Employee experience can be defined as the journey an employee takes with your organization over the course of their employment. Everything from the way they experience recruitment, interviewing, onboarding, training, career development, performance management, recognition, rewards, and even the way they exit the organization makes up their overall experience.
Employee experience is in the spotlight because of the importance of retention and engagement issues in today’s marketplace. Organizations are competing for the best and brightest workers who won’t jump ship for the next shiny new offer that comes their way. To keep their top talent, organizations are taking a close look at how their employee experience can set them apart from the crowd.
We recently completed research on this topic and gathered input from over 700 leadership, learning, and talent development professionals. We asked them to share their key strategies for improving their employee experience and the feedback showed a clear frontrunner:
Building trust between managers and direct reports
Why did this strategy rank ahead of other important initiatives like addressing workloads to prevent burnout, connecting work to purpose, setting clear performance expectations, and promoting teamwork and collaboration? It’s because trust is the foundation of the employee/employer relationship, and a person’s direct manager is the organization’s representative.
Research supports the criticality of trust between employees and their managers as the basis for being highly engaged at work. ADP Research conducted a global study on engagement that involved over 19,000 people across 19 countries and 13 industries. The study included full-time employees, part-time employees, gig workers, those with multiple jobs, and people with full-time jobs plus gig jobs on the side.
ADP found that two primary factors that characterized highly engaged employees stood out above all others: being on a team and trust in the team leader. In fact, a worker is 12x more likely to be fully engaged if they trust their team leader.
Our own research on the roles of cognitive trust (what I like to call “trust from the head”) and affective trust (“trust from the heart”) show a direct correlation between high levels of employee trust in their leaders and those employees having positive intentions to be highly engaged at work. Our study showed that leader trustworthiness is highly correlated to the five key intentions that drive employee work passion: discretionary effort, intent to perform, intent to endorse, intent to remain, and organizational citizenship.
So, trust is the foundation for a great employee experience. How do you build it?
Many leaders think trust “just happens,” like some sort of relationship osmosis. These people often understand trust is important, but they don’t know what it takes to have their people perceive them as being trustworthy. There are four elements of trust in a relationship that we’ve captured in the Building Trust model. If leaders use behaviors aligned with the four elements of trust, they will build trust with their people. If they don’t use those behaviors, or do the opposite, they will erode trust. It’s commonsense but not always common practice.
Your organization’s employee experience is critical to its health and success. But to bring it closer to home, it’s critical to your success as a leader, and the foundation of that experience begins with the trust your people have in you. Remember, every interaction you have with them is an opportunity to build trust or erode it. Will you focus on building trust with your people in 2023?
Choice is an incredibly powerful psychological need. In the world of motivation theory, it’s commonly accepted that humans have three core psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. We express our desire for autonomy through choice—the ability to exert control over our environment. Research also indicates control is a biological necessity.[i] Evidence from animal research, clinical studies, and brain neuroimaging suggests the desire for control is a biological imperative.
I believe the more leaders afford team members the opportunity to exert control by making their own choices, the more success they will have in building trust, managing change efforts, and empowering others.
Principles of Choice
Here are six leadership principles to consider as you look to leverage the power of choice:
1. Choice increases a person’s sense of control. As I mentioned previously, one of our core psychological needs is autonomy. In her book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does, my friend and colleague, Susan Fowler, says “Autonomy is our human need to perceive we have choices. It is our need to feel that what we are doing is of our own volition. It is our perception that we are the source of our actions.”
The more autonomy a person has to freely choose their course of action, the more motivated and committed they will be to that decision. That’s why we included simple truth #22 in our book: “People who plan the battle rarely battle the plan.” If you want people to be accountable, to get on board with new strategies and changes, then find ways to give them choices to help shape the plan.
2. Choice produces higher personal satisfaction…even if there is no difference in outcome or reward. This is a fascinating psychological phenomenon. It has been demonstrated, both in animal and human research, that there is a preference for choice over non-choice[ii]. When presented with two options, animals and humans prefer the option that leads to a second choice over one that does not, even though the expected value of both options is the same and making a second choice requires greater expenditure of energy.
Any parent who has tried to get a stubborn toddler to eat its dinner or wear a certain outfit understands the power of this principle.
My son Matthew was incredibly headstrong as a toddler, and he’d fight with me tooth and nail when I tried to force decisions upon him. My parental decisions collided directly with his need for choice. When I finally wised up to this principle, I started to let him choose between a few different options of what to eat or wear. Problem solved! He got to express his need for choice, and I met my goal of making sure he was well fed and clothed.
Adults in the workplace are more sophisticated than stubborn toddlers, but the principle works the same. Even if you face constraints that don’t allow for much difference in outcomes, just giving people the ability to choose a course of action results in higher satisfaction than no choice at all.
3. Choice is a reward in and of itself. This principle builds on the previous one. In addition to choice producing higher personal satisfaction, the act of choosing is a reward in and of itself.[iii] Neuroimaging studies show that the rewards and motivation processing regions of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex and striatum) “light up” to a greater extent when we receive rewards based on choice versus rewards being passively received.
So, how can leaders leverage this principle? An obvious area is how rewards and recognition programs are managed. Instead of designating specific gifts, rewards, or prizes for a particular achievement (service anniversaries, meeting sales quotas, etc.), offer people choices in what they can select. That gives individuals twice the pleasure in not only gaining a reward but also being able to choose the specific
4. Lack of choice increases stress. If choice is a reward and produces personal satisfaction, then it’s not much of stretch to realize that no choice produces stress. Scientific studies show that removal of choice increases the release of cortisol (the stress hormone), suppresses the immune system, and results in the development of what researchers call “maladaptive” (aka, bad!) behaviors.[iv]
In the workplace, lack of choice results in people having a greater sense of fear, increased negativity about their environment, developing learned helplessness, and placing more focus on how to regain control, all of which leads to more “maladaptive” behaviors. Yikes!
