Successful Supervisor 38 Maintaining the Ethical Edge

August 6, 2017

I spend a great deal of my time working to help organizations understand the benefits of running an ethical culture. Believe it or not, there are many highly placed leaders who believe that making ethical decisions means lowering the organization’s performance numbers.

The truth has been revealed in numerous books and articles that organizations that make the ethical choices, even though they may be difficult or costly in the short term, outperform unethical organizations by a factor of at least 1.5, often 2, or even more.

Producing an annotated bibliography is not the purpose of this article; if you want to read up on the topic, look up “Business Ethics” on Wikipedia. There are over 200 references listed.

As a “CliffsNotes” approach for this blog, I will refer you to the work of Raj Sisodia from his book “Firms of Endearment,” which is one data point among dozens that all point to the same conclusion: organizations that do the right thing, even though it is difficult at times, end up thriving.

I serve on the Board of Directors of the Rochester Business Ethics Foundation (RABEF), where we seek to celebrate local organizations that are running their businesses with high ethics and are benefitting from that practice. Rather than gripe about corner-cutting operations that sacrifice the long term health for short term gains, RABEF seeks to champion those organizations that are doing business the right way and gaining huge sustainable benefits, including higher trust for all stakeholders.

You may ask what has this to do with being a supervisor? Well, it has a lot to do with it. I will grant that the ethical tone of an organization starts at levels far above the supervisor, but dealing with ethical dilemmas occurs at all levels, and supervisors are not exempt from the pressures that sometimes lead to ill-advised decisions.

If you are a supervisor, I guarantee that you have to make many ethical decisions every day. You may not recognize them as such, but you are routinely confronted with the opportunity to make choices that support or undermine the ethical standards that are espoused by your organization.

The first, and most important, consideration is how you can tell if you are facing an ethical dilemma. Nobody is going to sneak up behind you, tap you on the shoulder, and whisper into your ear, “Pay attention Bub, this is an ethical choice you are making here.”

The answer is disarmingly simple: you are facing an ethical dilemma if it is unclear to you what the “right” decision is. There are positive and negative consequences for every course of action you might take. Think of it this way: if the “right” thing to do is evident, then you have no problem making an ethical decision.

Once you are aware that you have an ethical decision on your hands, you have arrived at the moment of truth. You can rationalize the situation and make the “easy” or “most popular” decision regardless of the ethical considerations and be done with it.

That action leads to a kind of dry rot within the group where you may actually be putting the larger organization on a slippery slope in terms of lost trust. Small unethical decisions often lead to larger ones, and at different levels, so the reasons why get obscured in the thinking process, and standards get lowered across the board.

Here are some suggested approaches that can protect you from making unethical decisions.

1. Clarify your values and make sure people know what they are

Values written on a chart on the wall are useless unless you follow them, even when it is difficult to do. By compromising on a core value when it makes you swallow hard to follow it, you show that the entire list is a sham, so not only do the values lack power, they actually reveal an hypocrisy that tells people we follow our values only when it is convenient to do so.

2. Consider the context and all stakeholders

Before wrestling with what the “right” approach is, you need to get the facts. Difficult ethical choices are contextual. For example, we would all agree that taking someone else’s property is an ethical violation, but if you find an interesting book someone left in a recycle bin, it would not be a violation to take it. Consider all of the stakeholders when gathering the facts around an issue.

3. Don’t deal with the decision in a vacuum

If you go through the logical calculation alone, you can often talk yourself into the expedient or less than ethical way out. That process ultimately leads to the need to explain your actions to others who can take pot shots at your judgment.

Once you recognize the “right” thing to do is hard to identify, get some help from others who might be able to add different perspectives to the discussion. This approach has the additional advantage of gaining buy-in of the decisions from others.

4. Look at the issue through different lenses

In ethics classes, we teach a whole array of methods to analyze ethical dilemmas. I will briefly outline just four of the more popular methods here, and you can look up about a dozen other ways in any ethics text.

o Utilitarian – Do the greatest good for the greatest number – Consider the whole population and do that which provides the highest value for most of the people.

o Limited Egoism – Attempt to help others and do not violate their rights – This method comes from your attitude in making a decision. You attempt to assist other people and do so with a sense of fairness.

o Kantian – All correct behavior must be reversible or reciprocal, i.e. follow the Golden Rule. If I take an action that impacts another person, would I be willing to have that action taken on me if the roles were reversed?

o Consistency – is a form of moral reasoning that employs counter examples. Explore some analysis of what would happen if conditions were different. For example, you might ask “would I make this decision if I was starving”?

