Creating the High Trust Organization

American society appears to be undergoing a crisis in trust. Most of the major organizations that we depend upon, including governments of all types, corporations, our health care system, our financial institutions, and our schools all seem to be failing us. Indeed, I do not believe it is an exaggeration to claim that our society is actually undergoing a disintegration process whereby the fundamental premises and values supporting our institutions are all being called into question. While such disintegration is very painful to experience, it is also a tremendous opportunity for genuine transformation. My essay outlines some of the most important values and strategies necessary for the creation of, and the transformation to, high trust organizations.


Higher Purpose

Virtually all of our societal organizations seem to have either forgotten or have never really known why they exist and what their higher purposes are. Instead, they have often elevated narrow individual and institutional self-interest into the only purposes that they recognize as valid. Our governments all too frequently serve the interests of the politicians, the public service unions, and various other special interests rather than their citizens. Our schools too often serve their educational bureaucracy and teachers’ unions instead of their students and their parents. Our health care system too often seeks to maximize the profits of pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, doctors, and insurance companies rather than the health and wellness of patients. Many of our corporations primarily exist to maximize the compensation of their executives and, secondarily, shareholder value rather than value creation for customers, employees, and other major stakeholders.


The single most important requirement for the creation of higher levels of trust for any organization is to discover or rediscover the higher purpose of the organization. Why does the organization exist? What is it trying to accomplish? What core values will inspire the organization and create greater trust from all of its stakeholders?


While there are potentially as many different purposes as there are organizations, I believe that great organizations have great purposes. The highest ideals that humans aspire to should be the same ideals that our organizations also have as their highest purposes. These include such timeless ideals as:


The Good: Service to others—improving health, education, communication, and the quality of life. Southwest Airlines, Nordstroms, The Container Store,, and Joie de Vivre Hospitality are examples of this great purpose.


The True: Discovery and furthering human knowledge. Google, Intel, Genentech, and Wikipedia all express this higher aspiration.


The Beautiful: Excellence and the creation of beauty. Apple and Berkshire Hathaway share this ideal in their own unique ways.


The Heroic: Courage to do what is right to change and improve the world. Grameen Bank and the Gates Foundation express this higher purpose in their actions.


Organizations that place such higher purposes at the very core of their business model tend to inspire trust from all of their major stakeholders: customers, employees, investors, suppliers, and the larger communities in which they exist. Higher purpose and shared core values tend to unify the organization behind their fulfillment and usually act to pull the overall organization upwards to a higher degree of ethical commitment. Higher levels of trust are a natural result of this unity of purpose, shared core values, and greater ethical commitment.


Conscious Leadership—Walking the Talk

Next to the power of higher purpose, nothing is more important for creating high levels of organizational trust than the quality and commitment of the leadership at all levels of the organization. It doesn’t matter if an organization has a higher purpose if the leadership doesn’t understand it and seek to serve it. The various stakeholders of an organization, especially employees and customers, look to the leadership to “walk-the-talk”—to serve the purpose and mission of the organization and to lead by example. It is especially important that the CEO and other senior leadership embody the higher purpose of the organization.


As the co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, I’m the most visible person in the company. One of the most important parts of my job is touring our stores and talking to our Team Members, customers, and suppliers. I know that in virtually everything that I say and do, our Team Members are always studying me, trying to determine whether they can trust me and the mission of the company. I’m always on stage. So walking the talk is very important. I try to communicate the mission and values of Whole Foods Market at every opportunity and I try to live those core values myself with complete fidelity. Fidelity to the mission and values builds trust, while any deviation from these ideals undermines trust. High trust organizations and hypocritical leadership are mutually exclusive.


Teams Everywhere

Human beings evolved in relatively small tribal bands. Many scientific studies indicate that our ability to maintain close trusting relationships with family, friends, and co-workers is constrained to about 150 people. We can, of course, know many more people than this, but it is hard to know them well enough to develop close bonds of trust based on actual experiences. At Whole Foods Market we recognize the importance of smaller tribal groupings to maximize familiarity and trust. We organize our stores and company into a variety of interlocking teams. Most teams have between six and 100 Team Members and the larger teams are divided further into a variety of sub-teams. The leaders of each team are also members of the Store Leadership Team and the Store Team Leaders are members of the Regional Leadership Team. This interlocking team structure continues all the way upwards to the Executive Team at the highest level of the company.


