Leading with Trust

Four Leadership Practices to Build a Culture of Trust and Openness

In today’s fast-paced, globally-connected business world in which we live, an organization’s successes and failures can be tweeted across the internet in a matter of seconds. A knee jerk reaction of many organizational leaders is to clamp down on the amount of information shared internally, with hopes of minimizing risk to the organization. Many times this backfires and ends up creating a culture of risk aversion and low trust. For organizations to thrive in today’s hyper-competitive marketplace, leaders have to learn how to build a culture of trust and openness. Here are four suggested leadership practices to help in this regard:

  1. Encourage risk taking – Leaders need to take the first step in extending trust to those they lead. Through their words and actions, leaders can send the message that appropriate and thoughtful risk taking is encouraged and rewarded. When people feel trusted and secure in their contributions to the organization, they don’t waste energy engaging in CYA (cover your “assets”) behavior and are willing to risk failure. The willingness to take risks is the genesis of creativity and innovation, without which organizations today will die on the vine. Creating a culture of risk taking will only be possible when practice #2 is in place.
  2. Mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities – Imagine that you’re an average golfer (like me!) who decides to take lessons to improve your game. After spending some time on the practice range, your instructor takes you on the course for some live action and you attempt a high-risk/high-reward shot. You flub the shot and your instructor goes beserk on you. “How stupid can you be!” he shouts. “What were you thinking? That was one of the worst shots I’ve seen in my life!” Not exactly the kind of leadership that encourages you to take further risks, is it? Contrast that with a response of “So what do you think went wrong? What will you do differently next time?” Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40, characterizes these incidents as “learning moments,” where planning and execution come together, a result is produced, and we incorporate what we learned into our future work.
  3. Transparency in processes and decision making – Leaders can create a culture of trust and openness by making sure they engage in transparent business practices. Creating systems for high involvement in change efforts, openly discussing decision-making critieria, giving and receiving feedback, and ensuring organizational policies and procedures and applied fairly and equitably are all valuable strategies to increase transparency. On an individual basis, it’s important for us leaders to remember that our people want to know our values, beliefs, and what motivates our decisions and actions. Colleen Barrett, President Emeritus of Southwest Airlines, likes to say that “People will respect you for what you know, but they’ll love you for your vulnerabilities.”
  4. Information is shared openly – In the absence of information, people will make up their own version of the truth. This leads to gossip, rumors, and mis-information which results in people questioning leadership decisions and losing focus on the mission at hand. Leaders who share information about themselves and the organization build trust and credibility with their followers. When people are entrusted with all the necessary information to make intelligent business decisions, they are compelled to act responsibly and a culture of accountability can be maintained.

Please take a moment to participate in the Leading with Trust poll that appears below. I’d like to hear your feedback on whether or not these four leadership practices are present in your organization and I’ll share the results in a future article.

Do You Have Truth Decay?

Winston Churchill once pointed out that people occasionally stumble over the truth, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened. The great American author and humorist, Mark Twain, opined that many people must regard truth as their most valuable possession since they were very economical in its use. His advice was simply, “Always do right.”  Truth decay is the gradual erosion of honesty and integrity in a relationship, and if not diagnosed and treated promptly, can result in a complete loss of trust. Here are four warning signs of truth decay and suggestions for prevention and treatment.

  1. Withholding information – This causes suspicion in the leader, a lack of empowerment in the followers, and wasted time and energy as people try to manage the business without all the right information at their disposal. People without information are incapable of acting responsibly. People with information are compelled to act responsibly. Share information about yourself and the organization openly and in the appropriate formats and forums, and set the expectations of how the information should be used. Trust your folks to do the right thing.
  2. Not “walking the talk” – When leaders say one thing yet do another, followers quickly learn that the leader can’t be trusted. Leaders can not underestimate the power of leading by example. Get clear on what values are most important to you as a leader, communicate those to your team, and give them permission to hold you accountable to living those out.
  3. Dropping balls – Not following through on commitments is a leading contributor to truth decay. Make sure you under-promise and over-deliver. Don’t commit to do something unless you know you can follow-through. It can be tempting for leaders to think they have to say “yes” to everything, but if you don’t follow through on your commitments, then people begin to doubt that you are a person of your word. As the Scripture advises us “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’, ‘No.'”
  4. Gossiping – When you engage in gossip or talk disparagingly about a colleague behind their back, you demonstrate a lack of care and respect for others. Your followers observe this behavior and begin to wonder to themselves “If my leader treats others this way, is he/she doing the same to me when I’m not around?” Remember, one of your most precious assets as a leader and colleague is your reputation and good name.

Leadership guru Warren Bennis has noted, “So much lip service is paid to the issue of business ethics; but how do you in fact build an organization distinguished by tangible integrity, moral vision, and transparency? The key is a commitment on the part of the corporate leader to establish a culture of candor in which followers feel free to speak the truth to power, and leaders are bold enough to hear such truth and act on it.”

