Despite its size (only 5 letters long) trust is a very big word. Yet in today’s world it seems to be becoming a scarce commodity. And this matters. We only need to look around us at our politicians, the media, large corporates, the professions, to know that trust has been, and continues to be, eroded.
Trust is vital in all societies. Trust allows us to flourish, to innovate, to collaborate, to build our resilience and wellbeing; attributes that we need now more than ever. Trust is about maintaining positive relationships despite operating with uncertainty and risk. The management professor Denise Rousseau defined trust as ‘a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behaviour of another’. The world we live in is full of change and ambiguity and this makes us feel vulnerable. Psychology and neuroscience tells us that when we feel vulnerable we ‘close down’. Feeling less psychologically safe makes us retreat into ourselves, makes us become more cautious, heightens our anxiety and stress levels – traits that are not conducive to a flourishing, productive society.
So what does this mean for our organisations, both large and small? What does this mean for leaders who are steering their organisations through the choppy (and sometimes tsunami-like) seas of change that has become the new normal? How do leaders lead successful companies where employee engagement is high, talent is nurtured and developed, creativity and innovation thrives and collaboration and team work is the order of the day? How do leaders, when the people in their organisations are suffering from ‘change fatigue’ and are feeling uncertain and vulnerable, engender the traits that are needed to enable their people to innovate and collaborate, despite the unsettling realities of our current world? Building trust is one of those ways.
Of course, higher levels of ambiguity and uncertainty means that people want to trust their leaders more than ever before. As noted by Professor and Dean of the School of Management at the University of Bath, Veronica Hope Hailey, the perceived trust crisis may instead be because people need a more overt demonstration of trust from their leaders to enable them to become comfortable with the uncomfortable.
So how can leaders invest in more overt demonstrations of their trustworthiness? What does the research tell us are the characteristics of trustworthy leaders? In many ways, it mirrors the characteristics we expect from the professions, be they doctors, lawyers or accountants (we wouldn’t be very happy, in fact we’d be rather scared (!), if we didn’t have faith in the experience and expertise of the surgeon about to operate on us). Having the right level of competence and capability and the belief from the organization that you can ‘get the job done’ therefore goes without saying.
Another important characteristic is found in the somewhat over-used expression of ‘walking the talk’. Am I, as a leader, being consistent in doing what I say I am going to do? Am I predictable? Of course, external factors and new findings can and will change a course of direction, but being consistent in the values and behaviours you demonstrate to lead this change go along way in building trust. Do you model the behaviour you expect of others?
When you go to see your doctor or seek the advice of a lawyer or accountant, you assume that their standing as a professional means that they will go beyond their own self interest and act with integrity. There is an asymmetry of power in this relationship, as they inevitably know more than you do, so you have to trust them. The research shows that integrity is an important pillar in being a trustworthy leader too: including being open, honest and transparent. In recent times it is the leaders who have been seen acting without integrity who have hit the news headlines. Clearly many do operate with a strong moral compass. In these uncertain times, consistently showing high levels of integrity is paramount.
And finally, another key characteristic is benevolence. I choose to trust someone when I can see that they have my best interests at heart. I choose to trust someone when, even at times of challenge and difficulty, they act respectfully and compassionately towards me. I choose to trust someone when they put relationships between human beings at the heart of what they do.
As leaders we need to know when to dial up and dial down these different attributes; focusing on one more than another could, paradoxically, risk the very trust people have in us. For example, making a decision based on compassion for a close colleague may compromise the integrity of our decision-making and show inconsistencies in our actions towards the wider group.
Nurturing and building trust within organisations and seeing it as a vital and necessary contributor to success is more important today than it has ever been. We want customers to trust our brands and wise companies do much to build and protect them. Similarly, we want our people to trust their leaders. Wise leaders do much to openly build and evidence that trust; they value it as an equally important business asset, one to be nurtured and developed.
“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundation principle that holds all relationships.” Stephen Covey
This image shows two of artist Hans Holbein’s portraits, both of which hang in The Frick Collection in New York. The one on the left is a portrait of Sir Thomas More and the one on the right is Thomas Cromwell. Both More and Cromwell served in the English court of King Henry VIII. Whatever history (and Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall) tells us about both men, it is clear which leader Holbein trusted!
A strategist, consultant and mother to two daughters, Sam Whittaker is a lover of stories with a passion for connecting people with ideas. Sam also cares deeply about driving progressive change in the world, however, seemingly ‘small’. She (& others) blog at the-change.blog. You can follow her on twitter @itsSamActually.