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See beyond self: the art of being a trusted leader

May 6, 2015

Tomorrow’s General Election seems to be culminating in a contest of negatives, as opinion polls confirm voters have a low opinion of both potential prime ministers. In a way, there is nothing new in this. My earliest political memories and energies were provided by a flowering of left-wing views under Tony Benn’s banner, who never gained popular support, and the growth of free-market fundamentalists harnessed by Margaret Thatcher, who won, but was never popular in my neck of the woods.

Hostility to politics-as-usual has been stronger since the financial crash, and the inherent lack of trust in business – banker’s bonuses, tax evasion, zero hours contracts, PPI mis-selling – and the outcry over MPs’ expenses. In a contest of negatives at a time when all politicians are distrusted, the most striking finding in a Com Res poll last week is the question that uses the word ‘trust’.

Only 31% agree with the statement: I trust Cameron and Osborne to make the right decisions about the economy – but this compares with 21% who agree with the same statement about Miliband and Balls. If there is a lesson to take from the two manifestos, it is that both are intent on neutralising each other’s perceived weaknesses, rather than promoting their own values and trust based agendas.

Labour will neither admit that it would borrow to invest (a necessary flexibility as all Keynesians would support) nor set out where serious cuts would be, and the Tories will not explain how they intend to make £12Bn of welfare cuts – their numbers are so absurd as to be beyond credible discussion. Who can you trust? Why would you if this is their clarion call for your vote?

Miliband has blamed the broken promises by the Lib Dems on scrapping tuition fees and the Tories on curbing immigration for helping erode trust in all political leaders. Last week’s BBC Question Time highlighted the question of trust as an important theme.

Cameron was asked why anyone should trust him on the NHS. Miliband faced questions of trusting Labour over the economy, whilst Clegg battled down questions on how he could be trusted given his broken promise on tuition fees. It’s a question the Liberal Democrat leader has faced on many occasions. Clegg sought to turn the question of trust back onto his rivals, saying neither Cameron nor Miliband would come clean on the compromises they would have to make to win power.

There is a trust deficit in politics as with big business. While rear-view mirror approaches to dissect and repair what went wrong on an organisational level are warranted in many companies, offering strategic initiatives for work-culture enhancements, that’s not the answer for most people who want to impact trust today.

Trust is a key leadership trait, and can’t be built overnight. It requires time, effort, diligence, and character. Inspiring trust is not easy to build. To be a trusted leader, trust must be carefully constructed, vigorously nurtured, and constantly reinforced. Although trust takes a long time to develop, it can be destroyed by a single action and can burn down with a just touch of carelessness, as many politicians know to their cost. Moreover, once lost, it is very difficult to re-establish.

The financial sector also seems to be confused because it fails to distinguish between intellectual trust and emotional trust. The customer has no intellectual trust when he believes his bank will go bust or its senior managers earned bonuses way out of kilter with performance. He displays a lack of emotional trust when he does not believe his bank will give him a fair deal. The crash caused a reawakening of concern about the soundness of banks, so intellectual trust became an issue for the first time in years. But the lack of emotional trust is absolutely not new. Have people ever trusted the financial sector to give them a fair deal?

Perhaps both business and political leaders should also think about trustworthiness, rather than trust per se. Trustworthiness demands reciprocal vulnerability. Trustworthy leaders recognise times have changed and that they are no longer in control, they think and behave more like social activists in their leadership styles rather than conventional CEOs. Accountability is everything, social and moral principles come before profit. Do our political leaders have a moral compass, or self-interest, as their guiding principle?

For some people, asking a politician for advice on public trust is like asking the Grand Old Duke of York for tips on military strategy. While only a third of people trust business leaders to tell the truth, for politicians the figure is just a sixth. As politicians have discovered, trust is easier to lose than to gain. Rebuilding trust cannot start unless dissenting voices are brought together. No one can learn if they do not listen.

Trust within an organisation is further complicated by the fact that people use the word ‘trust’ to refer to three different kinds.

The first is strategic trust – the trust employees have in the people running the show to make the right strategic decisions. Do top managers have the vision and competence to set the right course, allocate resources intelligently, fulfil the mission, and help the company succeed?

