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In Leaders We (Don’t) Trust

March 19, 2018 Briana Goldman

It can be hard to take a vague construct like trust and turn it into something that we all understand, are aligned on, and know how to create. There are many definitions of trust out there—almost as many as there are authors, speakers and consultants who have made the study of trust and the topic itself the subject of their life’s work. One thing we, almost universally, can agree on is that trust is something that enhances relationships—and, as it turns out, has far-reaching implications across organizations and teams.

The Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For study shows that companies with higher employee trust are up to 12 times more profitable. Organizations that focus on building trust among their customer base achieve brand loyalty, wallet share, and increased positive word of mouth. High levels of trust are associated with driving anywhere between 22 and 44 percent of customer loyalty.

As leaders, what happens when we think about trust within the context of our own teams? Surely, a high level of trust must create a tangible impact, right? In fact, it does—and the numbers are noteworthy. When working at a high trust company, employees experience 50 percent less turnover. And, team members within high-trust organizations report, “74 percent less stress, 106 percent more energy at work, 50 percent higher productivity, 13 percent fewer sick days, 76 percent more engagement, 29 percent more satisfaction with their lives, and 40 percent less burnout.”

Yet the reality is, we’re failing.

We deal with four major types of institutions around the world—NGOs, business, media, and government—and, according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer, we don’t trust any of them. In 2017, only 52 percent of the population trusted business, slightly less than the 53 percent who trust NGOs. I won’t mention the government or media statistics here. In addition, 71 percent of participating countries continue to distrust their major institutions and the decline in the US was the steepest that Edelman has ever measured.

The good news? Between this year and last, the general population’s trust in business is largely unchanged; the bad news is, that number was in decline over the previous ten years, and today still only sits at 52 percent. Less than half of all managers trust their leaders, and 55 percent of CEOs believe that the biggest threat to growing their organization is a lack of trust.

So, who is responsible for creating trust in organizations? The majority of people say that building trust is (or should be) the number one job of CEOs.

Our crisis in trust is a crisis in ownership.

We can’t place the responsibility to create trust solely on the shoulders of CEOs—especially not when 60 percent of people agree that CEOs are driven by greed more than positively influencing the world. It’s the responsibility of leaders at all levels to step up and commit to creating trust.

What separates one highly trusted individual from another? Why are some leaders easier to believe than others? Why do certain organizations struggle to maintain a devoted, loyal customer base—and an engaged, all-in workforce?

Trust stems from individual actions and creates a ripple effect that travels outwards through entire teams and ultimately transforms organizational cultures. No matter where you sit in an organization and regardless of your industry, trust is a critical part of your effectiveness as a leader. There are no magic wands or formulas—we build trust one interaction at a time, and it grows as our relationships evolve and change.

Two hundred thousand years ago, misplaced trust in others or in your environment had devastating results. According to research featured in The Coaching Habit, we can blame evolution for our brain’s tendency to scan the environment for threats against our safety every five seconds. What we’re unconsciously looking for is anyone or anything that seems out of place—different from us, new or unfamiliar. While this has long been essential for our survival as a species, it does nothing to help us build relationships across an increasingly complex, globalized and diverse world.

Today’s workforce is fast-paced, constantly changing, highly globalized, and has more generations in a single workforce than ever before (not to mention increasingly polarized worldviews). How can we build trust in a world where stock in the concept continues to decline, and the conditions are less than optimal? How can we address this daunting topic in a way that feels genuine, benefits us, and creates a healthy environment for our team? It starts with practicing these four behaviors consistently:

Be you.

Authenticity is about bringing your complete self to your work every day. To be authentic, you need to have a complete understanding of who you are. What are your core values? What are your boundaries? What makes you unique? What matters most to you at work? In the world?

Authenticity also requires you to exhibit a high degree of consistency in every interaction. When you know who you are, and you behave in a way that aligns with that knowledge, people will sit up and take notice. If you are misaligned, they notice, and that is where mistrust starts.

Finally, authenticity requires a degree of vulnerability and openness. It’s hard to gauge a person’s level of authenticity if they are closed off or don’t allow others to see who they truly are. Being vulnerable involves a measure of risk—it takes courage to share our ideas, our opinions, or our full personalities with others. Without that level of vulnerability, trust is not going to be possible.

Reflection question: Do you behave in a way that is aligned with your values, your background, and your role?

Be curious. 

One of my favorite quotes, taken from Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance is: “Perhaps the most challenging of the paradigm shifts will be to escape from the righteousness of our position and truly understand why the world looks so different in the minds of others.” This has never been truer. As we grow as leaders and create trust, being able to navigate differences of opinion, seek perspectives, and ask good questions are core skills. Much harder to do, although no less important, is engaging in difficult conversations with empathy, an open mind, and a willingness to change our own position.

Reflection question: Where do you need to seek out and cultivate different perspectives?

Be present.

Asking “How was your day?” has no direct impact on the bottom line—but we still need to do it. In Brené Brown’s new book, Braving the Wilderness, she describes her research on identifying the different ways that friends, family members and colleagues build trust. Funerals were consistently listed among the top three. In and of themselves, funerals don’t build trust—they do demonstrate the power of collective assembly. When we show up and when we demonstrate we care, we create a sensation that we are connected socially and the sensation lasts.

As leaders, caring about others is only one half of the equation. You can ask the question, show up at the funeral—but that isn’t enough. You also have to demonstrate presence. When we are truly present, we listen carefully, demonstrate understanding, bring appropriate energy to each interaction, and remain focused on the conversation at hand.

We often unwittingly detract from our presence, diminishing the trust we have so painstakingly built. How often have you found yourself out at dinner and one person at the table is dining with their phone in hand, seemingly oblivious to the conversation around them? That person might be listening, but they’re not conveying presence. Presence is something that is purposeful and intentional, and it requires practice.

Reflection question: When people interact with you, how do you want them to leave feeling?

Build a safe zone.  

Building a safe climate within your team means that every member feels comfortable with taking risks, contributing fully, and bringing their best selves to work every day. Leaders need to encourage smart risks and celebrate (not punish) failures if they happen. Ask for different perspectives and opinions, and create structures and processes that embolden dissent.

Encouraging team members to voice their opinions and fostering cognitive conflict is only as effective as the variety of opinions in the room. And, leading inclusively and building intentionally diverse teams is critical to forming a safe zone. Psychological safety—along with innovation, progress and results—happens when individuals are encouraged to be unique, and celebrated for it.

Reflection question: Where might you be making mistakes that limit creativity?

These four areas might seem deceptively simple, but remember—trust is in crisis today. Identify one of these four areas where you have room to get one step closer to building trust and creating a lasting leadership legacy that you can be proud of. Then, within that area, jot down what you’ll do to 1) get started, 2) gain traction and 3) enlist the commitment of others. The world needs you to assume the role of a trusted leader now more than ever.

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