knowledge flows at the speed of trust


Businesses that are open, transparent, and cooperative are more resilient because they rely on people, not processes. In a transparent organization there is no way to game the system as an individual. A transparent business focuses on long-term value, not short-term profit. It can also foster innovation, as diverse ideas come to the fore when people openly share their ideas. Workers become a social network, cooperating in order to make the organization better.

Knowledge networks are similar. They function well when they are 1) based on openness, which 2) enables transparency, and 3) in turn fosters diversity — all of which reinforce the basic principle of openness. In such a transparent workplace, the role of management is to give workers a job worth doing, the tools to do it, recognition of a job well done, and then let them manage themselves.

core network values

Consider any organization that has separation between departments who may officially have the same objectives but their internal directions are at cross-purposes. The tighter our control, then the weaker is our ability to learn and adapt, as Gillian Tett describes in The Silo Effect, “The paradox of the modern age, I realized, is that we live in a world that is closely integrated in some ways, but fragmented in others. Shocks are increasingly contagious. But we continue to behave and think in tiny silos.” For example, we think we are insulated in our silos while contagion rapidly spreads around us.

Breaking down barriers to knowledge flow should be of prime importance for anyone in a leadership position. Leadership is helping make the network smarter. Networks in which knowledge is more visible and flows faster are able to learn faster and better. The example of this pandemic should have hit executives in the gut and had them seriously reexamining every single control mechanism that stifles the flow of knowledge or fails to foster trust among workers. Evidence of this is sparse at this time.

Openness enables transparency and knowledge-sharing, which fosters diversity of opinions, and these reinforce social networks. Over time, trust emerges.


Paul Zak discovered eight key factors, or principles,  in promoting trust in the workplace. In The Neuroscience of Trust he describes the research over several years that yielded these insights and gives examples of companies who implement these principles. The return on investment is more energy and greater productivity.

“Ultimately, you cultivate trust by setting a clear direction, giving people what they need to see it through, and getting out of their way.

It’s not about being easy on your employees or expecting less from them. High-trust companies hold people accountable but without micromanaging them. They treat people like responsible adults.”

#1 Recognition

Trust improves when we are recognized by our peers and the organization.

#2 Moderate stress through challenging assignments

We like to be challenged and this gives us energy. These are often called stretch assignments and are part of the 20% in the 70:20:10 framework

#3 Autonomy to make decisions

This is aligned with Self-determination Theory

#4 Autonomy on what to work on

This aligns with my self-governance maturity model

#5 Openness of information

Knowledge flows and trust emerges through openness and transparency.

#6 Relationships

Once again, this aligns with Relatedness in self-determination theory (above).

#7 Opportunities for professional development

Also part of the 20% in the 70:20:10 framework

#8 Vulnerability

Transparency makes us vulnerable to each other and sets the stage for trust to develop.

Losing Trust

When trust is lost, knowledge fails to flow. This happens in organizations. It also happens at a societal level. Networks of trust are what create value at all levels for human society.

“It is important to stress that we are all connected through a complicated net of trust. It is not as if there is a group of people, the non-experts, who have to trust the experts and the experts do not have to trust anyone. Everyone needs to trust others since human knowledge is a joint effort. The most poisonous effects of social media may not be the spread of disinformation per se but the undermining of trust that comes from anger and division. It is well known that low levels of trust in a society leads to corruption and conflict, but it is easy to forget the very central role that trust plays for knowledge. And knowledge, of course, is essential to the democratic society. As the historian Timothy Snyder has said, post-truth is pre-fascism.” —Why do we resist knowledge?

Openness enables transparency and knowledge-sharing, which fosters diversity of opinions, and these reinforce social networks. First we create open structures, more networked than hierarchical, with freedom to move across teams. Then we promote transparency by discouraging gatekeepers and identifying knowledge bottlenecks. This openness can encourage diversity of ideas and people. It is only over time that trust emerges. If knowledge sharing is the issue, take a good look at how the system is blocking it. Only then look at individual capabilities.

knowedge flows and trust emerges with openness


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