The second is personal trust – the trust employees have in their own managers. Do the managers treat employees fairly? Do they consider employees’ needs when making decisions about the business and put the company’s needs ahead of their own desires?

The third is organisational trust – the trust people have not in any individual but in the company itself. Are processes well designed, consistent, and fair? Does the company make good on its promises?

Clearly these three types of trust are distinct, but they’re linked in important ways. Every time an individual manager violates the personal trust of her direct reports, for example, their organisational trust will be shaken.

In this era of distrust, leaders, whatever their organisation, need to be trust creators. One of the biggest mistakes a leader can make is to assume that others trust them simply by virtue of their title. As a leader, you are trusted only to the degree that people believe in your ability, consistency, integrity, and commitment to deliver.

The good news is that as a leader you can earn trust over time, by building and maintaining eight key strengths of behaviours and actions. For example:

Clarity: People want transparency that removes ambiguity. Be clear about your vision, purpose, values and expectations. When a leader is clear about expectations, she will likely get what she wants, communicating priorities will see people become productive and effective.

Empathy: People put faith in those who care beyond themselves. Trusted leaders never underestimate the power of sincerely caring about their staff. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is not just an old saying, it is a bottom-line truth. Follow it, and you will build trust.

Character: People notice those who do what is right ahead of what is easy or populist. Leaders who have built this trait consistently do what needs to be done when it needs to be done, whether they feel like doing it or not. They earn trust and respect as a person for doing what should be done, consistently. Simply, they make the right moral judgement.

Aptitude: People have confidence in those who show competency and capability as a leader. According to one study, the key competency of a successful leader is not a specific skill but rather the ability to learn and grow. Arrogance and a ‘been there done that’ attitude erodes confidence. There is always more to learn, so make a habit of learning to stay ahead of the game.

Connectivity: Trust is all about relationships, and relationships are built by establishing genuine connections. Creating and sustaining relationships is a key leadership challenge. By building a network of trust based relationships, a leader will gain credibility, useful when difficult decisions are called for.

Commitment: In times of adversity, it is the leaders who stay strong, resolute and determined that hold the respect of people, who trust their judgement. Wartime leaders like General Patton, leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lech Walesa, because they saw commitment and sacrifice for the greater good. Commitment builds trust, it creates a sense of purpose.

Reliability: In every area of life, it’s the little things done consistently that make the difference. The little things done consistently make for a higher level of trust and better results. The great leaders consistently do the small but most important things first. A leader is a dealer in hope, and behaving consistently inspires trust, respect and support. Equally, they don’t hide when the going gets tough, they stand up and show they are reliable.

Accountability: A leader is ultimately accountable for their decisions, behaviours and actions, you cannot expect people to follow you blindly without giving them justification. Being honest should be a trait that is taken for granted, but just how many of our political leaders answer a straightforward question with a straightforward, direct response?

As difficult as it is to build and maintain trust within organisations, it’s critical. An established body of research demonstrates the links between trust and corporate performance. If people trust each other and their leaders, they’ll be able to work through disagreements. They’ll take smarter risks. They’ll work harder, stay with the company longer, contribute better ideas, and dig deeper than anyone has a right to ask.

If they don’t trust the organisation and its leaders though, they’ll disengage from their work and focus instead on rumours, politics, and be unproductive. The building blocks of trust are unsurprising, they’re old-fashioned managerial virtues like consistency, clear communication, and a willingness to tackle awkward questions as highlighted above.

What do the enemies of trust look like? Sometimes the enemy is a person, a first-line supervisor who habitually expresses contempt, sometimes it’s knit into the fabric of the organisation, a culture that punishes dissent or buries conflict. Some enemies are overt, and some are covert – a conversation you thought was private is repeated and then grossly distorted by the rumour mill.

Because any act of bad management erodes trust, the list of enemies could be endless. Practically speaking, though, most breakdowns in trust can be traced back to either inconsistent messages and standards from leaders, misplaced benevolence or false feedback. The lesson is simple – to be a trusted leader,

In the words of Arnold H. Glasgow, A trusted leader takes a little more than his share of blame; a little less than his share of credit. They see beyond self. It’s not about their personal status, bonus, or achievement, it’s about something bigger. They link the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’, and help others view the landscape of purpose. They enable us see they do respect us as individuals, and that they acknowledge they have to earn our trust.

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