Leading with Trust

Three Questions That Could Save Your Career

Three QuestionsThe question is not if you will ever face an ethical dilemma, the question is when. Ethical dilemmas come in all shapes and sizes and you will inevitably be faced with a situation where you find yourself at a crossroads. Do you choose to do something that is wrong in order to benefit yourself, even if no one will ever know, or do you choose to do the right thing?

“There is no right way to do a wrong thing.”

Last week I wrote about the five P’s of ethical power that Ken Blanchard and Norman Vincent Peale discuss in their book The Power of Ethical Management. In that classic best-seller they also offer an “ethics check,” three questions you should ask yourself when faced with an ethical choice point. Asking yourself these three questions could save you from making a decision that ends your career.

Is it legal? The first of the three ethics check questions goes right to the core of the matter. Is what you are going to do legal? Does it violate civil law, corporate policy, or your own code of ethics? If the answer is No then STOP! There’s no need to even ask the next two questions. To take it a step further, if choosing to proceed could even give the appearance of illegal activity, you should avoid that course of action.

Is it fair and balanced? Assuming you answer Yes to the legality of the decision, the next question to ask yourself is whether or not your action will be fair and balanced to the parties involved. Will your decision or action result in one party being taken advantage of by another to the point of their detriment? Is there a clear winner and loser involved? The parties can’t always win equally in every situation, but you should strive to avoid great imbalances in the fairness of your actions. Ideally you want to strive for decisions that promote long-term fairness and respect in relationships.

How will it make you feel about yourself? If your actions were published on the home page of CNN.com, how would you feel? Would you feel proud of the decision you made or cringe in embarrassment that your actions were on display for the whole world to see? Besides your behavior being publicized, how would your decision align with your own sense of right and wrong? Most of us have a pretty good sense of when we’re on shaky ethical ground, yet we often try to rationalize our behavior in order to feel good about ourselves. I love the quote from John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach. He said, “There is no pillow as soft as a clear conscience.” If your decision is legal and balanced, yet something about it just doesn’t sit well with your conscience, then it’s probably not the right decision to make.

I’ve asked hundreds of people this question: “What is the most important factor in building trust?” Overwhelmingly the response is “integrity.” Integrity is a leader’s most valuable asset and using the ethics check questions can help you keep it intact and avoid what could be a career ending decision.

Don’t Let Your Ego “Bust” Trust

Don’t kid yourself – you’ve got an ego and sometimes it gets out of control. You may not act like a pompous jerk in public, but if you’re human (and if you’re reading this then there’s a good chance you are), you’ve undoubtedly had those self-righteous, egotistical thoughts run through your mind from time to time whenever you’ve felt the need to impress someone or in response to a perceived slight. If you’re not careful to keep your ego in check, it’s likely that it’s causing you to erode trust in your relationships.

One of the four key elements of establishing trust in a relationship is being “believable,” which means acting with integrity. In polls and surveys I’ve conducted with hundreds of people, this one element is often cited as the most important element in building trust. It’s also the element of trust that takes the biggest hit if your ego is left unchecked. An out of control ego signals to other people that you believe you’re more important than them, place your interests ahead of theirs, and that others can’t be vulnerable with you without fear of being taken advantage of.

There are three key areas leaders can focus on to keep their ego in check, increase their “believability” with others, and build trust.

  • Honesty — The basics apply here: don’t lie, cheat, or steal. But being honest also means not stretching the truth, telling half-truths, omitting facts out of convenience, or failing to speak the truth when needed.
  • Values — Do you know what your core values are? What motivates you as a leader? When faced with a difficult choice, what are the values you use to filter your decision? Developing and articulating your values, and asking others to hold you accountable to living out those behaviors, will help keep your ego in check and allow others to gain confidence in the consistency of your behavior.
  • Fair Process — Do you treat people fairly? Egotistical leaders love to play favorites. Trustworthy leaders treat people ethically and equitably. Being fair doesn’t mean treating people the same across the board, no matter the circumstances. It means treating people fairly according to their specific situation and upholding consistent principles and ideals with your entire staff.

