Talent is most valuable when there’s a great deal of trust binding it together, says Paul Deegan, leadership author and mountaineer.
There is perhaps no softer skill that has more direct implications for an organization’s hard bottom line than the ability to build trust. Trust can be a catalyst for growth of any kind. Most people who have attained a certain level of success can remember at least one time a manager’s trust or faith set the foundation for them to believe in themselves while inspiring them to be more effective performers. Being trusted elicits the desire to deserve that trust.
Trust also breeds cohesion between people. When trust is high, employees communicate more easily, information flows more smoothly and the likelihood that high-quality decisions will be made increases. On the other hand, where trust is low, people shy away from conversation, information flow retracts and decision-making can be stifled.
But trust is not a common topic in business school scenarios or in corporate staff meetings, perhaps because it is so intangible. Trust revolves around how people feel in any given situation. Yet trust can be measured. Leaders can identify situations when trust is high and when it is low.
As leaders examine the high and low moments of trust, an individual’s perception of how worthy another person is of being trusted can define those moments.
Once leaders recognize that perception can impact trust, they can address the issue of trust or a lack thereof with purpose. It is important for leaders to understand that each individual defines trust uniquely. What triggers a perception of high or low trust depends in part upon what each person values.
For example, think about the different ways one can deliver feedback. A person who values diplomacy and kindness would perceive straightforward feedback less favorably than one who values no-frills communication.
Trust is built based upon style preference. In this case, trustworthiness is measured by the eye of the beholder. Thus, it is important to understand others’ values and beliefs to purposefully choose actions that build the kind of trust that matters in each unique relationship.
Individuals cannot fully control the level of trust others extend to them, but they can take responsibility for learning the trust trigger points of others. Often, this simply entails asking others to describe the positive and negative attributes of trust for them.
Universal Truths of Trust
In simple terms, trust is a measure of the degree to which a person can believe, depend upon and rely on something or someone. It is built upon experiences that demonstrate who someone is and what he or she does. People seem to consistently seek alignment between the walk and the talk when evaluating trustworthiness.
One way corporate leaders demonstrate trustworthiness is to share information as openly and transparently as possible. For example, one of the most challenging situations leaders face in this regard involves communication during downsizing. How organizations manage workforce reductions can convey a lot about their attitude toward employees.
Strong organizations develop trusted partnerships with employees, and when faced with difficult organizational decisions they can lean into relational capital and speak honestly. Trust breeds trust. Weak organizations are forced to withhold information from employees out of fear they might sabotage the company. Ill will breeds ill will.
Individuals who demonstrate trustworthiness are often honest, respectful and show integrity, humility, justice, honor and courage. No one is perfectly trustworthy, but when individuals consistently demonstrate those characteristics, they are more likely and better able to curb failures and build successes.
The following questions can help leaders gauge how others perceive them:
•Honesty: Does what I say align with reality, or am I deceitful, manipulative or dishonest to meet my needs?
• Respect: Do I demonstrate respect for the value of every individual’s inherent worth, or do I devalue others through harsh words, critical thoughts or compromising actions?
• Integrity: Are my actions consistent with my values, or do I compromise to get short-term results?
• Humility: Do I lift up and support others, or am I focused on exalting myself?
• Justice: Do I look out for the best interests of others, or am I willing to get whatever I can, even at others’ expense?
• Honor: Do I place purpose and people above self-ambition, or do I seek to achieve my own goals at the expense of others?
• Courage: Am I willing to do what is right regardless of the consequences, or do I cave through lack of resolve and unwillingness to pay the price for what is right?
As leaders grow their trustworthiness, they make it safe for their direct reports and others around them. To help conceptualize this, imagine someone who could consistently answer yes to the first question in each of the aforementioned points.
That person will be perceived as nice, good and trustworthy wherever he or she goes. The person will readily be able to develop relationships and, most likely, maintain them over extended periods of time. These are the kinds of people employees want to follow and others want to do business with.
To the degree that relationships are important in the workplace, developing trustworthiness is also important. However, imagine a leader is interviewing the aforementioned person. Would that individual be hired? Possibly. He or she does, after all, possess attributes that would benefit the organization. But the obvious question is whether the person can be trusted to accomplish the job for which he or she was hired.
That type of scenario illustrates why it is essential for leaders and their teams to develop trustworthiness as a trait and by reputation. Demonstrating accountability, commitment, emotional intelligence, decisiveness, communication and support, along with under-promising and over-delivering, are all directly related to trust.
The following questions can help leaders gauge how well they communicate trustworthiness via their actions:
• Accountability: Do I take responsibility for outcomes, or do I deny or shirk responsibility?
• Commitment: Do I stand firm in my word, or do I break commitments when feelings waver or obstacles arise?
• Under-promise and over-deliver: Do I deliver what I said I would, or do I make excuses for missing deadlines and agreements?
• Emotional intelligence: Do I understand how to maintain a safe and respectful environment when I communicate with people, or am I harsh, demanding or disrespectful of others?