It has been our experience at Whole Foods Market that trust is optimized in this type of smaller team organizational structure. This is because each person is a vital and important member of their team. The success of the team is dependent upon the invaluable contributions of everyone on the team. Trust is optimized when it flows between all levels within the organization. Many leaders make the mistake of believing that the key to increasing organizational trust is to somehow get the workforce to trust the leadership more. While it is very important that employees trust leadership, it is equally important that the leadership trust the workforce. To receive trust, it is usually necessary that we give trust. Organizing into small interlocking teams helps ensure that trust will flow in all directions within the organization—upwards, downwards, within the team, and across teams.


Empowerment = Trust

While small teams are essential to optimizing the flow of organizational trust, equally important is the philosophy of empowerment. The effectiveness of teams is tremendously enhanced when they are fully empowered to do their work and to fulfill the organization’s mission and values. Empowerment must be much, much more than a mere slogan, however. It should be within the very DNA of the organization. Empowerment unleashes creativity and innovation and rapidly accelerates the evolution of the organization. Empowered organizations have tremendous competitive advantage because they have tapped into levels of energy and commitment which their competitors usually have difficulty matching.


Nothing holds back empowerment more than the leadership philosophy of command and control. Command and control (C&C) is actually the opposite of empowerment and it greatly lessens trust. C&C usually involves detailed rules and bureaucratic structures to enforce the rules. Such detailed rules almost always inhibit innovation and creativity. People get ahead in the organization not through being innovative, but by following the rules and playing it safe. C&C may produce compliance from the workforce, but it seldom unleashes much energy or passion for the purpose of the organization. Empowerment = Trust. C&C = Lack of Trust.


The Importance of Transparency & Authentic Communication

A very important measurement and condition of trust is transparency. If we want to optimize trust then we must seek to optimize transparency. When we decide to keep something hidden the motivation is almost always a lack of trust. We are afraid that the information that we wish to hide would cause more harm than good if it were widely known. While some discretion is usually necessary to protect important organizational information from migrating to one’s competitors or to outsiders who wish to harm the organization, such discretion can easily be overdone. Transparency is a very important supporting value for empowerment. Indeed, it is difficult for an organization to be empowered if it lacks transparency.


Whole Foods Market strives to optimize transparency to all of our stakeholders. Authentic communication with honesty and integrity are essential attributes of both transparency and trust. This is the exact opposite of what many organizations do, which is to try to “spin” their messaging to tell people what they believe people want to hear so that people will think well of them. This lack of honest, authentic communication and transparency usually boomerangs, however, and undermines trust and creates cynicism. One of the main reasons why Americans don’t trust many political leaders, including various Presidents who have led us, is that we discover that they routinely lie to us. They don’t tell us the truth and we come to understand that they don’t trust us and feel that they need to manipulate us. We tell the truth to people we trust.


The high-trust organization risks revealing too much information. We must be willing to take the risk that some valuable information may fall into the wrong hands because our commitment to empowerment and trust necessitates taking that risk. Creating transparency and authentic communication is an ongoing challenge that every organization faces. We must continually strive to remove the barriers that prevent them, knowing that we can’t maintain high levels of organizational trust without transparency and authentic communication.


Fairness in all Things

Nothing unravels trust more quickly in an organization than either the reality or the perception of unfairness. Another important virtue of creating a culture of transparency is that it helps ensure that unfairness is clearly seen and can therefore be corrected quickly. It is essential that the ethic of fairness apply to all key organizational processes such as hiring, promotion, compensation, discipline, and termination. Favoritism and nepotism undermine organizational trust. They cannot be tolerated. People are often prone to envy and any perceived unfairness exacerbates this tendency greatly, giving it the energy of justification.


Creating a Culture of Love and Care

Ultimately we cannot create high trust organizations without creating cultures based on love and care. The people we usually trust the most are the people that we also believe genuinely love and care for us. All too often, love and care are not qualities that we associate with organizations. We tend to look for love and friendship with our families and friends, but not from our work. Why is this? Many people believe that love and care in the organizational setting interfere with efficiency and get in the way of making the “tough but necessary” decisions that the organization requires for success. This type of thinking reflects our own lack of integration of love and care in our own lives. We have created an artificial barrier that is holding back our own personal growth and the full potential of our organizations.


