Leading with Trust

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.

Three Levels of Trust – What Level Are Your Relationships?

When it comes to trust, not all relationships are at the same level. Based on the context of the given relationship – professional, personal, family, social – each one can experience a different level of trust.

There are three basic levels of trust. The first level is deterence-based trust, or what I like to call “rules-based” trust. This is the most fundamental, base level of trust in all relationships. Deterence-based trust means that there are rules in place that prevent one person from taking advantage of, or harming another person. In society we have laws that govern our behavior in personal and business settings. When we engage in business we have contracts that ensure one party can trust another to hold up their end of the bargain. In organizations we have policies and procedures that provide boundaries for how we interact and treat each other, and if we violate those rules, usually there are consequences involved.

The second level of trust is knowledge-based trust. This level of trust means that I’ve had enough experience with you and knowledge of your behavior that I have a pretty good idea of how you will react and behave in relationship with me. We’ve had enough interactions over time where there has been a consistent display of trustworthy behavior that I believe I can trust you with the everyday type issues we experience together. This is the level of trust that most of our day-to-day professional relationships experience.

The third and most intimate level of trust we experience in relationships is called identity-based trust. This level of trust means that you know my hopes, dreams, goals, ambitions, fears, and doubts. I trust you at this level because over the course of time I have increased my level of transparency and vulnerability with you and you haven’t taken advantage of me. You’ve proven yourself to be loyal, understanding, and accepting.

Identity-based trust isn’t appropriate for every relationship. This level of trust is usually reserved for the most important people in our lives such as our spouse, children, family, and close friends. Yet with the proper boundaries in place, this level of trust can unlock higher levels of productivity, creativity, and performance in organizations. Imagine an organizational culture where we operated freely without concerns of being stabbed in the back by power-hungry colleagues looking to move higher on the corporate ladder. Imagine less gossiping, backbiting, or dirty politics being played because we knew each other’s hopes and dreams and worked to encourage their development rather than always having a me-first attitude.

Take a moment to examine the level of trust in your most important relationships. What level are you at with each one and how can you develop deeper levels of trust?

Honesty is ALWAYS the best policy. Period.

My grandpa would frequently say to me “There’s no right way to do a wrong thing.” The resignation this week of embattled Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel is the latest public example of the consequences a leader can face when he chooses not to be honest and transparent in his duties and relationships with others.

If you’re not familiar with the story, this week’s Sports Illustrated has a cover story that is worth reading as a leadership case study. The cliff notes version is that last year Jim Tressel was made aware of behaviors his players were engaged in that were against NCAA rules (exchanging personal school memorabilia in return for tattoos and other services), and rather than alerting his superiors and the school’s NCAA compliance office, he kept the information to himself. It wasn’t until the story came to light that Tressel admitted that he was dishonest and hid the truth.

Being honest is a core attribute of any successful leader. Being honest in your relationships with others strikes at the core of who you are as a person because your actions reveal what you truly value and believe as a leader. Honesty is demonstrated not only by telling the truth, but not covering up, or obscuring the truth. Honesty means admitting your mistakes and accepting responsibility for your actions. As illustrated in this case with Jim Tressel, covering up the truth always leads to worse consequences than if you own up to your misdeeds from the very beginning.

Now, I have to practice some transparency and be completely honest by saying that I’m a native Michigander and huge University of Michigan football fan. “That school down south” is our chief rival, and any day that’s a bad day for Ohio State is usually a good day for me. But in this case, I’m saddened, because Jim Tressel has always had a public persona of a leader who “got it,” and even though his team has had my team’s number the last several years, I’ve quietly admired the way he’s led his team. He’s written books on what it takes to be a successful leader and he’s experienced a tremendous amount of professional success. This experience has reminded me of the delicate nature of trust in relationships. Trust can take a long time to build, and an instant to ruin.

Honesty is always the best policy. Period.

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