5. Too much choice increases stress. Didn’t I just say that lack of choice increases stress? Yes, I did. So, doesn’t that mean more choice should reduce stress? Yes, but only to a point. Research points out there is a difference in the desire to want choice versus the desire to make a choice.[v]
Have you ever wanted to paint a room in your house and been overwhelmed with deciding among the 87 different shades of your chosen color that are available at the home improvement store? Or, what about trying to decide which streaming service(s) you should use if you cut the cord on cable TV? Good luck with that!
Although a greater number of choices seem preferable, too many choices quickly lead to cognitive overload. That causes us to sticking with the status quo—not deciding—as a way to cope with the stress. People would rather make no choice than make the wrong one. How ironic! Leverage the power of this principle by giving your people choice, but within reasonable boundaries.
6. Complexity of choices increases the need for trust. When faced with complex situations, incomplete information, or a lack of resources, we turn to trusted advisors to either assist us in the decision-making process or actually making the decision on our behalf. It could be a family member, physician, attorney, boss, or any other person we feel is more capable of making the “best” decision.
This is where leaders earn their pay. If leaders have done a good job building high-trust relationships with their people, they will willingly come to you for help with these sorts of dilemmas. If you don’t have that level of trust, your people will try to address the situation on their own even though they feel ill-equipped to do so. They are also more likely to give you the monkey and let you own the problem, or perhaps worst of all, they will do nothing and let the situation fester.
The Choice is Yours
Trust between you and your team is the key to succeeding in our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world. You must trust the competence and commitment of your team members to exert control and make wise choices. And your team members must trust you to set them up for success and be there to support them when they need it.
Let me close by returning to where I started. The simple truth, “People don’t resist change; they resist being controlled,” speaks to our fundamental human need for control, which is expressed through our desire for choice. The greater degree that leaders can offer their people choice, and thereby increase their sense of control, the greater the likelihood people will be engaged in their work, empowered by their freedom to choose, and achieve goals that are important to the organization.
It seems like a slam dunk to me, but only you can decide if this fits into your approach to leadership. The choice is yours.
When you go on holiday this summer, will you be preoccupied with how things are going at work? Do you have low trust in your team’s ability to manage without you? Or perhaps your team doesn’t trust you, and they can’t wait for you to go on vacation, so they don’t have to look over their shoulder every minute of the day. Regardless of your situation, there’s never a right time to take a vacation from building trust.
The most important part of leadership is what happens when you’re not there.
High-control leaders are afraid to take time off of work and delegate to their team members. They’re concerned that when they’re not around, people will get off-course and do something stupid that will reflect badly on the leader. Trusted servant leaders, on the other hand, develop and empower their people so that they will perform just as well, if not better, on their own as they do when the leader is present.
This is especially critical in today’s remote and hybrid work culture. When you as the leader are physically located alongside your people, it’s easy to observe their working behaviors. But that’s an impossibility in today’s environment. The real proof that you are a trusted servant leader is how your people perform on their own. They know you trust them and they want to live up to the standards you have demonstrated.
That’s why I’d like to invite you to join me for the 8-week Summer of Trust leadership reflection series. Every Monday, from July 11 through August 29, you’ll receive a weekly email containing…
An inspirational and thought-provoking message on how to become a trusted servant leader
Practical actions steps for that week’s focus area that will help you implement the mindsets and skillsets of trusted servant leaders
A downloadable tool or resource to help you in your leadership journey of building trust
In my line of work, I get the opportunity to interact with leaders from a wide variety of organizations from a diverse range industries, including government and non-profits. A common factor that most are dealing with right now is adjusting to the new world of hybrid work.
Hybrid work means team members work from both the office and remotely. Some organizations employ a formal schedule that requires employees to be in the office certain days of the week, while others leave it to the discretion of the team member to be in the office as needed, usually for key meetings or events. Many organizations are trying to find the model that works best for their specific needs and goals.
The Great Trust Experiment
Although working virtually has been “a thing” for many years, the pandemic forced it upon organizations at a scale that couldn’t have been imagined just a few years ago. Literally overnight, organizations were forced to adopt a new model of working if they wanted to survive. Employers had to extend massive amount of trust to their employees in what I have called “The Great Trust Experiment.” By most accounts, the shift has been a success, with organizations experiencing increased growth and productivity, and employees reporting higher levels of well-being and satisfaction.
But old habits die hard. Many organizations are either calling their employees back to the office full-time or requiring them to be in the office certain days of the week.
Why? Well, most companies are saying that employees’ physical presence in the office is required to foster a healthy organizational culture, or that in-person interaction is required for innovative and creative work to take place.
Are those important factors? Absolutely. Is being in the office a prerequisite for those things to flourish? No.
So, I’m calling B.S.
The Opposite of Trust is not Distrust—it’s Control
I think the root factor driving most of these decisions is control.
We are in the early days of a transformation of how work is being defined in the 21st century. No longer is work a place you go to, but rather something you do. Since the very nature of work is being redefined, it’s also redefining the nature of leadership.
Since the industrial revolution, leadership has been governed by a command-and-control approach, where leaders were designated to make decisions (issue commands) and dictate (control) how the work is done. Employees have long been “human resources” that are merely a means to an end.
The digital age has rendered command-and-control leadership obsolete. For many occupations, work can be accomplished from literally anywhere, yet our mindset and approach to leadership is struggling to adapt to this new reality.
No Going Back to The “Old Days”
The genie is out of the bottle regarding remote work and there’s no putting it back in. The pandemic has caused people to re-evaluate their relationship with work and they’ve learned there’s a better way. And unlike any time in the past, employees have the lion’s share of power to make decisions about where and how they want to work.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating against the value and necessity of in-person work. Nothing yet invented can replace human-to-human interaction, and I doubt it ever will (although, I wouldn’t be surprised to see future technological innovation that closely mimics in-person interaction). I think in-person gatherings are critically important for team formation, bonding, and cultural development.
But I think it’s lazy leadership to blanketly mandate employees be in the office because “that’s what the office is for,” or “that’s how we did it before the pandemic.” I just had a conversation with a client this week who expressed her organization’s employees are struggling with being required to be in the office yet spend the entire day alone participating in virtual meetings.