Your decision could go one way when looking at the problem from a Kantian perspective but a different way if you focus on Utilitarianism. Having more than one perspective adds work and potentially confusion, but it does help with the depth of your analysis.

5. Make a concrete decision based on the logic you are using

Often supervisors will equivocate and postpone making a decision because of the difficulty. This is a trap. Kicking the can down the road to next month or delegating the decision upward because you cannot make a call are ways of procrastinating, but they lack commitment.

Make your decision once you have thought the problem through and consulted with others who might have alternate views.

6. Communicate your decision widely

Don’t just tell people what your decision was, but lead them through the logic you went through to make the call. It is usually good to go all the way back to one of your values, and then describe how your decision was based on adherence to that value.

You can share that other decisions were possible, but you feel, based on your analysis, that the one you made is the best long term course of action.

Leaders are faced with ethical dilemmas on a routine basis. It is how you react and deal with these decisions that will govern how well you do personally and how much trust your organization generates with all stakeholders. That increased trust is the basis for the productivity and profitability advantage of running an ethical organization.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Pills For Common Sense

October 9, 2016

An MBA student in one of my classes reacted to my lecture on how forecasts are almost always wrong by saying that you can have the most rigorous software to forecast peak loads and schedule people, but you need to temper the computer decisions with common sense. What a wonderful statement, and I could not agree more.

Having been in the corporate world for several decades and running my own business helping companies for the past 15 years, I have seen or made my share of boneheaded decisions and policies.

It would be helpful if each organization had a kind of medicine cabinet, and inside there was a bottle of sugar pills marked “Common Sense Pills.”

Workers could be allowed access to the cabinet so any time a manager proposed a new policy or decision that was counter to what the organization was really trying to accomplish, the workers could get the bottle of pills and put it on the desk of the executive.

Of course, in most cultures, that act of honesty would be followed by all kinds of retribution against the employee. You would also see a secret camera installed over the medicine cabinet so in the future there would be evidence in order to punish the correct person.

I picked up a neat phrase at a Vistage lecture several years ago (cannot remember who the speaker was). He said,

“…doing things this way is only common sense: too bad it is not common practice in most organizations.”

We really need a mechanism for making sure common sense solutions are also common practice. There is such a remedy if only leaders would invoke it.

The antidote to blundering into decisions that defy common sense is to build an environment of trust. If people know they will not be punished for voicing a concern, and if leaders have the foresight to consider and discuss the impact of possible decisions before blurting out stupid orders, then many of the errant decisions would be avoided, and the “Common Sense Pills” would grow old in the medicine cabinet.

What if you were a leader and wanted to increase trust so people would tell you when you were about to do something stupid? The answer is to reinforce people when they tell you something you really did not want to hear.

I call this leadership behavior “reinforcing candor,” and I believe it is the quickest route to building real trust in any organization. Once you start making people feel glad when they point out a potential gaff, they will do more of it, which allows more protection in the future.

The ability to reinforce candor also reduces the risk of ethical problems in the organization. Ethical dilemmas often start with innocent and legal decisions that become accepted behavior.

Then, if we can shade the numbers this way today, we can add a little more coloring tomorrow, and soon we are on the slippery slope that leads to obvious illegal or bone-headed activities.

Leaders often miss the slide of behavior into questionable areas as if they are wearing dark glasses. If you are a leader who makes people feel glad when they point out a potential problem, you will get the message soon enough that you are about to cross the ethical line. That can not only keep you out of trouble; it might even keep you out of jail!

Another way to reduce common sense errors is to have a well documented process. The organization’s procedures need to be well designed and include a review or audit process with benchmarks and check points that will expose problems. With that level of rigor, a proposed deviation from the procedures would stick out like a sore thumb.

