“Trust me…I’m the leader”

Trust is not often talked about within leadership strategy but it should be considered a factor vital to our success. It is a foundation element – its absence makes positive change and progress difficult, arguably impossible.

We are living in a low trust culture now more than ever before. Low trust in politicians undermine elections and will influence the upcoming US and UK outcomes, low trust within all sectors of business pervades. We are socially and culturally lower trust too. Try moving through an airport and the lack of trust demonstrates the increased cost and slower service – less happy travellers is the main result.

Business is no different. Successive years of austerity and ‘business transformation’ cuts have forced leadership teams to reduce budgets, make redundancies and try and attempt the impossible – more for less. Staff trust becomes eroded. Industry regulators create increasingly bureaucratic systems of checks and controls as they don’t trust business to do what they are good at.  Regulation and sanction was created out of a position of distrust and unintentionally creates fear and lack of trust – a reluctance for openness for fear of retribution. An unintended consequence has been creating ‘systems of surveillance’ across public and private sectors to prove the answer to ‘How do you know?’ or ‘How do you know you know’ or creating further barriers to collaboration. Often failing to increase quality or customer service but increasing levels of distrust.

Lower levels of trust are expensive and add little or no value to the end outcome, simply slowing progress. In this position no matter how hard we try it is difficult to create a culture of trust; morale is often undermined.

So what are the essential elements to increase trust?

In all business I believe these must begin with the individual. It’s a ‘look in the mirror moment’ and raise the question “Are you trustworthy?”  Do you say what you mean, do what you say, tell it straight without fear nor favour; driven by personal values.

The second level could be considered by looking at how systems, policies and procedures support a high trust culture. Are they there to serve and improve or simply check and report?

Stephen Covey said “When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant and effective”.

A deeper level: trust and teamship

A higher trust culture creates efficient and effective “micro-teams”.  These are built on trusting the person next to you and the ability to move fast, with low cost and with clarity of shared mission.

Special Forces teams are built on these principles, to operate within a clear framework and values, but often where there are no policies or bureaucratic institutional frameworks to support immediate decision making, or if the landscape is changing too fast then policies and systems will fail to keep up. Sound familiar?

I once spoke to 2003 World Cup Rugby winning coach, Sir Clive Woodward, about the conditions of success. He was clear about the need to control the controllables but more importantly create the conditions, through a concept of “teamship”, that allows the players to play.

It is worth reflecting that getting to this stage required massive, and often painful change; getting the right players with the skills and foundations and structures where trust and their teamship will thrive. This means that teams will likely need change.

Trust, a long term leadership project

Through long leadership roles as director level, CEO or external coach in challenging times where trust and belief becomes low – it has forced me to revisit the work ‘Speed of Trust’ by Stephen Covey. It argues that the creation of trust is a long-term project, there are no shortcuts.

I have seen the effect where teams have become fractured. They have lied to each other, backstabbed or ‘arse covered’. It rapidly becomes tribal and outcomes hard to predict. It only takes one or two malevolent ‘bad apples’ and the whole barrel quickly rots. Teams that have worked well over years can quickly break. It creates chaos, low trust, slows communications, increases suspicion and makes fixing the problem twice as expensive, twice as difficult and twice as long.

Creditability and capability

It’s my view that there are arguably two essential elements required to be present for trust to thrive or even be possible. They are capability and credibility.

Credibility comes from character elements from ‘walking the walk’ and being honest- even if this is painful for others to hear.  Of acting with integrity, of having honest virtues and intentions, taking responsibilities for results. It is said that, “Trust is not matter of technique, tricks or tools but of character”. Capability (from attitudes, skills and knowledge) comes from being competent to deliver results and constant improvement.

As a coach it is my responsibility to support senior leaders to sense check the capability and credibility of themselves and their team members and put in action to address this in a compassionate and supportive environment. This is an essential phase of development not punishment. Teams can be challenged through group coaching to get to the root cause of what is causing distrust, or resentment. Is it a changed team dynamic? Is it tjust hat a team member doesn’t have sufficient credibility or capability? Is it communication issues? These can all be addressed carefully by swiftly by coaching.

Trust is created by actions not just words. Never has it been more important for leaders to act with integrity and be underpinned by values to generate trust. Author Jesse Stoner said, “People follow leaders by choice. Without trust, at best you get compliance”.

10 Tips to increase trust

  1. Work on self-trust before others. Check in frequently on our own behaviour. Are you trustworthy? (this is not the same as liked, respected or loved which are different)
  2. Create values: articulate and live your values and see if these feel aligned with the business or wider team? If not…time to move on.  
  3. Revise policy: work with teams to get rid of policy that employees distrust.
  4. Talk straight: even is the message isn’t what people want to hear. Confront the issues head on. This may challenge people’s professional expectations or expectations of professionalism (which holds multiple individual definitions)
  5. Clarify expectations: Agreement upfront and clear vision is easier than to change halfway through. By all means as a leader it is our responsibility to set performance and outcomes but be clear and then extend trust. It I then for a team member to be sufficiently competent to carry this out. A coach can help do this.
  6. Extend trust: Reciprocity is created by giving trust first. “Trusting you is my decision, proving me right is yours”.
  7. Part company: Acknowledge trust is core. Unintentionally leaders and staff need to be challenged or changed. They cannot to be allowed to stay. If staff don’t trust in others to take responsibility, be accountable and be trusted: They have to go. This is the same within the boardroom too.
  8. Make trust a priority: Entrust time and resources into building trust in individuals, teams and across your sector. This is increasingly hard to do in the ‘work from home culture’.
  9. Get personal: It’s easier to trust someone when you know them. Where possible work with smaller teams to exchange, support and explain.
  10. Acknowledging broken trust created by rapid change, poor communications, or allowing rumour and poor leadership to occur and break trust. Get a coach to help.