A New Model of Leadership is Needed
We need more honest and introspective discussion about how organizations must shift in the years ahead if they want to attract and retain the best talent. We must adopt new mindsets about what leadership looks like and how our organizations operate in the future, rather than being stuck in our current mindsets of believing innovation/culture/teamwork/etc., can only happen when we’re together in person.
I think the future of work will look differently for each organization and employee. I think it will be a mosaic of options that take into account the unique needs of all the parties involved, but in order for that to happen, there has to be trust. Organizations need to let go of control and adopt a service-minded approach to leading.
Trusted servant leaders look to bring out the best in their team members. They put the needs of their followers ahead of their own. When team members believe their leader (and by extension, their organization) has their best interests at heart and is there to support them in achieving their goals, trust grows by leaps and bounds.
There are many questions we need to answer as we seek to define what work looks like in the hybrid world. I don’t have all the answers, and in fact, probably only have one: trusted servant leaders will be key to unleashing the potential and power of people and organizations in the years ahead.
The following article is a guest post from my friend and colleague, Brock Brown. Brock is a Channel Partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies, an executive leadership coach, servant leader, and a man of integrity. I’m sure you’ll enjoy his wisdom about the intersection of character, trust, and ethics.
“HIRE FOR CHARACTER, TRAIN FOR COMPETENCE,” I have said it a thousand times. However, I have come to realize that people think very differently about a person’s good character, from how they define good character to how they determine a person is not of good character.
As I write this, the Canadian government is invoking the Emergencies Act to deal with people protesting Covid vaccine mandates. Last month the USA recognized one year since the January 6th, 2021, insurrection over the election. Many people of good character sit on both sides of these issues. If their choices are wrong, are they doomed to be never trusted again? To never achieve the label of “person of good character?” I hope not. Below are a series of commonly asked questions I receive when teaching our Values-Based Decision Making course where I discuss good character. Please join me as I walk through these thought provoking questions:
What is character and how do we define it?
If you have good character, how long does it take to lose it and how do you keep from losing it?
If you lose it, will people ever trust you again? Can you get it back?
If you don’t have good character, how long does it take to gain it?
How do we test for good character in an interview in such a way that the answer can’t be faked?
Is it possible to help our people develop good character or do we simply accept that if they don’t have good character by adulthood, they never will?
I have been in the full-time work force for over 45 years and have come to realize that we are “human beings, not perfect beings.” We are all prone to make mistakes or bad decisions, especially when we are under pressure. We are prone to make bad, and sometimes unethical judgements when there is greater pressure to “get’er done,” versus to get things done ethically, safely, or legally. I have seen the status of being “a person of good character” wiped away in a split second with a bad decision, resulting in years of penance before the good-character status is achieved again and sometimes it never is.
In 25 years of consulting, I have asked over fifteen thousand people the following question: In the workplace, do you receive more pressure to get things done no matter what it takes, or to get things done correctly (ethically, safely, legally)? In other words, do your supervisors demonstrate that they care more about your results, or about your results delivered through good character-based decisions? Overwhelmingly, people identified that they received more pressure to focus on results versus on results achieved using good character-based decisions. It is why so many employees describe their company’s values on the wall as “pious words of intent.” I come from an industry that espouses the importance of safety, but also has a commonly used saying: “get’er done.” That saying has led to more employee deaths and injury than I care to imagine. I know this because I led the investigation on some of them.
So, let’s take a crack at answering the above questions and see if we can draw some conclusions about good character.
1. What is good character and how do we define it?
The great basketball coach John Wooden once said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” With all respect to coach Wooden, the trouble with this standard is: if no one is looking, how do we know? I tend to follow the character standard of the great ethicist Michael Josephson who said, “The real test of character is if you are willing to do the right thing even though it may cost you more than you want to pay.” Doing the right thing can be seen as too broad. However, the decisions we make as leaders, executives and people in general, are often complex and don’t fit in a right-versus-wrong box. It’s what makes being human so challenging sometimes. Doing the right thing often involves executing on such core values as integrity, loyalty, honesty, courage and fortitude. Some people would call these virtues and they are. However, I refer to them as moral values. As the great ethicist Dr. Larry Axline said, “Moral values in action is ethics.” I have discovered throughout my career that one’s character is rarely tested by making the right choice but more by what you do when someone points out that you’ve made the wrong choice and everyone is watching. Arguably, I correlate being trustworthy to good character. I believe people pin the label of “good character” on a person they trust and the label of “questionable character” on someone they do not trust or who they no longer trust.
2. If you have good character, how long does it take to lose it and how do you keep from losing it?
If you have good character, people will give you what I call character-based trust. They will trust your word. If you say you will do something, they don’t have a second thought about you doing it because they know and accept it will be done. That trust can be lost slowly over time or in a split second. I have witnessed, time and time again, people demonstrating what I call “stepping to the left” by using a myriad of rationalizations such as “no one will ever know” or “just this once” or “it’s only a little white lie.” I have seen this cause people to slowly lose the trust of others to the point where no one trusts the individual at all. I have seen leaders slowly erode their team’s trust by regularly showing up to their own meetings late with lame excuses. It’s as if you start a relationship with a pocket full of trust credits given by people who trust you (see my cynicism comments in section #4 below for those who don’t) and every time you rationalize a bad decision you lose a trust credit with others, until you reach the point where all the credits are gone.
However, I have also seen someone lose all their trust credits at once. Something done or said due to substance abuse, succumbing to a bribe or fraud when finances are tight, or erupting under pressure and tearing down another human being can all lead to a complete loss of trust credits.
As human beings, not perfect beings, I think we are all bound to lose some, or all, of the trust credits given to us by others at some point in our relationships. But there are things you can do to hold yourself in check, such as:
Set Your Compass: Define and publish your personal core values for all to see, then commit to letting them guide your behavior and decisions, no matter what.
Set Your Boundaries: Ask someone (or a group) to be your truthteller and always hold you accountable to your values and point out when they believe you have contravened one or more of your values. This usually takes a special person who sees you regularly in your element and has the courage to call you out. Of note, my oldest daughter, from a very young age, had no trouble pointing out when I strayed from my values.
Engage Your Leadership: When held to account by your truthteller on your values, you need to be willing to thank them for their courage, explain your reasoning or admit any mistakes, apologize to those affected and, if wrong, change or correct your decision.