It also helps if there are specific measures in place that everybody knows. If we get off the beam, the measures, if they are well constructed, will give us leading indicators of trouble to come. If you are an employee and see something wrong, you can use these measures or audits to approach leaders in an objective and non-threatening way.

Most leaders punish people who challenge an action, and that behavior lowers trust. That is when employees need to start reaching for the Common Sense Pills again. Instead, foster an open environment where your employees are allies who help you run an excellent organization.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Nexus of Trust and Ethics

May 6, 2016

It is pretty obvious that trust and ethics are related, but you may not have thought about some of the nuances in a conscious way. This article shines a light on the relationship between ethics and trust and offers an example of how a community can change conditions for the better.

I cannot think of a single ethical scandal that did not result in a loss of trust in some area. In fact, the loss of trust may be one way to identify or define an ethical dilemma. If we are not sure what we are contemplating is right, and trust is taking a hit, chances are it is an ethical problem.

The reverse is not true, however. There can be situations which result in lower trust that do not involve ethics at all. Trust can be compromised by minute transactions like the specific wording of an e-mail, or some rolling of the eyes in a meeting.

We all are aware that when trust is damaged, it takes a lot of effort to repair it. I have described a process to regain lost trust in another article. The good news is that with the right attitude and approach, it is possible to repair trust to a higher state than before it was compromised.

The challenge with ethics is that the existence of an ethical problem is situational, and the severity will vary depending on the person involved. For example, we would all agree that stealing is unethical, but I can come up with a scenario where stealing might be a perfectly ethical thing to do.

Suppose you are a trash collector. In a recycle bin there are some books that you might like to read. The books do not belong to you, but they have been discarded, so you feel it is appropriate to salvage the books for your reading pleasure. I suspect most, but not all, readers would agree that it is ethical to take the books.

Likewise, killing another person is not an ethical thing to do, yet we would all agree there are circumstances where killing another person is the correct thing. In a time of war, killing the enemy is often the objective of a mission. In addition if a thief is about to kill you, you have a right to kill the robber, if necessary, to save yourself.

In extreme cases, it is easy to see how some things are unethical. For example, what Bernie Madoff did to his investors was clearly unethical, yet like many ethical scandals, the pathway to egregious actions may have started out as perfectly legal interpretations of existing rules. He then got deeper and deeper into illegal and unethical actions.

Sometimes people get on a slippery slope because if they can do X today, then doing X+1 tomorrow seems like not a far reach. It does not take long before they are doing things that are clearly not appropriate.

They may not even be aware of the erosion of ethical standards that is going on, so if another individual has the courage to speak up about it, the problem can be stopped before more damage is done.

That is why trust is such an important way to prevent unethical actions. When there is high trust, there is usually low fear about telling the truth to superiors. In a high trust environment, the whistle blower knows that by pointing out an ethical dilemma, he is really doing the organization a favor and will be rewarded rather than punished.

What would it look like if a whole community were to espouse greater trust and ethics?

In Rochester, New York, there is an organization called “RABEF” – Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation. The organization has been in existence for 13 years, and I am in my third year of serving on the Board of Directors. Our vision is to have Rochester be the “Gold Standard” in terms of promoting ethical business cultures.

Each year we have an award ceremony (modeled after the Academy Awards – complete with red carpet) to create greater community emphasis on ethical corporate behaviors by celebrating those groups that are doing it right. During the year, we encourage local organizations to submit an application for the award.

The judging process is quite rigorous and includes interviews and site visits along with a written application. Finalists are chosen, and a few groups are selected as recipients of the awards each year.

The year culminates with a ceremony in September when a few companies receive the “ETHIE” Award. Each company has a professionally-made video of their operation and receives a trophy, similar to the Oscar. It is a very big deal here in Rochester, and dozens of organizations have received the award and have become part of our Honor Roll.

In addition, we run several programs each year to help educate the business and government communities on how to focus more energy on ethical behaviors. I have spoken at several events as part of the group (we have a list of people who speak on ethics) and have brought in speakers from other parts of the country. For example, we had an extremely successful event recently, when we brought in my friend Bob Vanourek: coauthor of “Triple Crown Leadership.”

