By Thom Dennis, CEO of culture integration, change and leadership specialists, Serenity In Leadership
American business magnate and philanthropist Warren Buffet once said “Trust is like the air we breathe. When it’s present, nobody notices. But when it’s absent, everybody notices.” If trust is a firm belief in the reliability and truth of someone or something, the impact of it being eroded can be huge, as we are seeing today in politics, sport and in big business. A company’s or someone’s reputation that has been nurtured for years, can be annihilated in just one moment of poor judgement because the emotion at the core of breaking trust is betrayal.
Trust happens over time and is built in small moments. It doesn’t happen overnight. The problem is that every decision we make can increase trust or destroy it. At the moment the trust we have for people in authority is low because many of our leaders are showing their policy of ‘do as I say’ rather ‘do as I do’, but why does it matter so much in business?
The pandemic itself has impacted trust. During the heart of the pandemic a global survey in December 2020 from The Workforce Institute at UKG * found that 60% of employees say trust has a direct impact on their sense of belonging in the workplace, but only 57% felt that they were trusted to complete daily responsibilities. Many employees are concerned about their employer monitoring their communications especially if they are working remotely. Leaders in high trust businesses during the pandemic coached rather than micromanaged and avoided the spyware that some organisations installed on their remote working staff.
Trust is complicated. At a corporate level, studies have shown that organisations with high levels of trust have more effective leadership, better collaboration at all levels, a strong shared sense of purpose and highly value respect. The business is more productive, has better morale and lower employee turnover, which is especially important during the Great Resignation. Organisations with low trust suffer with poor inclusion, conflict, interdepartmental rivalries, misogyny and win/ lose thinking that is divisive and expensive.
Sitting on the fence, silencing employees or ignoring issues that face them, all affect trust. If you have employees who chose not to report an issue because they didn’t think HR or their leaders would fix it, or because of fear of retaliation, then there is a serious breach in trust. As with employees, we have to earn our customers’ and client’s loyalty and they will not be loyal until we have earned their trust. If they are not a customer with longevity, then they are still a customer with prospect.
Whatever the trust relationship in question, how can leaders build trust?
1. Understand that trust takes time and work. Building trust is an ongoing process that requires reliability and commitment. The importance of trust during a merger is an excellent example of how two businesses need to have good leaders who can work together to support both of their teams become one. Equally value long term relationships, honour commitments and empower your employees and share the clear vision and the values of the company. Trust wounds can sometimes be healed but it takes a lot of active work.
2. Trust is at the heart of an inclusive culture. Many businesses have made public commitments to address societal disparity and have called loudly for equality and for all to be treated fairly. Many have done well to fulfil this vision but failing to meet DE&I commitments will cause damage to worker trust. Deloittes research** in January 2022 showed that more than 40% of respondents in upper management roles (board members, C-suite/executive, and VP or director) say their organisations are too focused on DEI and 60% of this group believe that their organisations’ commitment to DEI is likely to be reduced as different competitive threats emerge. Worker perception reflect this as nearly 40% of total respondents, including 41% of ethnically or racially diverse respondents and 50% of LGBTQIA+ respondents, also believe that this commitment drift is likely to happen.
3. Value trust over performance. Trust can be a critical factor in the relationship between a worker’s performance and operational success. A high performer who is not trustworthy is a toxic person likely to damage the business even if bring in the most money for now. Someone who has a slightly lower performance level but who is highly trustworthy, will always do better for the business and whilst there are no good metrics to measure someone’s trustworthiness, it is very easy to spot both of these people within a business.
4. Be vulnerable. We need to feel trust to be vulnerable and feel vulnerable to trust. As a leader, letting your guard down at times and sharing personal anecdotes or vulnerable moments may involve taking a risk but it also gives others the opportunity to trust you too.
5. Communication breakdowns lead to the shattering of trust. Proper attention being given to people’s views, deep listening and being non-judgmental and warm, and clear communication helps build trust. Listen more than you speak. Allow workers at all levels to feedback their views in order to help form corporate decisions. Consistency with our words and action is key. Don’t spin bad news, most people will want to hear the truth, especially stakeholders.
6. Have an organisational higher purpose that goes beyond making money will continue to shift to centre stage in the years to come. Adopt and stand by clear, strong company values which represent the beliefs and principles of the business whether that be sustainability, fairness, equality, inclusion, diversity, health, or respect for the work/life balance and family.
7. Great leaders care. We expect more from leaders because they are in a position of power or authority, but authority does not create trust. Trust creates authority and we need to lead by example. How can we also trust a manager if we have no relationship or rapport with them? Good leaders are less concerned about their own status and know that their job is not to keep the customer happy but to keep their employees happy so that they in turn can make the customer happy. Happy employees feel their managers care and that they can be themselves. Employers should continue to prioritise social interactions, collaboration and teamwork when possible, in order to provide opportunities for trusting relationships to form as part of a growth mindset.
8. Leaders need trust training. When we start out in business we need to work hard and be good at our jobs and we get training to be even better. Once we become leaders it is assumed we know it all because we have been in the industry a while, but our job spec has entirely changed from doing the work to needing to be responsible for a team and giving away all the credit. We are no longer the person responsible for the customer, we are responsible for our team and many of us need training in that. Avoiding excessive self-promotion and focusing on acknowledging and appreciating the contributions made by others helps to build relationships.
9. Show integrity. If we believe our leaders have integrity then we are also likely to believe that they will always do right by us and do what is best for our business. Our moral character is shown through our evaluations, judgments, decisions and choices. Trust is built on honesty even if it means admitting mistakes and being accountable to show integrity. Being honest, authentic, sincere, transparent and having integrity sounds a lot but actually it comes naturally to most of us, even if we need practice and training in it. We can positively reinforce trust and gain our own and others’ confidence and credibility by being generous, authentic and sincere.
10. Don’t take trust for granted. It is a mistake to take trust for granted, and for leaders or organisations to drift off course from the commitments they made. Empowering employees has never been more important given the confusion over working from home, returning to the office and hybrid working. Keep morale high and check for burnout or mental health issues. Trust has to be worked at on a consistent basis.