I still find it amazing how many senior leaders consider themselves perfect beings and are unwilling to admit they are wrong, for fear that others will lose confidence in them. The fact is, the opposite is true. When leaders admit mistakes (I mean, everyone knows you’ve made a mistake already), they garner greater trust from others. Mind you, it the leader is constantly making mistakes, one may also need to consider leader competence, but I will save that discussion for another article. I have found that people don’t expect leaders to be perfect. They are expected to be honest, willing to admit when they are wrong and correct the issue.
It may be important to stop and discuss two other types of trust not covered in this paper. Competency-based trust is when others trust that you have the skill to do the work. Often companies have hired based on competence alone only to discover the individual’s character is wanting. Without some sort of development intervention, this can be a bad hire. Vulnerability-based trust, a term coined by Patrick Lencioni, is based upon the humble vulnerability one demonstrates with others on a team when one leaves everything on the table, warts and all. When achieved, it is often what catapults teams from merely competent to high performing teams and advanced organizational culture.
3. If you lose it, will people ever trust you again? Can you get it back?
When others pin the “lacks good character” button on you and have lost trust in you, they can be fickle in giving trust back and allowing you to regain your good-character status. I watched a colleague make a bad choice which was influenced by alcohol abuse. He ended up being demoted and losing the trust of his entire team and his boss, the CEO. I watched him go on the wagon, get sober, and pay his penance. It took five years for his boss and colleagues to truly demonstrate their trust in him. In my opinion, this trust could have been established more quickly. People can trust you again; however, it takes a high degree of humility and transparency. You need to discover, by asking them, what they need from you to regain their trust and then you need to execute on their answer. You need to give them time.
I use a Marshal Goldsmith Stakeholder Coaching process that asks for feedback and feed forward on behaviour(s) monthly. Performance change and trust can be measured using a quick mini survey. If a leader I am coaching had lost the trust of their team, we would ask the team what it would take to earn their trust again, set an aligned behaviour goal to achieve that, then ask affected stakeholders to provide feedback on the behaviour monthly by identifying what worked, what did not, and what the leader needs to do in the next 30 days. This process would occur in 30-day intervals over a 9-12 month period with interim mini-surveys focused on the behaviour and completed by the stakeholders. The survey measures improvement. My colleague referenced above didn’t ask others what was needed and didn’t ask for regular feedback. He put his own plan in place. I’m assuming that is why it took so long.
I was asked to do a presentation to an executive leadership team on values-based leadership. This was a team that had published values (the posters were everywhere) and professed to be a “values-based company.” Early in the presentation, I asked the executives if I could test how values-based they were. I had taken the liberty of taking down the values poster in the room before my presentation. I asked each executive to pull out a piece of paper and write down their company’s core values in order without reference to any other document, poster, etc. Out of seven people, the only person who wrote anything down was the CEO. He got the first value correct and then nothing after that. My comment to them was, “If you profess to be values-led, that means you know what the values are and use them in your dialogue daily. If you are the leader who had the values poster put up and you don’t know the values, I will guarantee that your teams think your values are pious words of intent and think you are untrustworthy.”
My message was not well received. One VP told me I was full of s@#t. My response was “maybe” and I challenged him to go find the answer. That same VP phoned me three days later and told me he tested my theory. He went to his three-person team, two of whom had worked for him for 12+ years and followed him to this company. He told me he asked them in their Monday team meeting if they trusted him. He said he got two no’s and one weak yes. He then asked them why they didn’t trust him. They said, “We like you, you are a nice guy, but you are always shooting off in different directions, not keeping us informed or telling us what you are doing and why”.” They said, “It’s like you totally disregard our core value of people.” I told the executive about the Marshal Goldsmith coaching method, asked him what trusted behavior would look like and suggested he ask his team and set a goal. Nine months later, he phoned me and said he now has three strong yeses to the question “Do you trust me?”
When you’ve lost trust and people believe your character is left wanting, they can trust you again: it just takes humility and involving them as stakeholders in the process of regaining their trust. It takes time.
4. If you don’t have good character, how long does it take to gain it?
There are two parts to this answer. One part reflects your behavior, and the other reflects the level of cynicism of the person who is issuing you trust credits. Cynics tend to doubt that people do anything from a position of character, but rather that people are motivated solely by self-interest. Their cynicism is often a reflection of their experience. A cynic, for example may not believe that a leader cares about the success of their team members, but only feigns caring so the leader themselves can succeed. We need to be careful not to judge a cynic too harshly. A participant in our Values-Based Decision-Making course completed a Cynicism Quotient Assessment which revealed he had a high level of cynicism. He informed his team that, in his previous employment, he was a midlevel manager for Enron and lost his pension due to their fraudulent misdeeds. Telling him he shouldn’t be so cynical would do no good. We had to prove ourselves trustworthy to permit him to let go of his cynicism in a timely manner.
To be a person of good character requires acting consistently with integrity, being truthful, loyal, honest, fair and forthright, having courage and being kind. People look for these traits to identify good character. People of good character admit mistakes, correct them, and move on. When people witness this, they tend to think of you as trustworthy and a person of good character. However, everyone comes with their own baggage. I always tell the leaders I am coaching that they must demonstrate trustworthiness consistently before people will trust them. Some people will take longer than others to deem them trustworthy and of good character and issue them the full load of trust credits. Some associates have been abused by previous leaders and will take time to trust again. This is true for many of our relationships, not just the working ones. Just because you are acting trustworthy with good character, doesn’t mean you will be trusted and deemed of good character by others right away. Be patient. There are those who may never issue trust credits and will carry their cynicism to the grave. I coach leaders to allow such cynicism to be an accountability yard stick for a period. However, if it stays too long without reason based on your relationship with them, it becomes a poison that must be removed from the relationship and/or organization.
5. How do we test for good character in an interview in such a way that the answer can’t be faked?
Is there a high enough percentage of “people of good character” in the population that it is even worthwhile testing for in an interview? I have read that putting your grocery cart back in the corral is a test of character. My experience would say that eliminates about 35% of the population. I have heard that sticking to your commitments is a sign of good character. Statistically, that eliminates about 52% of people in first-time domestic partnerships. However, this doesn’t mean we should only look for employees who are single and don’t go shopping.