A believable leader is someone who acts with integrity and is a role model for the company’s values. We commonly describe believable leaders as credible, honest, and ethical. When someone is believable, he or she tells the truth, holds confidences, is honest about his or her skills, and gives credit when credit is due. Notice that egotistical doesn’t appear anywhere in that description. Egotistical leaders “bust” trust, whereas as believable leaders “boost” trust, and by focusing on developing honesty, values alignment, and acting fairly, leaders can keep their ego in check and build trust in the process.

I originally published this article in June 2012 under a different title for the LeaderChat.org blog and decided to share it here with the LeadingWithTrust community.

Managing the Malcontent – Four Leadership Tips

Malcontent
Part of speech:  adjective
Definition:  dissatisfied
Synonyms:  belly aching, complaining, discontented, disgruntled, unhappy, unsatisfied

Managing a chronically malcontent staff member can be an exhausting experience for a leader. No matter what you do to address the situation, there always seems to be a reason for the staff member to be unhappy, and to prove the truth of the old saying “misery loves company,” the malcontent often loves to spread their discontent to others, creating a whirlpool of negativity for the entire team. The result is the leader ends up spending the majority of his time managing the emotional state of the malcontent in an effort to keep peace within the team.

It’s easy to have all of your emotional and mental energy get sucked into the black hole of managing the malcontent. It’s important for leaders to step back, gain a little perspective, and have a strategy in place for handling these situations. Here’s a few tips that may help:

1. Be consistent in your behavior—It’s important for the malcontent to understand, and for other staff members to see, that you are going to remain consistent in your responses to the situations at hand. Don’t give in to emotional outbursts, frustration, or “fighting fire with fire,” but remain cognizant that you have to set the tone for the type of environment you want within the team and that you set the example of how team members should treat each other. Be respectful, yet firm and consistent, in dealing with the demands or issues raised by the malcontent. It’s necessary to support point #2.

2. Maintain your integrity—Don’t treat the malcontent unfairly by dismissing their concerns or excluding them from opportunities you would provide to other team members. Resist the urge to pander to their needs, walk on eggshells, or make exceptions for the malcontent just to avoid any negative reactions. Treat the malcontent fairly and consistently, just as you would any other staff member. It’s important to remember that at the end of the day, the only thing a leader has left is his/her integrity. Don’t lose it by compromising your principles.

3. Don’t take it personallyHurt people tend to hurt people. Those who have emotional and mental wounds from other life experiences can easily take out their pain and suffering on those around them. This is often the case with the office malcontent, who for whatever reason, chooses to express their unhappiness at work. If you have been consistent in your behavior and treated others equitably and ethically, you can feel confident that the issues probably lie with the malcontent, not with you.

4. Recognize when a change is needed—If previous constructive efforts have failed, and the leader has taken all reasonable steps to allow the malcontent to change his/her attitude, the only resolution may be a change of assignment or employment. Usually when it gets to this point in the employer/employee relationship, both parties know that a change is needed, and it often comes as a welcome relief. Certainly that’s not the case in all situations, so leaders need to make sure they’ve been consistent and ethical in their dealings with the employee over time. However, at some point in time, this may be the only solution available.

Each of us are ultimately responsible for our own attitudes and behaviors. Leaders have a responsibility for helping malcontent staff members see where they can improve and provide them the resources and opportunities to do so, but in the end, the employee has to take control of their actions and assume responsibility for the outcomes. If they are willing and able to change, they will. If not, they will manage themselves into other career opportunities.

Are Your People Ready to Stage an “Occupy” Protest? Four Ways to Build a High-Trust Culture

If given the chance, would the people in your organization stage an “Occupy” protest? Do they have feelings of inequity, spawned by the perception that the top 1% in your organization receive a disproportionate amount of the rewards at the expense of the 99%?

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last few weeks, you’re probably familiar with the “Occupy” movement that has spawned social protests on Wall Street and various cities and venues around the world. Underlying these protests of social and economic inequality, corporate greed, and the influence of money and lobbying in politics, is a profound lack of trust between leaders and those being led.

What can we learn from the Occupy movement to help us build organizational cultures of high-trust? I think the following four areas are good places to start:

1. Share information liberally
We live in an information age, where just about anything we want to know is but a few keystrokes or mouse-clicks away. Yet in many of our organizations, leaders withhold information as a way to maintain power and authority over others.

