Trust in business and organisations. It is no longer a ‘secret’ – confidence in today’s business leaders is at an all-time low. Particularly recent years have brought more harm than good in this respect – CEO’s are criticized across industries, with their own employee base targeting them like villains, awaiting public ‘sentencing’.
Ironically confidence, or in this article synonymously described as trust, cannot be received, when not given. Stephen M.R. Covey called it “The one thing that changes everything” in his book “The Speed of Trust”. Covey further described that trust is “beyond ethics: Why personal credibility is the foundation of all trust”.
Trust for this article is defined as the ‘undefinable’, the root and source of our behavior, as it is continuously defined and refined by our perception of our interaction with other people.
Is the severe lack of trust in business leaders a sudden manifestation of a long lingering and latent disease? I don’t think so. There have been trust issues since human beings started to interact with each other and I probably do not have to list the great amount of business and other organizational debacles which have been widely reported in the press; examples such as Enron, New York Times, AIG, Adelphia, Healthsouth Corporation, Biovail, Merck, Pfizer, Worldcom, Rite Aid, Major League Baseball, Wall Street, ClimateGate, the United States Government bailouts, Sports Memorabilia and of course there are many more.
However, what makes this eruption of frustration about the loss of trust in leadership so unique and interesting, is for it to be nearly equally distributed among private industries, non-profits (including churches and other religious institutions), state and federal government and sports.
Apparently employees, customers, suppliers, colleague leaders and citizens want to renounce the trust status quo and want leaders to ‘come clean’.
As a business leader, the personal and business stakes for you are very high. A significant part of your market may have eroded, your financing may have dried up, you may have had to downsize your organization to the utmost minimum possible, leaving the ‘left behind team members’ with an increased and ‘unfamiliar’ workload. All this has led in many organizations to an all time high stress level with consequentially a challenge to the creativity, innovation and motivation level of your team. ‘Things’ happened and trust has eroded.
Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that relatively few of you have ‘gone public’ about trust. Few CEO’s are openly discussing trust, the importance of trust for their business and their personal commitment to improve and, or restore trust. I feel it is precisely this ‘covert’ leadership behavior, a certain unwillingness to address the lack of trust, which hurts businesses at this time the most. If trust has not been part of your strategic plan, perhaps you may want to re-consider this.
Are you as a leader challenged to accept personal responsibility for the trust level of the company? Are you in agreement that you embody the company every where and in all you do? What about your employees?
When I question people in organizations about existing trust levels, they share both positive and negative words; examples such as poor team work, misalignment, stress, conflict, bad attitudes, public distrust, cynicism, negativity, integrity, faith, betrayal, economic recovery, success, failure, but also lack of commitment, lack of engagement, troublemaking, communication problems and performance at all costs are shared.
Workplace perception is workplace reality – as CEO you want to know about these perceptions and you want to be sure you are part of the discussion, first and foremost as an active listener.
Antonio Lucio referred to trust in relationship to the economic recovery, in a Poder3600 article: “The Multiple Faces of Trust”, Lucio shares: “The biggest hurdle to full economic recovery is the decline of consumer trust in brands, institutions, economic theories and leadership in general. The debate needs to turn now to assessing the cost of rebuilding trust in our institutions. It is an important consideration, because it may represent the most significant increase to the cost of doing business faced by institutions in the next several years. Rebuilding trust could be costly, time consuming and resource intensive because trust is only rebuilt one experience at a time.”
In a Chief Executive Magazine article: “Rebuilding Trust in the CEO”, Jennifer Pellet described a jointly organized CEO Magazine and RHR roundtable conference. Paul Winum, managing director of RHR International, an executive and organizational development organization, described the state of mistrust in business leaders: “What’s going on in the reputational realm of CEO’s is almost at the level of ‘These guys are all bums; they’re selfish and greedy,’”.
As a practicing international leader for many years, I have been continuously surprised about the ‘extended value proposition’ made to prospective employees when joining an organization. Once employees are working for the company – employees are in general not trusted and are usually over regulated by supervising management, policies and procedures.
Employees have invested their efforts, reputation and their career, to sum up, they have invested their lives in your organization. Your team needs to know where you stand, when it comes to trust.
Really, most employees want to do a good job, they want to trust you as a leader – and they want to be trusted. As a CEO you are required to be clear in your expectation, setting the boundaries, creating the atmospheric foundation of the enterprise and build trust in whatever way you can. How do you feel your team members experience this currently in your company?
Can broken trust be rebuild? The good news is, it is possible. The challenge – it is all up to you – excuses begone.
Rebuilding trust is build upon consistent behavior by you and the rest of leadership. Trust is rebuild “one experience at a time”. When you meet people for the first time, you have an instant trust ‘gauge’. Only by mutual experience will trust increase, or decrease. Irrespective of what many people may want you to believe, trust cannot increase by talking about it. You need to experience each other’s behavior, thus have experiences together for trust to change.
Over the past year where people may have lost their savings, their jobs, their relationships, even their products, nothing is going to be so valued as trust between people. “It is the one thing that changes every thing”.
As a senior leader in an organization, you have the opportunity to build trust, it is inherent to your role and implied by your fiduciary duties as CEO.
Future generations will not only require, but see a level of trust as a pre-requisite for potential engagement with your company. This may sound improbable in the current labor market, but I foresee that this new ‘driver seat’ behavior by the future workforce, will become a very plausible scenario in the years to come.
Your golden opportunity is to ensure that your part of the equation is carried with dignity and transparency through clear, respectful communication and trust-adding behavior. Clearly the reason why trust goes beyond ethics and why it is so critical for you as a leader to embrace trust as a daily part of your accountability and activities. You must actively live trust, to be able to see trust actively living in your organization.
According to Covey in his widely acclaimed book “The Speed of Trust”, there are multiple suggested behaviors you can adopt. It is suggested to;
- talk straight
- demonstrate respect
- create transparency
- right wrongs
- show loyalty
- deliver results
- confront reality (describe the ‘box’ and explain what’s outside of the ‘box’)
- clarify expectations
- practice accountability (including your own performance)
- listen first
- keep commitments (if you need to ‘break them’ – communicate and discuss this with the person(s) you’ve made the commitment with in the first place)
- extend trust to any one you can (it is only by giving that you receive [trust])
Let your continuously improving trust level propel your organization to a new level – a level sustained by innovation, creativity, cross-departmental team work, shared accountability, empowerment, and lastly a loyal workforce, client, customer and patient base. That’s why people have entrusted you with this organization and isn’t this why you are doing all this?
Lead the way to trust and you’ll lead the way to recovery and prosperity for you and the company.
As a leader, your communication and behavior are important reminders to the organization of what matters most. As part of your leadership foundation, trust must be your number one priority!
This article was originally published in Leadership Matters on 13 December, 2009.