When interviewing new employees for a software company I cofounded, we would ask the candidates to bring their personal core values to the second interview. If they did not have defined personal core values, we had them go to the free website http://www.EthicsTool.com and use the core values tool to aid them in creating, defining, and prioritizing their core values. We would then ask a series of behaviour-based questions around the candidate’s core values: asking them to illustrate how the values impacted various decisions they had made or how the values would help them solve a case study we presented them with. We also asked them to tell us how our published corporate values aligned (or not) with their personal values. We asked them to describe what it would look like when their personal core values came alive in our organization. With these “values deep-dives,” we always caught those who were just giving us good-character lip service.
6. Is it possible to help our people develop good character or do we simply accept that if they don’t have good character by adulthood, they never will?
Early in my career, I was fortunate enough to meet a man who modelled good character on a regular basis. It was then I realized that good character was a trait I generally lacked but wanted to pursue. It has been a life journey ever since.
I think we need to give ourselves and our colleagues a break. I think the status of good character is a journey we undertake and then oscillate between achieving and not achieving. Please don’t get me wrong, however; when we demonstrate something less than good character, there need to be consequences. Sometimes those consequences will be fair and uncomfortable, and sometimes they will be fair and catastrophic. When consulting to executive teams on team chartering, I coach them to consider the termination of a team member who violates team confidentiality. If the team member stays, the organization may not be able to afford the consequences of that person not having team trust while they are trying to recover it. Lack of trust amongst the executive team has a compounding negative ripple effect on the organization.
Over the years, I have come to accept that when accountability is doled out, there will be times the relationship severs. However, there are also times when we need to allow a person to reclaim good-character status with their actions and earn our trust credits back, rather than block them from ever achieving our trust again. Time and time again I have seen professional organizations place unbearable pressure on individuals to achieve financial/performance results while giving lip service to values and ethics, then display shock when the individual cuts corners to achieve the results. It is why we need to consider one’s intentions when we consider accountability. I tell my customers that malicious intent needs to be dealt with harshly; however, sometimes people have good intent (i.e., to help the organization succeed), but execute by doing the wrong thing. This type of misstep needs to be handled with compassion.
I have been running a survey for the past four months with two questions on it:
1. Have you ever witnessed someone make an ethically questionable decision?
a. Yes – 88%
b. No – 12%
2. Have you ever made an ethically questionable decision?
a. Yes – 87%
b. No – 13%
If these statistics represent the general population and if the standard of “once they’ve lost my trust, they will never regain it” is the benchmark or if regaining trust takes five years, then the likelihood of ever achieving high-trust teams, relationships or organizational culture is sadly out of reach.
I think we make too many assumptions about what people know and don’t know about good character: about acting with integrity, being truthful, loyal, honest, fair, and forthright, having courage and being kind. Sometimes people have not been taught this or had a chance to see this modeled in others. Sometimes the opposite modeling has been their experience. We need to help people explore their character and determine who they want to be through defining their personal values, and set up personal systems of accountability and trust. For some, any adjustments might be minimal; for others, they will be life changing.
Early in my career, I took such training from that very person who modelled good character for me and eventually became a mentor. For me it was life changing. So much so that I developed and offer a course called Values-Based Decision Making (VBDM). The course walks leaders through a deep dive into not only their personal character but also, if applicable, the character of their organizational culture and allows them to measure the discrepancy between desired versus actual character.
Taking such training was life changing for me and the thousands of others around the world who have taken Values-Based Decision Making training. I have a drawer full of emails that attest to this. People of literally every gender, race, and heritage can, with this training, envision the person they want to be versus the person they have become. We have witnessed individual and organizational character grow and flourish, leading to amazing relationships and success. Relationships based upon being human beings, not perfect beings. In other words, people of good character are still going to screw up at times in their lives. They will lose and gain trust credits. They simply need to keep a clear vision on their values compass and surround themselves with people who will hold them accountable. Our Values-Based Decision Making course helps individuals and organizations do just that.
I want to hire and be surrounded by people of good character, as I’m sure many of you do as well. It is possible but needs to be viewed through an understanding that good character, and the trust that goes with it, is more a journey than a destination.
Brock Brown is an Executive/Leadership Coach who has worked with leaders throughout North America, Latin America, Australia, Africa, Asia the UK and EU., to create best practice, successful, ethical cultures focused on leading through values and organizational clarity.
Brock can be reached at: email@example.com, or 1-403-350-5648
Life has been turned inside out and upside down the last few years, hasn’t it?
Political and social unrest, a global pandemic, a massive shift to remote work, record levels of low trust in institutions, supply chain bottlenecks, the Great Resignation, rising inflation, and now war in Ukraine, are just a few of the challenges affecting us in one way or another. We live in a topsy turvy world.
You may not want to hear this, but your leadership needs to be turned inside out and upside down, too.
What do I mean by that? I mean you can’t approach today’s leadership challenges with yesterday’s solutions. The tired and worn command and control style of leadership doesn’t work in today’s fast paced workplace. Leaders must be nimble, move quickly, and develop empowered teams who take ownership of their own work. Nor do today’s employees want to be told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. They want leaders who partner with them in a side-by-side fashion, they want autonomy without abandonment, and they want to work with people and organizations who serve a greater purpose than the almighty dollar.
The most persistent barrier to being a servant leader is a heart motivated by self-interest that views the world with an attitude of “give a little, take a lot.” Self-serving leaders put their own agenda, safety, status, and gratification ahead of others who are impacted by the leaders’ thoughts and actions. If leaders don’t get their heart right, they will never become servant leaders.
Upside Down Leadership
Simple Truth #3 from our book captures what it means to turn your leadership upside down:
Servant leaders turn the traditional pyramid upside down.
Command and control leadership loves the traditional hierarchical pyramid because it seems to make everything clean, simple, and easy. The leader is at the top and gets to issue commands to everyone further down the pyramid. What’s wrong with that? The minute you think you work for the person above you, you assume that person—your boss—is responsible and your job is to be responsive to your boss’s whims or wishes.