A lack of information sharing about the compensation system at the Mayo Clinic had created perceptions of inequality and just a 17% satisfaction level in 1999. By increasing the frequency, clarity, and transparency of communication about all compensation related matters, the Mayo Clinic was able to raise the level of satisfaction to 82% in 2011, with very little change to the fundamental structure of the compensation system itself.

In the absence of information, your people will make up their own version of the truth. Share information openly so that your people know the facts about what’s going on in the organization and trust that they will use and respond to that information responsibly.

2. Increase employee involvement in decision-making
My friend, colleague, and organizational change expert Pat Zigarmi, likes to make the point that contrary to popular opinion, people don’t resist organizational change; they resist being controlled. When people are shut out from contributing to decisions that will directly impact them, they develop a sense of distrust and skepticism toward the decision makers.

After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, my organization suffered a loss of over $2 million dollars of booked business due to clients eliminating corporate travel. Our company had to make immediate moves to reduce expenses, but rather than making the easy and obvious decision to layoff staff, our leadership engaged everyone across the organization to generate ways to decrease costs or increase revenues in order to avoid layoffs. Hundreds of ideas were surfaced and many were implemented which resulted in the company being able to not only survive the economic downturn, but continue to make a profit and avoid eliminating jobs.

Involving your people in making decisions will lead to higher levels of trust and commitment. Remember, those who plan the battle rarely battle the plan.

3. Give people what matters most – your time and attention
Google is legendary for the perks that it offers its employees. At the Googleplex, Google’s corporate headquarters in Mountain View, CA, team members have unlimited access to free haircuts, massages, meals, dry cleaning, and even on-site medical care.

Yet when Google undertook a study to determine what employees valued most, they overwhelmingly said “even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.”

Just like workaholic parents who fool themselves into believing they can make up for their lack of presence in their kids’ lives by spoiling them with all the latest toys and gadgets, leaders often fall prey to the same line of thinking by believing corporate perks and benefits can make up for the lack of intimate one-one-one leadership. Developing genuine and authentic relationships is a primary way to build a culture of trust.

4. Have an ethical and equitable compensation system
Economic inequality is one of the primary platforms of the Occupy protest movement. According to research done by Kevin Murphy at USC’s Marshall School of Business, in 1971 the ratio between the average CEO’s salary and that of an employee was 30.6 percent (averages of $212,230 vs. $6,540). In 2009, the last year of his research, it was 264.4 percent ($8.47 million vs. just over $32,000).

Although research has consistently shown that money is usually not a primary motivator for employees, it would be a huge mistake to discount the negative effect of unfair compensation. In a recent HBR blog article, Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer, authors of The Progress Principle, make three excellent points about the importance of fair compensation.

First, compensating your employees fairly is simply the right thing to do. Second, fair compensation creates a more positive “inner work life effect” – the positive flow of emotions, thoughts, and motivators about the employee’s perception of their work. It’s confirmation of Ken Blanchard’s old saying that “people who feel good about themselves produce good results.” And third, compensation is more than a paycheck. It’s a signal to employees about their value to the organization and the importance of the work they do.

If we’re willing to pay attention, we can learn several important lessons from the Occupy movement. Sharing information liberally, increasing employee involvement in decision-making, nurturing one-on-one relationships, and compensating people fairly will lead to higher levels of trust, commitment, and engagement in our organizations.

Got Ethics? Three Questions Every Leader Should Ask

Acting with integrity; being honest in word and deed – 57% of more than 600 attendees in a recent webinar I conducted cited this as the most influential leadership behavior that builds trust. Making ethical decisions is a key component of being an honest and trusted leader, yet many of us don’t have a defined process or rubric for handling ethical dilemmas.