RABEF is a very active group, and we try to spread the word by celebrating organizations that are doing great work in the area of ethics. When I speak about ethics in other areas, I add some information about our program and how it really helps keep ethics front and center in terms of organizational behaviors.

The RABEF organization is fulfilling its mission by encouraging organizations in the area to focus consciously on their program to become more ethical. Even organizations that are not selected for an ETHIE Award gain tremendously from the effort to understand and enhance their ethical cultures. Because several companies are honored each year, the entire community is more aware of ethics and the benefits of operating with higher trust.

Think of trust and ethics as separate concepts that are synergistic and supportive. Encourage the leaders of your community to recognize and celebrate organizations that consistently do the right thing. You will be helping your organization and your community when you do it.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow, Inc. an organization dedicated to growing leaders. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com 585-392-7763. Website http://www.leadergrow.com BLOG http://www.thetrustambassador.com He is author of the following books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change.


Riddle About Perception

April 2, 2016

In one of my Transformational Leadership classes, an executive once told me, “I am the kind of person who does what he thinks is right.” I did a bit of a double take and swallowed hard to keep from insulting him by laughing out loud.

Later, when I had a chance to think about that statement, I tried to conjure up a situation where a person intentionally did what he or she thought was wrong at the time. It is hard to imagine.

I suppose if you are mentally ill, it might be possible to actually do what you believe is wrong, but I am not convinced of it. Reason: Whatever action you take at a particular time, you have rationalized it to be the best thing to do at that moment, otherwise you would do something else.

That is not to say that the rest of the world would agree with your logic, but at least you have that opinion at the instant you are taking action. Let’s take some extreme examples and pick them apart to see how the mind plays tricks on us.

We would all agree that what Bernie Madoff did in bilking thousands of investors out of billions of dollars was not the right thing to do. I am sure if you interviewed him in his cell today he would agree.

But, if you were to get inside his head while he was performing these illegal and deceptive transactions, I’ll bet he believed he was actually helping people (at least at the start). Once the Ponzi Scheme started to crumble, he was still doing what he thought was best, which was trying to protect his interests.

If he thought the best thing to do was to turn himself in, he would have done that. Let me be clear, he would have been aware he was breaking the law and hurting people in the end, but his actions at any moment were still “best” according to his twisted logic.

There is a whole class of people who have the objective to be disruptive to others even at the risk of their own longevity, but they have been brainwashed into believing the wrong acts are actually earning them a special place in another life.

How about Hitler. Surely he must have known that vaporizing millions of people in ethnic cleansing was wrong. Some history books indicate that was not the case. They point out that he was acting with the conviction that he was helping build a great society that would last forever.

My question is this. Do you think it is physically possible to do something that you believe at that instant is not the best thing to do, or is the existential act of performing a deed the definition of what a person feels is best at that instant, all things considered?

Note, I am not saying we believe it is the morally correct thing to do, just the best option available at the moment. In other words, even if we know it to be morally or ethically wrong, we have rationalized the circumstances so we believe it is the best thing we can do now.

This conundrum does not keep me awake at night, but I have puzzled over it many times. So, what is the remedy?  Get yourself a trusted friend and bounce ideas off that person, especially for the edgy decisions. At least you will have more than one brain working on the conundrum.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow, Inc. an organization dedicated to growing leaders. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com 585-392-7763. Website http://www.leadergrow.com BLOG http://www.thetrustambassador.com He is author of the following books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change.


A Dozen Leadership Tips

February 20, 2016

When was the last time you really enjoyed going to work? The unfortunate truth is that only about a third of people are engaged in their work, according to Gallup measurements, and the statistic is remarkably stubborn.

The other two thirds go to work each day in a zombie-like state where they go through the motions all day and try to stay out of trouble with the boss, their peers, or their subordinates.

Work life is often a meaningless array of busywork foisted upon them by the clueless morons who run the place. They hate the environment and intensely dislike their co-workers. Their suffering is tolerated only because there is no viable option for them to survive. What a pity that anyone would spend even a single day on this earth in such a hopeless atmosphere.