“Boss watching” can become a popular sport where people get promoted based on their upward-influencing skills. As a result, all the energy of the organization moves up the hierarchy, away from customers and the frontline folks who are closest to the action.
Servant leaders know how to correct this situation by philosophically turning the pyramid upside down. Customer contact people and the customers are at the top of the organization, and everyone in the leadership hierarchy works for them. This one change makes a major difference in who is responsible and who is responsive.
I believe that trusted servant leaders are the answer to today’s challenges. People are looking for deeper purpose and meaning as a way to meet the rapid changes happening in their lives. They are also looking for leaders they can trust and believe in—leaders whose focus is on serving the greater good.
You can be that leader! But, first you need to turn your leadership inside out—get your heart right and the actions will follow. Then, turn your leadership upside down—flip the organizational pyramid and start serving your people instead of them serving you.
“How do you practice servant leadership and build trust in a toxic culture where servant leadership isn’t valued, and can even be looked upon as being a weakness?”
That was the question I received in a recent training class I conducted, and unfortunately, it’s a common one. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of high-trust and servant leader-led cultures (see here, here, and here), many still view it as being a “soft” management style or “letting the inmates run the prison” (which, by the way, isn’t that a telling metaphor for today’s workplace?!).
There isn’t a single, magic solution you can implement to address this challenge. Believe me, if there was, I’d be selling it door-to-door. However, there are some commonsense principles you can apply to help you influence your organization for the better. Here are four things to consider:
1. Be the trust you want to see in the world. Ok, I borrowed and modified the famous saying attributed to Ghandi—”Be the change you want to see in the world”—but you get the idea. All organizational culture change starts with one person. In cases involving trust, someone has to make the first move to extend trust to others. Until that happens, trust can’t grow. If you want your organization’s culture to be more trustworthy, you be more trustworthy. Don’t underestimate the influence you can have on others.
2. Build a coalition. The first coalition to build is with your team. Work with your people to create a high-trust, service-minded culture that sets itself apart from all the other teams in your organization. There’s nothing like creating a winning team that causes others in the organization to say, “Wow, look what they’re doing! How come my team isn’t performing that way?” Once your team becomes living proof of the benefits of servant leadership, start sharing your learnings with other open-minded leaders.
3. Practice shuttle diplomacy. If you’re not familiar with the term, shuttle diplomacy is when a third-party acts as the mediator or conduit between two other parties who are reluctant to hold direct discussions. If you’re faced with senior leaders who aren’t sold on the idea of servant leadership, it can be helpful to enlist the advocacy of a third-party who is trusted and respected by those senior leaders. If you struggle with gaining credibility of senior leaders, gain the confidence and support of individuals who already have that credibility and get them to lobby on your behalf. Yes, it can be tiring and frustrating to influence indirectly, but sometimes it’s a reality of organizational politics. By the way, organizational politics is really just “relationship management.” Rather than thinking of it in negative terms, think of it as a necessary strategy for navigating organizational life.
4. Choose your playground. Remember what it was like as a kid playing on the playground at school or at the park? Sometimes there would be a group of kids that “didn’t play well with others,” and after trying to gain their friendship for a period of time and failing, we’d move to another playground and find a crowd that was more welcoming. In a sense, many workplaces are just adult playgrounds and that dynamic still exists. Some people “don’t play well with others” and aren’t open to changing their ways or trying new things. If you’ve been giving your best effort to positively influence your organization and nothing is changing, you may need to consider finding a new playground. I’m not encouraging you to fire off a resignation email to your boss, but I am reminding you that you have a choice. Invest your time and energy where you feel it can have the greatest impact.
Trust is a team sport, not a solo endeavor. You can build a high-trust, servant leadership culture by modeling the kind of behavior you want to see, creating a winning team, and building a supportive network. If your efforts aren’t being rewarded, you may need to find a different audience who is more receptive to your message. But don’t lose heart! The world is in desperate need for leaders who put the needs of others ahead of their own and your efforts will eventually bear fruit.
Effective leadership is an influence process where leaders implement everyday, commonsense approaches that help people and organizations thrive. Yet somehow, many of these fundamental principles are still missing from most workplaces.
The book covers a wide-ranging list of leadership skills certain to bring out the best in people. One of the things that make our approach different is the down-to-earth practicality of what we recommend. Instead of outcome or trait statements, the authors share leadership behaviors that get results.
How about you? What day-to-day leadership behaviors have made a big difference in your effectiveness as a leader?
Below are five examples of commonsense practices from our book. Are any of these on your list of simple leadership truths? Which of these have been powerful in your life as a leader? Which do you wish you would have learned earlier? What else would you include?
1. See Feedback as a Gift
Giving feedback to the boss doesn’t come naturally to most people, so getting honest feedback from your team members may be difficult. They may fear being the messenger bearing bad news, so they hesitate to be candid.
If you are lucky enough to receive feedback from one of your team members, remember—they’re giving you a gift. Limit yourself to three responses. Make sure the first thing you say is “Thank you!” Then follow up with “This is so helpful,” and “Is there anything else you think I should know?”
2. Help People Win
It’s hard for people to feel good about themselves if they are constantly falling short of their goals. That’s why it’s so important for you as a leader to do everything you can to help people win—accomplish their goals—by ensuring the following:
Make sure your people’s goals are clear, observable, and measurable.
As their leader, work together with your people to track progress.
When performance is going well or falling short of expectations, give them appropriate praising, redirecting, or coaching—or reexamine whether your leadership style matches the person’s development level on a specific goal.
3. Admit Your Mistakes
If you make a mistake, own it. Admit what you did, apologize if necessary, and then put a plan in place to not repeat the mistake. Here are some best practices you can follow:
Be prompt. Address the mistake as soon as possible. Delay can make it appear you’re trying to avoid or cover up the issue.
Accept responsibility. Own your behavior and any damage it caused.
Highlight the learning. Let your team know what you’ve learned and what you’ll do differently next time.
Be brief. Don’t over-apologize or beat yourself up. Mistakes happen.
