By Scott Carroll

After reading Patrick Malone’s article in the July 2018 PM magazine, “Creating a Culture of Trust,” I must agree with him that trust and cooperation are essential ingredients for an organization to be successful. This makes sense because when employees do not trust their organization’s leaders, or each other for that matter, they are forced to work alone to protect and advance their own interests.

Without trust and cooperation, stress levels increase and the ability to form strong working relationships suffers to the point where self-interest becomes the primary focus. As a result, employees within the organization do not innovate, share information, communicate effectively, or accept accountability, which makes the organization weak.

The challenge for leaders is that they cannot simply instruct their employees to trust them, nor can leaders instruct employees to cooperate. It doesn’t work that way. So, how do you build trust and cooperation within your organization?

Get the Environment Right

In 2014, Simon Sinek, who is best known for his 2009 TED Talk presentation on how great leaders inspire action by starting with “why,” also presented a TED talk that addressed how employees develop such deep devotion to their leaders and to each other. The question posed was: “Why do some employees give their blood, sweat, and tears to their leaders, colleagues, and to the organization?”

Simon found that the organization’s environment instills devotion among people. According to Simon, “If you get the environment right, every single one of us has the capacity to do remarkable things.” He believes a deep sense of trust and cooperation are feelings. So where do the feelings come from?

Quite simply, it’s the environment within the organization that sets the tone for trust and cooperation. “When people feel safe and protected by the leadership in the organization, the natural reaction is to trust and cooperate,” said Simon.

Simon calls it the “Circle of Safety.” He goes on to say this in his New York Times and Wall Street Journal best seller Leaders Eat Last.

• “The goal of leadership is to set a culture free of danger from each other. And the way to do that is by giving people a sense of belonging. By offering them a strong culture based on a clear set of human values and beliefs. By giving them the power to make decisions. By offering trust and empathy. By creating a Circle of Safety.”

• “It is easy to know when we are in the Circle of Safety because we feel it. We feel valued by our colleagues, and we feel cared for by our supervisors.”

• “We become absolutely confident that the leaders in the organization and all those with whom we work are there for us and will do what they can to help us succeed.”

Perfect Timing

Simon Sinek’s message on the Circle of Safety could not have come at a better time for me and the Costa Mesa Sanitary District (CMSD). The results of an employee satisfaction survey disseminated agencywide made it clear that I did not have a full understanding of the climate in my own organization.

Some employees expressed concern about losing their jobs, and admitted that they were afraid to make a mistake in fear of being reprimanded. Some employees refused to ask for help from management because they fear being chastised for not knowing what to do.

All these feelings led to a decrease in staff morale, which in turn affected staff’s ability to trust and communicate if issues arose. That is not the culture I wanted established at CMSD, nor is it the legacy I want to leave behind. As Simon said in his 2014 TED Talk, “Leadership matters because it’s the leader that sets the tone for the condition inside the organization.”

So, I began setting the tone in my organization by describing these guiding principles for getting the environment right:

• Fear, intimidation, disrespect, and micromanaging will not be tolerated.

• There will be no disciplinary procedures for making mistakes. Instead, mistakes will be followed up by coaching and mentoring to help employees learn from their mistakes to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

• Integrity and empathy will be an essential part of CMSD’s culture.

• CMSD will encourage lifelong learning and ensure employees have the necessary tools to be successful.

• Employees will be praised for work well done.

Culture Change

Every week, I meet with the leadership team to ensure the Circle of Safety is implemented from top to bottom in the organization. We share our values and openly discuss matters of concern as well as strategies on how to be empathetic and how to give and receive feedback.

We discuss the importance of integrity, how to create a sense of belonging throughout the organization, and how to develop meaningful and successful working relationships with generationally diverse team members.

Since reinforcing the Circle of Safety in our organization, I am seeing the culture at CMSD greatly improve. Employees are relaxed and engaging with one another. They’re openly asking questions without fear of judgment or being reprimanded, and are more willing to cooperate and assist their colleagues.

More importantly, they’re looking out for each other. Several employees, for example, donated some of their sick-leave hours to another employee because he exhausted all his sick leave. While these are great signs that the Circle of Safety is getting better at CMSD, the work is not over.

I envision that it will become the responsibility of every employee within CMSD, whether in a formal position of leadership or not, to act like leaders, work to uphold the values, and keep the Circle of Safety strong forever.

I encourage my fellow general managers and leaders in the public sector to check the environment in their organizations and then read Simon Sinek’s book Leaders Eat Last, or at least watch his TED Talk presentation on YouTube, “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe” (it’s less than 15 minutes in length). I hope you find the video inspirational.

Don’t hesitate to contact me to discuss the Circle of Safety or to share your thoughts on how leaders can foster trust and cooperation.

Scott Carroll is general manager, Costa Mesa Sanitary District, Costa Mesa, California ( An original version of this article was published by California Special Districts magazine.








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