“Me, I’m dishonest, and you can always trust a dishonest man to be dishonest. Honestly, it’s the honest ones you have to watch out for.” – Captain Jack Sparrow
An executive I was talking to recently told me how trust in the workplace is practically a taboo subject. In his experience running transformation projects, he found it quite confronting when he was told that trust was low in the organisation and people didn’t trust him. While that feedback particularly hurt him, he found it difficult being on the other side and finding the courage to discuss with a colleague that he didn’t trust him. In his view, letting someone know you don’t trust them is the ultimate insult in the workplace.
Yet, as a leader being trusted is the only way people will willingly follow you. Without trust, it reduces people’s propensity to cooperate and be confident in your vision. Employees will question your motivation and limit how much time and effort they put into the quality of work required.
We often don’t realise that trust is measured in both directions. While we’re sizing other people up as to how trustworthy they are, they’re also assessing whether we can be trusted. Thanks to our biological wiring we spend more time protecting ourselves from others than actually considering what signals we’re sending out about our own trustworthiness.
This is why asking the question, “Do your people trust you?” is a bit prickly and confronting for most leaders. It’s pretty rare for any person to admit they can’t be trusted.
In a corporate environment where leaders don’t want to talk about trust, it’s because many leaders are too afraid to even assess themselves. For some leaders, their leadership style is to automatically believe they are trusted. But the world has changed and leaders can no longer assume that their position of power gives them trust legitimacy.
Assessing how trusted you are in the workplace is an important process to go through because without trust no leader can be effective. If you don’t ask, you won’t know.
Do you Know What Trust Is?
One of the issues with trust is that most people don’t understand it comprehensively. Trust may be a universal subject, but when you talk about the topic with leaders, you realise that it’s both perceptible and imperceptible. It also means different things to different people.
For many leaders, they believe trust is as simple as “my word is my bond, tell the truth and be consistent.” That might work in low-risk environments, but throw in a high-risk situation and it’s not enough.
As the pace of change has quickened, being consistent and predictable for leadership is harder. Sometimes leaders make a promise and have to break it, due to circumstances beyond their control. The result is low trust that makes it more difficult to get everyone on board with the new direction. It creates a lot of friction, reducing the agility with which a company can respond to competitive challenges.
In organisations where trust is high, people are talking about it. They have a trust framework that forms a common language on the 11 dimensions of trust. This helps individuals and teams understand, discuss and practise trust with one another. It means employees have the language to call people out on behaviours that are destroying trust. For example: “Hey, John, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but I noticed this morning that you turned up late to our meeting this morning. When that happens, you’re breaking a commitment and it makes the others on the team feel that they can’t trust you because it makes you appear unreliable. What can we do to help you get to the next meeting on time?”
These companies avoid the inappropriate trust confrontations that only degrade trust. Often, in organisations where there is low trust people will threaten “If you don’t do this, we don’t trust you,” but what does that really mean? Using trust as a threat, makes a situation worse. It’s as disastrous as saying “You can trust me on this!” After all, many of us intuitively distrust those who are so quick to say we can trust them.
The number one reason people leave their job is because they don’t trust their manager or even the company itself. Even CEOs leave an organisation if they feel the board doesn’t trust them to grow the organisation.
In today’s world, where the majority of people don’t trust business, employees need more evidence of trust.
When expectation doesn’t meet reality you have distrust.
But it’s not all bad. Low trust actually pinpoints the exact area where an organisation’s biggest challenges are occurring. Fix them up and it’s amazing how quickly an organisation can move forward. The caveat is that an organisation’s trust issues are often hidden from view like an underwater beacon, slightly obscured from sight, but every now and then you see a glimpse of its distress light. It often takes an outsider, who is not submerged in the emotional depths of the situation, to uncover and fix the issues. Then, work can be done to mend the unspoken, emotional issues, thereby helping an organisation transition from an internal focus to consolidation and growth.
For example, take one energy retailer with 40 sales staff who wanted to call old sales leads, but the existing pay structure wasn’t rewarding them. They complained to management, who refused to acknowledge the issue and kept telling them to ignore the old leads. Trust between staff and senior management was strained. Enter a new general manager, who made it his personal mission to discover what employees wanted (base pay rise, new commissions, incentives on new behaviours) and within a couple of months, trust had been restored. Sales and profits also increased considerably.
Where this organisation got it right is while they improved the functional issue of commissions, they also acknowledged people’s need to feel heard and valued by the organisation. It took a new leader with the right skills to do this. The previous leader didn’t have the competencies or even the inclination to build trust. Once you have leaders who can build trust, employees can let go of their grievances and get back to work.
Trust is a by-product of solving problems.
Embracing Trust in Leadership
It all starts with leaders who are comfortable with getting uncomfortable about their leadership style. The reality is that without conscious awareness of our behaviours we can be inadvertently breaking trust without even realising it. That’s why so many trust surveys always find a large disconnect between how trusted executives believe they are compared to what the average employee thinks. There’s always a huge gap. And that gap will continue until leaders get real about how trusted they are.
Captain Jack Sparrow was right when he said: “it’s the honest ones, you have to watch out for.” Sadly, we can have a biased perception that we’re trustworthy, but if we’re not consciously working on it, we can foolishly justify behaviours that betray trust.
For some organisations, knowing which leaders want to be trusted and those that don’t even care is a good process to evaluate what sort of leaders are right for the culture.
Recently, an executive I was speaking to was concerned about managers in his organisation who were self-interested and not collaborating with other managers. One of the ways I work with organisations to improve trust among leaders is to have an open discussion over a roundtable to flush out the trust issues that are being ignored or just not spoken about. It’s a good circuit breaker to have the difficult conversation on trust and challenge people. The executive remarked:
“I’m one for disruption. It tests the calibre of your management team. Because if they’re not seeing the trust issues, and pushing back on it, are we going to get any further? It’s up to the business if they want managers like that. Some executive teams like that competitive edge, where different units compete with each other. But I think if you’re a business that’s got some of those frictional challenges, this is a way of sitting down and highlighting it and assessing whether it’s the right way forward.”
Unfortunately, many managers resist the concept that trust is something that you can enhance and actively encourage because it appears manipulative. But trust doesn’t happen on its own, we have to consciously create it for the best outcomes.
Top leaders are open to learning and being honest about their capabilities and behaviours. After all, executives want to be able to trust the managing director and be trusted by the managing director. But they are two different skillsets – do I trust and how do I be trusted? It all starts with getting honest about our current level of trustworthiness and then learning the right trust behaviours.
If you want to assess your leadership trust behaviours, you can download our self-assessment here. And if you want to learn about the 11 trust dimensions, sign up for our webinar: Building Trust: How Top Leaders Deliver Faster Results, Develop Better Relationships and Improve Profitability.