Fear is the opposite of love. When fear predominates in the organization, love and care cannot flourish. The opposite is also true—love and care banish fear. How can we create more love and care in our organizations? To answer this would require another essay, perhaps even an entire book. After discovering the higher organizational purpose and securing the commitment of leadership to these ideals, nothing is more important than encouraging and nurturing love and care. Here are a few suggestions that will hopefully stimulate further thinking on this incredibly important goal of creating more love and care in our organizations:

  • The leadership must embody genuine love and care. This cannot be faked. If the leadership doesn’t express love and care in their actions, then love and care will not flourish in the organization. As Gandhi said: “We must be the change that we wish to see in the world.”
  • We must “give permission” for love and care to be expressed in the organization. Many organizations are afraid of love and care and force them to remain hidden. Love and care will flow naturally when we give them permission and encourage them.
  • We should consider the virtues of love and care in all of our leadership promotion decisions. We shouldn’t just promote the most competent, but also the most loving and caring leaders. Our organizations need both and we should promote leaders who embody both.
  • We must cultivate forgiveness rather than judgment and condemnation. Too many organizations believe that judgment of others and criticizing failures are essential for creating excellence. While striving for excellence is important for all organizations, this can be done at a higher level of consciousness—without condemnation. Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning mistakes and failures. It simply means that we help the other person to learn from their mistakes through non-judgmental feedback and encouragement.
  • Consider ending all your organizational meetings with “appreciations.” This is something that Whole Foods Market has been doing for 25 years with wonderful results for spreading love and care. Give everyone participating in the meeting the opportunity to voluntarily appreciate and thank other members in the group for services they have contributed or qualities that are admired. This one simple cultural practice of appreciating our fellow Team Members moves us out of judgment and fear into the consciousness of love.


We have the opportunity to create more conscious and higher trust organizations in the 21st century. To do so will require three major changes. First, the organization must become conscious of its higher purposes. Without consciousness of higher purposes, organizations will not reach their fullest potential because the creative energy within the organization will not be fully expressed.


Second, we’ll need our leaders to evolve to higher levels of consciousness and trust. We will not be able to create high trust organizations without more conscious and high trust leaders. Less conscious leaders will tend to hold their organizations back.


Third, we will need to evolve the cultures of our organization in ways that create processes, strategies, and structures that encourage higher levels of trust. These will necessarily include the important ideals of teams, empowerment, transparency, authentic communication, fairness, love and care.

Leave a reply

To provide feedback or ask a question about our company, a store or a product, please visit our Customer Service page.

For more information about posting comments to our blog, please see our Comment Posting Guidelines.



John Rhodes says …

The words are wonderful but I personally know employees of Whole Foods and the pay is too low.

Peter says …

I have been shopping at organic supermarkets since the 80's, first one was started by a heart surgeon, then Fresh Fields came along and finally Whole Foods. The atmosphere at Whole Foods is very inviting and "real". You can tell the employees enjoy working there and I have come to personally know a half dozen over the years, it is almsot like a home away from home. Whenever a corporation gets to a certain size it invariably attracts attention from detractors. I was shocked when the government tried to classify organic food as a market distinguishable from food in general and used this to form the basis of anti-trust action. Have they forgotten that we as consumers have a choice (one not granted by our government)? Veronica (in this blog) claims that my generation owes a debt to social engineering programs like social security. What an apt characterization for a Ponzi like scheme that is bankrupting the country. The early adopters make out like bandits, the latecomers end up paying far more into it than they receive. Public caretakers also contribute to the disintegration of families who foist their members on to the government dole. Look at the recent history in Sweden where parents often see their children and the elderly as burdens. Whole Foods has done a great deal to empower their workers, I'd like to see the same approach used for their clientele. While the feedback from sales is a good yardstick it doesn't account for what is not in place, e.g., what is Whole Foods not providing that could increase market share? The paradigm of supermarkets is mostly just selling food, there has been some expansion via cooking classes, I'd like to see more in that direction. A business that educates its consumers gets a boost in revenues as this knowledge translates into an appreciation for products previously overlooked (as most of us fall into consumption patterns). As a runner I noticed that WF sponsers a lot of races, why not have a cooking demonstration at a race with suggested diets for runners? Or...a healthy cooking class series for physically active adults. Ah well, I'm rambling...thanks. Peter

david says …

Fairness in all things. " It is essential that the ethic of fairness apply to all key organizational processes such as HIRING,promotion,compensation, discipline and termination" Sound familiar? This is one where you talk the talk but dont walk the walk.