• Decisive: Do I make decisions in a timely manner, or do I delay decisions, allowing others to flounder in ambiguity for long periods of time?
• Communicative: Am I open and frequent in communication, or do I withhold communication, conveying that I don’t really care about other people’s needs or feelings?
• Supportive: Is this relationship two-way? Do I consistently seek support, but seldom give it?
A composite person who consistently lives all of the aforementioned trust-building attributes likely would be perceived as the ideal employee. A leader would not have to concern him or herself with whether that employee would take inappropriate action toward another employee or fail in a given assignment.
If the employee did fail, he or she would be more likely to figure out a way to fix whatever problem was created. The individual could be trusted not to engage in a power struggle or spread negativity in the department, for example. Instead, that person likely would continually promote better, more efficient performance and a more enjoyable work environment or learning culture.
If a company’s leaders want this ideal employee, they have to realize that while it’s possible the next person interviewed could fit this description, it would be more practical to become this type of leader themselves.
Trustworthiness Is a Journey
Leaders and employees can be developed and encouraged to grow into exemplary and high-performing members of an organization if they are willing to change how they lead or act. It has been said that trust is a choice, but trustworthiness is a better one.
By developing a reputation of trust through consistent trust-building actions, leaders are establishing a culture of emotional, intellectual, relational, occupational and accomplishment safety and all that comes with it. Leaders can promote trust and encourage employees to be mindful of how their choices affect the people around them, even as they make choices that prove they are worthy of others’ trust.
Trustworthiness is not binary; it falls into a continuum. The more experiences people accumulate of trustworthiness, the more solid trust bonds become. In establishing trust bonds, most people endure minor infractions, and sometimes these can strengthen the bond if handled properly. However, leaders should take care to avoid a major infraction that could severely break trust.
Fortunately, relationships built on accumulated experiences of trustworthiness hold resilient power. Even major infractions can be restored with time, effort and forgiveness. Every day and every interaction holds the potential to build or break trust. It all comes down to whether individuals choose to take actions that prove their trustworthiness.
This building process takes time and effort. Are learning leaders investing in the actions that build trust, demonstrate trustworthiness and build a secure culture within which a team can flourish?
Diane Kucala is founder and chief leadership officer of Blueprint Leadership, which specializes in people, team and organization transformation. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.
We asked our CLO-Network, LinkedIn and Twitter followers how they build trust. Here’s what some had to say:
Via CLO-Network discussion:
Robert Bacal: It can be complicated, but one of the prime areas has to do with the degree to which someone acts consistently. Part of the trust process requires predictability in behavior.
Karen Mishra: When leaders are open and honest, employees feel empowered to take risks. When leaders show that they are competent to lead, employees follow and step up to show they are competent as well. When leaders show compassion to employees, letting them know they care about them as people, employees will go the extra mile.
Gloria Stinson: Leaders build trust by aligning their actions with their words. Doing what they say and saying what they mean. Environments based on trust don’t just happen, they evolve, and leaders play an integral role in shaping this.
Sandra Moaney Wright: In building trust, leaders should have the 3C’s: character, caring, competence. This will increase productivity within your team and the organization. True leaders put the welfare of the group ahead of their own self-interest.
Aneil Mishra: Clearly defining trustworthy behavior and developing ways to reinforce it, both formally and informally, is a critical first step. Frankly discussing how trust has been difficult to achieve or suffered as a result of actions or inaction by the organization’s leadership and others is also important.
Mary Lippitt: Too often attempts to improve trust kick off without a simultaneous system shift toward greater trust. If the system is perceived to be “unfair” or if there is little congruence between what management says and what it does, the leader’s ability to build trust is constrained.
Jeffrey Tate: In our leadership training I like to include how we treat the customer/client in our daily interaction or the standing of corporate citizenship in the communities we serve when discussing trust.
Darius Peyton: You build trust by having the competence and capacity to be right. In problem-solving and decision-making, the more times you have been â€¨“on record” with your prognostication, the more trustworthy you will be perceived.
Deidre Alves: Remove fear from the organization and trust will thrive. Fear is a cancer and will grow if left untreated. If you look at why most organizations are low-performing or fail, fear is the answer, not profits, losses, etc.
Dave Erdman: Be honest. Be respectful. Communicate the truth, good or bad. Listen and respect other points of view that may differ from your own. Be mindful that all wisdom does not come from the top. Be authentic and â€¨remain unafraid to show it.
Tracy Saunders: Each person has an invisible trust line. What works for one employee may not work for another. Understanding employees allows a leader to better attune his or herself to understand â€¨where that line exists.
@DanielCarusi: Do what you say you are going to do and communicate with full transparency.
@krista515all: Saying, “I don’t know” when we don’t have an answer.
@kevinjruth: Listening. Listening. Listening. Engage in conversation and listen!
@m_shipman: We build trust by listening to employees and acting on feedback.
What do you think? Join the discussion at tinyurl.com/cfvwzpa, follow us @CLOmedia, or join our Chief Learning Officer LinkedIn group.