and language to support coordinated, expeditious, and desired actions.
  1. Build alignment between role/function and outcomes. Often organization decision making is hampered by role or function ambiguity. Departments sometimes overstep their capacity because clear boundaries and charters have not been established. It is paramount for leaders to define “swim lanes” and levels of accountability by individual, teams, and departments so that there is never any doubt about who is required to act, when, and how.
  1. Ensure that measures are in place. Establishing operational performance metrics is crucial to knowing when an undesired gap has occurred. Of course, metrics are not necessary to recognize when a catastrophic event has taken place—but the criticality and importance of metrics lie in the ability to understand the magnitude of undesired variance. A performance scorecard or dashboard is an excellent way to keep employees engaged and aligned with mission because of a common understanding and appreciation for the state of agency performance.
  1. Communicate corrective action procedures effectively. When the unexpected strikes, it is vital for corrective action to be a reflex activity. There will not be much time for analysis. In fact, if certain anticipated corrective measures have not been anticipated, trained, and understood, the agency will be starting from a position where recovery will be inhibited. Leadership cannot orchestrate a potential solution to all scenarios, but an 80-20 rule should be applied where a majority of scenarios are forecast. This projection will prevent the erosion of trust by providing rapid response and unequivocal confidence in the continuity of agency operations.

Leadership must be prepared to provide continuity in times of crisis. This includes proactive agency planning before having to respond and manage a crisis. By following the four steps outlined above, leadership can improve the chances of mitigating risk and provide the desired response to the unforeseen.

When leaders prepare their agencies to respond to the unexpected, there is a much greater chance of preserving the public trust, continuing to deliver on expected services, and support for mission.

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