A simple, yet powerful process that I’ve relied upon is one that I learned from Ken Blanchard and Norman Vincent Peale in their book The Power of Ethical Management. Blanchard and Peale suggest that leaders ask the following three questions when making a decision about an ethical problem:

  1. Is it legal? The purpose of this question is to get you to look at existing standards. The legality of the decision should be examined not just from the civil law perspective, but also in regards to company policies or standards. If the answer to this first question is “no,” there isn’t much need to ask the following two. If your organization doesn’t have an ethics policy or company values that outline the behaviors desired by team members, check out a recent article from my friend and colleague, Chris Edmonds, that will help you get started.
  2. Is it balanced? The purpose of this question is to activate your sense of fairness and rationality. Will the decision be fair or will it heavily favor one party over another, in the both the short and long-term? Decisions that produce big winners, at the expense of making others big losers, often come back to haunt individuals and organizations. It’s not always possible to make decisions where everybody wins, but leaders should strive to avoid major imbalances over the course of their relationships.
  3. How will it make me feel about myself? This last question gets you to focus on your own emotions, standards, and sense of morality. How would you feel if what you were considering doing was published on the front page of your local newspaper or CNN.com? Would it make you and your family proud or embarrassed? If you’re losing sleep over the situation, it’s probably an indication that your conscience is wrestling with the decision and its alignment with your personal values. As John Wooden, the famous UCLA basketball coach said, “There is no pillow as soft as a clear conscience.”

Constant use of these three questions as an ‘ethics check’ can help guide you into a pattern of ‘right’ behavior that can become habit-forming and put you on the path to being an ethical and trusted leader.

I’m interested in hearing about your experiences in handling ethical dilemmas. Have you used this ‘ethics check’ process? Please leave a comment below.

Are You Playing Fair? You better be, because your people are keeping score

Coaching a bunch of energetic 5-6 year old kids in tee-ball is really just controlled chaos. Tee-ball is normally the introduction to baseball that children experience at age 5-6, and generally speaking, most leagues don’t keep an official score for tee-ball games. The purpose isn’t to win, it’s to teach the fundamental skills and rules of baseball. Notice that I said the leagues don’t keep an official score. I remember many occasions while coaching tee-ball that kids in the dugout would be tallying up the score to see who was winning and losing!

Fast forward 20 years or so to the workplace and we find that not much has changed. Adults are still keeping score, only now it’s about who received the new project, promotion, or corner office. And as soon as someone perceives that the leader made an unjust decision, the first thing we hear is exactly what five-year old tee-ballers say when they think another player has violated the rules: “That’s not fair!”

Leaders aiming to build trust in relationships need to pay particular attention to the issue of fairness. “No problem,” you may say, “I treat everyone the same, no matter what.” Actually, that can be one of the most unfair things you do! A quote from Aristotle speaks to this: “There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals.” People should be treated equitably and ethically, given their individual needs and circumstances, and the differences between people should be recognized and valued, not diminished.

In order to build and maintain trust with followers, leaders need to exhibit fairness through the distribution of organizational resources and application of policies to all team members. It’s helpful to understand exactly what “fairness” means in an organizational context. Fairness is composed of two main elements: distributive justice and procedural justice. Distributive justice is fairness in the organization’s pay, rewards, and benefits for employees. Procedural justice is fairness in the organization’s decision-making processes of how those rewards and benefits are doled out. Of the two, procedural justice is the element most under control of individual leaders and is the aspect of fairness most closely linked with building or eroding trust with followers.

According to the results of a survey published in the July/August issue of Training Magazine conducted by a team of researches from The Ken Blanchard Companies, procedural justice was ranked as the most important organizational factor for employee retention. Additionally, over 60% of respondents believed the primary responsibility for influencing and improving procedural justice rested with their immediate supervisor.

So how can leaders be fair and build trust with their team members? Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Be transparent – Share information about the criteria and process that you use to make decisions. Putting all your cards on the table eliminates doubt and mistrust.
  • Increase involvement in decision-making – As much as possible, involve the people who will be affected by your decisions in the process. People who plan the battle rarely battle the plan.
  • Play by the rules – Clearly establish the rules, play by them, and hold others and yourself accountable to following them.
  • Listen with the idea of being influenced – Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you know it all. Ask others for their input and genuinely listen with an open mind and be willing to change course if needed.
  • Don’t play favorites – No one likes a teacher’s pet so don’t create one. That will eliminate a key source of jealousy.
  • Save spin for the gym, not the office – Be authentic and genuine in your communications. People see through the political spin.
Remember, your people are keeping score of your every behavior. Play fair!
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