russ says …

the American Empire is in decline and much needs to happen in the country to prevent the inevitable. Every empire in history has risen and fallen - and until we create a new and inspiring goverment that isnt corrupt, I am afraid we all face futuristic hardships

DeBethune says …

Admit it. We all feel a touch of awe when someone has it: the CEO title. The power, the salary, and the chance to Be The Boss. It’s worthy of awe! But a CEO is responsible for the success or failure of the company - Operations, marketing, strategy, financing, creation of company culture, human resources, hiring, firing, compliance with safety regulations, sales, PR, etc.—it all falls on the CEO’s shoulders. Many don’t know what their job should be, and few of those can pull it off well though.

Holly Loberg says …

Dear Mr. Mackey, I have been reading extensively about Whole Foods recently, and I find your business philosophies and strategies fascinating. Why? Because in my opinion, there are so many blind followers out there wearing leaders' masks but you are different than the majority. You are are taking stands on issues that most CEO's are afraid to tackle, supporting the goodness our world and everyone within it deserves. This statement, in particular, really resonates with me: "We will need to evolve the cultures of our organization in ways that create processes, strategies, and structures that encourage higher levels of trust. These will necessarily include the important ideals of teams, empowerment, transparency, authentic communication, fairness, love and care." With a vision similar to yours, I am currently developing a community service project that I am very passionate about and have been working to see through to fruition in the southeast end of Columbus, Ohio. This project addresses a variety of local needs and related humanitarian efforts and would not only produce employment opportunities, but would support all aspects of health and wellness through a unique and specific faith-based small business mission. The second stage of this project includes developing a viable online presence that will simultaneously connect other communities in this same fashion. With healthy food and products as its backdrop, I envision this project to go hand in hand with some of the very core principles adhered to at Whole Foods. Curiously, would you be interested in speaking with me about a possible partnership in some way? I humbly and sincerely thank you for your time and consideration of this matter. Take care and God Bless!

Holly Burgin says …

Since this seems to be the only forum in which I can contact you, I am happy to identify this blog where you discuss trust, transparency and authentic communication, because apparently this is not your policy with regard to GMOs. Up until now I had reason to believe the WholeFoods mission and the policies that are espoused in this blog. But since WholeFoods has taken the luke warm, half step of supporting California Proposition 37 with "reservations" I now must question all of the above and the commitment to the following standard: "We seek out the finest natural and organic foods available, maintain the strictest quality standards in the industry, and have an unshakeable commitment to sustainable agriculture." You can't be half pregnant. Either you are all in or you are lying to your consumer base that relies on you for 100% transparency in labeling natural foods. Furthermore Whole Foods should be financially supporting the Proposition 37 campaign in a BIG way (regardless of your so called policy re political contributions) rather than hedging your company position and continuing to perpetuate untruths about the proposition and labeling GMSs. I am rethinking my willingness to shop at Whole Foods. With so many other alternatives now available, including local farmers markets, Trader Joe's (who have their own issues) organic produce offered at the major chain groceries and the internet, why should I pay the extra dollars to shop at Whole Foods when you are no better than the other corporations that put dividends ahead of the interests of their customer base.

Jessy says …

Dear John, Those are lovely ideas. I have been a customer at Whole Foods for more than 15 years in many states and now currently in Edgewater, NJ and I've been very disappointed with the customer service experience at the stores. Sometimes it's adequate. Too often it's egregious and complaining to the store leader is ineffective. There have been times when I've never wanted to do business with the stores again because of the rudeness of your team members. How about expressing that Love for your steadfast, loyal customers by improving your training so that they can buy groceries in a more pleasant environment. I am not asking for something impossible. Trader Joe does an excellent job at this. The customer service that's available at Trader Joe can be matched at Whole Foods. I love shopping at Whole Foods because of the quality of the food. I am proud that the CEO of whole Foods expresses such inspiring, harmonious ideas about business. Please help me to continue being a customer of Whole Foods. Please do better customer service training.