As leaders we are responsible for setting the example of ethical behavior for our team, and if we pay attention to the warning signs of truth decay and take actions to prevent its spread, we will build a culture of high trust, engagement, and productivity.

The Most Important Behavior That Builds Trust

In a webinar (Four Leadership Behaviors That Build or Destroy Trust) I conducted last week for The Ken Blanchard Companies, I asked the participants to select one of four leadership behaviors that influenced them the most in building trust.

With over 600 people responding, 57% said that “acting with integrity – being honest in word and deed” was the most important behavior that leaders should focus on to build trust. The second most important behavior identified by 26% of this group was “maintaining reliability – doing what you say you’ll do.” Other behaviors selected as the most important included “caring about others – showing care and compassion” (12%) and “demonstrating competence – being good at what he/she does” (5%).

So what does it mean for a leader to act with integrity? The word integrity stems from the Latin adjective integer which means “complete” or “wholeness.” Integrity in behavior means you act with a sense of consistency and steadiness that reflects an alignment between your espoused values and your actions. A leader with integrity makes promises that he or she can keep, is honest in dealing with issues and people, and treats others fairly and with respect.

Recovering from a breach of integrity is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges a leader can face because people perceive integrity to be about who you are as a leader, not just what you do. One only needs to look at today’s news headlines to see the devastating effects of these failures. Politicians resigning from office, corporate leaders arrested for wrongdoing, celebrities losing millions from lost endorsements, and spiritual leaders being disgraced are all results from not acting with a sense of integrity.

The value of acting with integrity is an important reminder for any of us in leadership positions. Whether you’re a parent, teacher, coach, project team member, boss, or any other role that requires you to influence others in a leadership capacity, being consistent in word and deed could be the most powerful way to build trust with others.

Want to Build Trust? Speak Less and Listen More

“To answer before listening – that is folly and shame.”
Proverbs 18:13

It’s easy for leaders to fall into the trap of thinking they need to have the answer to every problem or situation that arises. After all, that’s in a leader’s job description, right? Solve problems, make decisions, have answers…that’s what we do! Why listen to others when you already know everything?

Good leaders know they don’t have all the answers. They spend time listening to the ideas, feedback, and thoughts of their people, and they incorporate that information into the decisions and plans they make. When a person feels listened to, it builds trust, loyalty, and commitment in the relationship. Here are some tips for building trust by improving the way you listen in conversations:

  • Don’t interrupt – It’s rude and disrespectful to the person you’re speaking with and it conveys the attitude, whether you mean it or not, that what you have to say is more important than what he or she is saying.
  • Make sure you understand – Ask clarifying questions and paraphrase to ensure that you understand what the person is trying to communicate. Generous and empathetic listening is a key part of Habit #5 – Seek first to understand, then to be understood – of Covey’s famous Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
  • Learn each person’s story – The successes, failures, joys, and sorrows that we experience in life weave together to form our “story.” Our story influences the way we relate to others, and when a leader takes time to understand the stories of his followers, he has a much better perspective and understanding of  their motivations. Chick-fil-a uses an excellent video in their training programs that serves as a powerful reminder of this truth.
  • Stay in the moment – It’s easy to be distracted in conversations. You’re thinking about the next meeting you have to run to, the pressing deadline you’re up against, or even what you need to pick up at the grocery store on the way home from work! Important things all, but they distract you from truly being present and fully invested in the conversation. Take notes and practice active listening to stay engaged.

My grandpa was fond of saying “The Lord gave you two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion.” Leaders can take a step forward in building trust with those they lead by speaking less and listening more. You might be surprised at what you learn!

The Leader’s Role in Building Trust

Whose responsibility is it to build trust in a leader-follower relationship? The leader! It’s up to the leader to make the first move to earn the trust of his/her followers. Not only does the leader have to earn trust, the leader has to grant trust to others so they feel empowered to act responsibly and with authority to achieve the goals set before them. I was interviewed for the June issue of Ignite!, the monthly leadership newsletter of The Ken Blanchard Companies. The article discusses the leader’s role in building trust, challenges of low trust, strategies leaders can pursue to start building trust, and the benefits of high trust levels on both the personal and organizational levels. Check it out!

Shortly after the interview with Ignite!, I viewed a TED Talk by General Stanley McChrystal, where he shared some of his key leadership lessons. He emphasizes the responsibility leaders have to develop trust with those they lead when he says “I came to believe that a leader isn’t good because they’re right; they’re good because they are willing to learn and to trust…You can get knocked down, and it hurts and it leaves scars. But if you’re a leader, the people you’ve counted on will help you up. And if you’re a leader, the people who count on you need you on your feet.”

Wise words for us all to consider.

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