Leadership can be a complex endeavor— but it doesn’t have to be. People tend to make things more convoluted than they need to be. To prove the point, go to Amazon.com and search their book listings for the word “leadership.” More than 180,000 entries will come up.
Browsing the titles of some popular best-sellers might lead some to believe that to be a successful leader, they need to find the magical keys, take the right steps, follow the proper laws, figure out the dysfunctions, embrace the challenge, ascend the levels, look within themselves, look outside themselves, form a tribe, develop the right habits, know the rules, break the rules, be obsessed, learn the new science, or discover the ancient wisdom. In other words, overcomplicate things.
What if successful leadership isn’t really that complicated? What if there is just one thing — not a title, power or position — that determines whether people followed a leader? What if one aspect of leadership is a non-negotiable, must-have characteristic that needs to be in place for people to pledge their loyalty and commitment to a leader? What if one single element defines how people experience working for a leader? Can it really be as simple as one thing?
Yes. And that one thing is trust. It’s the foundation of any successful, healthy and thriving relationship. Without it, leadership is doomed. Creativity is stifled, innovation grinds to a halt, and reasoned risk-taking is abandoned. Without trust, direct reports check their hearts and minds at the door, leaving managers with staff who have quit mentally and emotionally but stayed on the payroll, sucking precious resources from the organization.
Trust, the Missing Link
With trust, all things are possible. Energy, progress, productivity and ingenuity flourish. Commitment, engagement, loyalty and excellence become more than empty words in a company mission statement; they become reality.
Trust can be the magic ingredient in organizational life. It simultaneously acts as the bonding agent that holds everything together and as the lubricant that keeps things moving smoothly. Stephen M.R. Covey, author of “Speed of Trust,” said that while high trust won’t necessarily rescue a poor strategy, low trust will almost always derail a good one.
Surveys and studies report chronic levels of low trust in leadership and organizations. Interaction Associates’ “Building Workplace Trust 2014/15” report states only 40 percent of employees have a high level of trust in their management and organization. Yet the research states that while employees said trust in their bosses and senior leadership is critical to be effective in their jobs, 25 percent reported lower levels of trust in those two groups than they did two years before. Statistics are trending in the wrong direction.
Trust is essential for leadership success, yet business seems stuck in an environment of cynicism, suspicion and low trust. What is a leader to do? Leaders have to build trust at the interpersonal level before it can radiate out to teams and affect an organization’s culture.
Karen Adams is president and CEO of Alberta Pension Services in Canada, which administers pension services for Alberta’s public sector pension plans. She said trust is of primary importance in how her organization operates and deals with its members and pensioners because trust is at the core of building strong relationships.
“Trust is established between two people over time,” she said. “You can’t build trust with a team, although many people talk about teams in this way. The way you build trust is through one-on-one relationships, individual to individual. Managers who learn this lesson early in their careers are more likely to build strong relationships with their people and create the foundation of trust that is at the core of an effective organization.”
Trust doesn’t come easy, however, and it doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a characteristic of advanced leadership that leaders must continually work to maintain. A challenge in building trust is that it is based on perceptions. One person’s idea of what trust looks like in a relationship can be different from another’s, so it’s critically important for leaders and organizations to establish a shared definition for, and understanding of, trust.
The Mechanics of Trust
The ABCD Trust Model is a helpful tool to provide a common language and framework to understand four elements of trust and specific behaviors associated with trustworthy leaders (Figure 1).
Leaders build trust when they are:
Able: Being able is about demonstrating capability. One way that leaders demonstrate their capability is by having the expertise needed to do their jobs. Expertise comes from possessing the right skills, education or credentials to establish credibility with others. Leaders also demonstrate their capability when they achieve results. Consistently meeting goals and having a track record of success builds trust with others and inspires confidence in a leader’s ability. Able leaders are also skilled at facilitating work getting done in the organization. They develop credible project plans, systems and processes to help team members accomplish their goals.
Believable:A believable leader acts with integrity. Dealing with people in an honest fashion by keeping promises, not lying or stretching the truth and not gossiping demonstrates integrity. Believable leaders also have a clear set of values that they articulate to their direct reports, and they behave consistently with those values — they walk the talk. Treating people fairly and equitably is another key component to being a believable leader. Being fair doesn’t necessarily mean treating people the same in all circumstances; rather, it’s about treating people appropriately and justly based on their own unique situation.
Connected: Connected leaders show care and concern for people, which builds trust and helps create an engaging work environment. Leaders create a sense of connection by openly sharing information about themselves and the organization and by trusting employees to use that information responsibly. Leaders also build trust by having a people-first mentality and building rapport with those they lead. Taking an interest in people as individuals, not nameless workers, shows that leaders value and respect their team members. Recognition is a vital component of being a connected leader, and praising and rewarding employees’ contributions builds trust and goodwill.
Dependable:Being dependable and maintaining reliability is the fourth element of trustworthiness. One of the quickest ways leaders can erode trust is by not following through on commitments. Conversely, leaders who do what they say will earn a reputation of being consistent and trustworthy. Maintaining reliability requires leaders to be organized so that they can follow through on commitments, be on time for appointments and meetings, and get back to people in a timely fashion. Dependable leaders also hold themselves and others accountable for following through on commitments and taking responsibility for their work.
The Value of Trust
“Having a common framework and definition of trust is essential for our organization,” said Howard Kummerman, dean of institutional research and planning at Rio Hondo College in Whittier, California. “Our leadership academy, an internal leadership development program for current and future leaders at the college, focuses specifically on trust as a foundational skill to enable people to communicate and lead initiatives with faculty, classified staff and administrators in a shared governance environment.”
A common language of trust opens up communication at all levels in an organization, said Stacy Fenner, director of human resources at Charter Steel in Mequon, Wisconsin. Further, having a model to explain what trustworthy behavior looks like can foster a more open dialogue between leaders and their teams and between peers. “Spending dedicated time adapting the model in multiple levels in the organization has given everyone a common language and understanding of how we can build trust and hold each other accountable in an engaged work environment,” Fenner said.
Building trust in relationships and organizations is often mischaracterized as a soft skill primarily focused on creating warm and fuzzy relationships with employees. The reality is trust has hard, bottom-line benefits for organizations.
Barbara Kimmel, founder and executive editor of Trust! magazine, said in the spring 2015 issue that “nothing impacts an organization’s bottom line more than trust. Our research has shown the most trustworthy companies have produced an 82.9 percent return vs. S&P’s 42.2 percent since August 2012. Companies that proactively build trust into their DNA see expenses decrease and profitability increase.” Research from the Great Place to Work Institute shows that high-trust companies perform nearly two times better than the general market on the S&P 500 and Russell 3000 indexes.
Beyond the financial benefits, high levels of trust between leaders and employees foster engagement and vitality in an organization’s culture. The 2015 “Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement” report from the Society for Human Resource Management showed the top two contributors to employee satisfaction were respectful treatment of all employees at all levels (72 percent) and trust between employees and senior management (64 percent).
The aforementioned Great Place to Work Institute reported that committed and engaged employees in high-trust companies perform 20 percent better and are 87 percent less likely to leave the organization compared with employees in low trust organizations.
It would be an oversimplification to state that trust is the only requirement for leadership success. Leadership is a complex recipe that requires many ingredients, but trust is one must-have factor. Do you have it?