4. Extend Trust
Many leaders are afraid to give up too much control for fear that something will come back to bite them. They think it isn’t worth the risk to give up control. Are you willing to give up control and trust others? If you struggle to relinquish control and trust others, start with baby steps:
Identify low-risk situations where you feel comfortable extending trust.
Assess a person’s trustworthiness by gauging their competence to handle the task, integrity to do the right thing, and commitment to follow through.
As you become more comfortable giving up control and learn that others can be trusted, extend more trust as situations allow.
5. Rebuild Trust When Broken
Leaders inevitably do something to erode trust—and when that happens, it’s good to have a process to follow to rebuild it. Trust can usually be restored if both parties are willing to work at it. If you have eroded trust in a relationship, follow this process to begin restoring it:
Acknowledge. The first step in restoring trust is to acknowledge there is a problem. Identify the cause of low trust and what behaviors you need to change.
Apologize. Take ownership of your role in eroding trust and express remorse for the harm it has caused.
Act. Commit to not repeating the behavior and act in a more trustworthy way in the future.
Interested in learning more? Join Ken and I for a special webinar on January 26 where we will be highlighting key concepts from our book. The event is free, courtesy of The Ken Blanchard Companies. Use this link to register.
We believe that leadership is an inside job; it’s a question of the heart. If you have the right character and intention, the right leadership actions will follow. You can’t “fake it ’till you make it” in leadership. People see right through the outward facade into the motivations of your heart.
The most persistent barrier to becoming a trusted servant leader is a heart guided by self-interest that looks at the world as a “give a little, take lot” proposition. Self-serving leaders put their own agenda, safety, status, and gratification ahead of others who are impacted by the leaders’ thoughts and actions.
The shift from self-serving leadership to leadership that serves others is a change of heart. If leaders don’t get the heart right, they will never become servant leaders. A misguided heart will color their thinking, impact their behavior, and cause them to begin every day by asking “What’s in it for me today?”
Our friend and best-selling author Jon Gordon says, “You don’t have to be great to serve, but you do have to serve to be a great leader.” The key to being a successful leader is pretty simple when you get to the heart of the issue. The heart of the issue is the heart is the issue.
Is your heart motivated to serve others or to serve yourself?
Download this free eBook to get an excerpt of some of the simple truths we discuss, see the full table of contents, and learn more about the story behind why we wrote the book.
Leadership is a complex endeavor, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.
We often tend to make things more complicated than they need to be and that’s true in the field of leadership. To prove my point, go to Amazon.com and search their book listings for the word “leadership” and see how many returns you get (but wait until you finish reading this article!).
What if I told you the key to being a successful leader was to make common sense common practice, and to do that, you need to remember and follow some important simple truths?
Ken Blanchard and I hold that belief and we’ve seen it proven throughout our careers. In our forthcoming book, Simple Truths of Leadership—52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust (February 1, 2022, Barrett-Kohler Publishers), we share a collection of simple truths that reflect common sense practices people can use to make their work and life—as well as the lives of the people they care about—happier and more satisfying.
Effective leadership is an inside job. It is a question of the heart. It’s all about a leader’s character and intention. Why are you leading? Is it to serve or to be served?
The most persistent barrier to being a servant leader is a heart motivated by self-interest. Self-serving leaders put their own agenda, safety, status, and gratification ahead of others who are impacted by the leaders’ thoughts and actions.
The shift from self-serving leadership to leadership that serves others is motivated by a change of heart. If leaders don’t get their heart right, they will never become servant leaders.
The following are two critical simple truths and suggestions on how to be a trusted servant leader.
Simple Truth—Servant leadership is the best way to achieve both great results and great relationships.
Organizational leaders often have an either/or attitude toward results and people. For example, leaders who focus only on results may have trouble creating great relationships with their people and leaders who focus mainly on relationships may have trouble getting desired results.
Yet you can get both great results and great relationships if you understand the two parts of servant leadership:
The leadership aspect focuses on vision, direction, and results—where you as a leader hope to take your people. Leaders should involve others in setting direction and determining desired results, but if people don’t know where they’re headed or what they’re meant to accomplish, the fault lies with the leader.
The servant aspect focuses on working side by side in relationship with your people. Once the vision and direction are clear, the leader’s role shifts to service—helping people accomplish the agreed-upon goals.
Making Common Sense Common Practice
This one-two punch of the aspects of servant leadership enables you to create both great results and great relationships:
Let your people know what they’re being asked to do by setting the vision and direction with their help. In other words, vision and direction, while the responsibility of the leader, is not a top-down process.
During implementation, assure your people you are there to serve, not to be served. Your responsibility is to help them accomplish their goals through training, feedback, listening, and communication.
Servant leadership is the vehicle to building trust. Servant leaders act in ways that inspire trust in their followers. They are distinguished by putting the needs of their followers ahead of their own.
When team members believe their leader has their best interests at heart and is there to support them in achieving their goals, trust in their leader grows by leaps and bounds.
Trust is an outcome. If we act in trustworthy ways, we build trust. If we behave in an untrustworthy manner, we erode trust. It’s common sense—but not always common practice.
Simple Truth—Leadership begins with trust.
Some leaders charge headlong into setting strategies and goals for their teams without giving much thought to building trust. Yet trust is the foundation of any successful, healthy relationship. When you have the trust of your team, all things are possible. Creativity, innovation, productivity, efficiency, and morale flourish. If your team doesn’t trust you, you get resistance, disengagement, apathy, and, ultimately, failure.
The most successful leaders realize their number one priority is to build trust with their team. Trustworthy leaders demonstrate competence in their roles, act with integrity, show care and concern for team members, and honor their commitments by following through on their promises.
Making Common Sense Common Practice
Does your team perceive you as trustworthy? If you’re not sure, ask them. Here are a few sample questions:
Do you have confidence in my leadership/management abilities? Where or how can I improve?
Do I walk my talk? Where can I be more consistent in my behavior?
How well do I listen to you? Do our interactions leave you feeling heard, valued, and supported?
Am I dependable? Do you trust that I’ll follow through on my commitments?
Demonstrating your vulnerability by having a discussion with your people about trust is a powerful way to introduce servant leadership in your workplace.
Leadership is complex but we don’t need to make it complicated. Following simple truths of leadership is the way to turn common sense into common practice. Keep it simple!
Trust is often one of those things we don’t think about until we don’t have it. Much like oxygen, we take it for granted, but once it’s gone…YIKES! We suddenly realize how critically important it is and we’ll do just about anything to get it back.
The good news about broken trust, if there is any, is that it can be rebuilt in most circumstances. Trust is incredibly resilient when it’s been properly nurtured in healthy relationships. With the exception of the most willful, intentional acts of betrayal, trust can usually be rebuilt if both parties are willing to put in the effort. However, in order to rebuild it, you must address three important things.
The first thing to deal with to restore trust is the past. As the 12-step recovery process has taught us, the first step in fixing a problem is to acknowledge you have one. When violations of trust occur, it is tempting to sweep the fallout under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen. Breaches of trust need to be met head-on and burying your head in the sand and pretending it doesn’t exist only makes the wound fester and become infected. It’s helpful to assess which of the four elements of trust has been eroded and then admit your mistakes. There are few trust-building behaviors more powerful than admitting and owning your mistakes. After your admission, let others express their feelings. Listen with empathy and understanding; don’t debate and argue.
The second thing to address in restoring trust is the present. You can reconcile the past with the present when you apologize. The apology is a make it or break it moment in the process of rebuilding trust. If you apologize well, you set the course for healing and higher levels of trust in the future. If you botch the apology, you can dig yourself into an even deeper hole of hurt and dysfunction. Effective apologies have three basic components: admitting your fault, expressing remorse for the harm caused, and committing to repairing the damage. Check out The Most Successful Apologies Have These 8 Elements for more tips on apologizing.
The third thing to address when restoring trust is the future and you do this by determining how you’re going to act moving forward. This is where the rubber hits the road in rebuilding trust. You can articulate the most awesome apology in the world, but the relationship will suffer permanent harm if you don’t change your behavior. The key success factor is to have a plan of action that is agreed upon with the person you offended. Outline how each of you will move forward in the relationship, what accountability looks like, and how you’ll know when the breach of trust has been repaired. The time it takes to repair trust is usually proportional to the severity of the offense.
Rebuilding trust in relationships requires us to be vulnerable and courageous. We must deal with the past and acknowledge we did something wrong, address the present and apologize for our behavior, and move into the future and act in ways that repair the damage we caused. However, the net result can be even stronger levels of trust. Relationships that have experienced the crucible of broken trust can come out stronger on the other side if both parties are willing to engage in this hard work to get to a place of healing and restoration.
Enjoy this article that was recently published in Ignite!, the newsletter of The Ken Blanchard Companies. I was interviewed about the opportunity to build trust as organizations develop plans to return workers to the office.
Organizations have an opportunity to intentionally increase trust with their people by the open and collaborative way they handle plans for people returning to the office, says trust expert Randy Conley.
“As a leader, you have a choice on where to invest your energy. You can do it through micromanaging and strictly enforcing everyone’s work schedules—or you can spend your time empowering your people, investing in them, trusting them, and helping them achieve their goals, regardless of whether they’re sitting in a nearby office or joining a Zoom call from home.
“A large percentage of people have enjoyed the freedom and work-life balance that working from home has provided. They are concerned about losing some of these positive changes as companies begin to roll out their plans for returning to the office.”
Sending people home at the start of the pandemic was a great trust experiment, says Conley.
“Organizations were forced to extend trust to their people. There was no more physical monitoring. The norm of everyone showing up at the office at 9:00 a.m. was broken.
“The good news is, by all accounts we’ve seen, the ‘experiment’ was a great success! Leaders and their teams found new ways to work and were amazed by not only the increase in productivity but also the satisfaction with their life and work situation.”
So what do organizations do now? Continue to build in that direction—or collectively exhale that it went well, bring everyone back to the office, and return to the old ways?
“I think that train has left the station,” says Conley. “Employees have had a taste of a new way of working and they want certain aspects of it to continue. They’re not willing to go back to the old life. If their organization doesn’t want to make a change, many will look for something else or stay only until a better opportunity comes along.”
This has employers worried about losing their best talent as well as finding new talent in the future, says Conley.
“It’s a very practical concern. I think a lot of old-school mentality leaders still believe the office is where people need to be to do their work.
“It’s dangerous to generalize around this topic. Leaders have a lot of sticky issues to work through. It’s important to take some time to think things through, be open, share information, and make decisions based on data—not on old-school mindsets or ideas.
“If you have data points that support onsite collaboration and productivity, make sure your team understands that. Conversely, if your data supports remote work, share that. Have an open dialogue about it. Involve people in the change and the decision-making process.”
The key to creating this atmosphere of open dialogue is building a culture with high trust. That begins with connectedness, says Conley.
“Go slow. Tread lightly. Unless you have a rock-solid reason for bringing back people immediately without their feedback, take it slowly and involve them in the process. Let them know you’re hearing their concerns.”
Another leader behavior that builds trust is having clear expectations, says Conley.
“Be explicit about what the hybrid work model will look like for your team. How many days per week are people expected to be in the office? Are some days mandatory? The more you can spell out the details, the more confident people will be about complying with team norms.
“During times like these, it’s important to build on the trust we extend to each other in how we get our work done. By setting clear expectations, involving everyone in the process, soliciting feedback, and staying flexible as leaders, we can better enjoy the progress we’ve made and will continue to make as we move into the future.”
Would you like to learn more about building trust in your organization? Join us for a free webinar!
Trust is critical anytime an organization is embarking on great change. To ensure high levels of organizational performance, leaders must tackle trust head-on by demonstrating the behaviors people most associate with trust.
People need to know they can trust their leaders in four key areas. In this webinar, Blanchard trust practice leader Randy Conley will show you how to improve the levels of trust in your organization by identifying potential gaps that trip up even the best leaders. Participants will learn how to:
Recognize the warning signs when people lack trust in your leadership.
Purposefully engage in four trust-building behaviors.
Create strong, long lasting, trust-based relationships.
Don’t miss this opportunity to learn how to raise the level of trust in your organization by increasing the “trust-ability” of your leaders.