We can fault the individuals who allow themselves to be trapped in this way, but I believe the environment created by leaders has a great deal to do with this malaise. Reason: if you put these same individuals in an environment of trust and challenge, nearly all of them would quickly rise up to become happy and productive workers.

It is essential that each individual in the workforce find real meaning in the work being done, and the responsibility is on leaders to make that happen.

Some good research into this conundrum was presented by Viktor Frankl more than a half century ago in his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl posits that it “is a peculiarity of man that he must have something significant yet to do in his life, for that is what gives meaning to life.” He discovered this universally human trait while surviving the most horrible of life conditions in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

One cannot imagine a more oppressive environment, but believe it or not, many people at work feel like they are in a kind of concentration camp. The antidote is for leaders to create something significant yet to do.

Dave and Wendy Ulrich, co-authors of The Why of Work put it this way. “In organizations, meaning and abundance are more about what we do with what we have than about what we have to begin with.” They point out that workers are in some ways like volunteers who can choose where they allocate their time and energy. For their own peace and health, it is imperative that workers feel connected to the meaning of their work.

What can leaders do to ensure the maximum number of people have a sense of purpose and meaning in their work? Here are a dozen ideas that can help.

1. Create a positive vision of the future. Vision is critical because without it people see no sense of direction for their work. If we have a common goal, then it is possible to actually get excited about the future.

2. Generate trust. Trust is the glue that holds people together in a framework of positive purpose. Without trust, we are just playing games with each other hoping to get through the day unscathed. The most significant way leaders help create trust is by rewarding candor, which is accomplished by not punishing people for speaking their truth.

3. Build morale the right way. This means not trying to motivate people by adding hygiene factors like picnics, bonuses, or hat days. Create motivation by treating people with respect and giving them autonomy. Leaders do not motivate people, rather they create the environment where people decide whether to become motivated. This sounds like doubletalk, but it is a powerful message most leaders do not understand.

4. Recognize and celebrate excellence. Reinforcement is the most powerful tool leaders have for changing behavior. Leaders need to learn how to reinforce well and avoid the mine-field of reinforcement mistakes that are easy to make.

5. Treat people right. In most cases focusing on the Golden Rule works well. In some extreme cases the Golden Rule will not be wise because not all individuals want to be treated the same way. Use of the Platinum Rule (Treat others the way they would like to be treated) can be helpful as long as it is not taken to a literal extreme.

6. Communicate more and better. People have an unquenchable thirst for information. Lack of communication is the most often mentioned grievance in any organization. Get some good training on how to communicate in all modes and practice all the time.

7. Unleash maximum discretionary effort in people. People give effort to the organization out of choice, not out of duty. Understand what drives individuals to make a contribution and be sure to provide that element daily. Do not try to apply the same techniques to all individuals or all situations.

8. Have high ethical and moral standards. Operate from a set of values and make sure people know why those values are important. Leaders need to always live their values.

9. Lead change well. Change processes are in play in every organization daily, yet most leaders are poor at managing change. Study the techniques of successful change so people do not become confused and disoriented.

10. Challenge people and set high expectations. People will rise to a challenge if it is properly presented and managed. Challenged individuals are people who have found meaning in their work.

11. Operate with high Emotional Intelligence. The ability to work well with people, upward, sideways, and downward allows things to work smoothly. Without Emotional Intelligence, leaders do not have the ability to transform intentions into meaning within people.

12. Build High Performing Teams. A sense of purpose is enhanced if there is a kind of peer pressure brought on by good teamwork. Foster great togetherness of teams so people will relate to their tasks instinctively.

This is a substantial list of items, but most of them are common sense. Unfortunately they are not common practice in many organizations. If you want to have people rise to their level of potential, they must all have a sense of meaning. To accomplish that, focus on the above items, and see a remarkable transformation in your organization.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow, Inc. an organization dedicated to growing leaders. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com 585-392-7763. Website http://www.leadergrow.com BLOG http://www.thetrustambassador.com He is author of the following books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change.


Trading Off Long and Short Term

August 25, 2013

360 DegreeA conundrum for most leaders is the issue of long term versus short term results. Most western cultures reward executives based on the short term result. Eastern cultures tend to have a longer view of performance, but even there, patience for short term problems wears thin.

It is easy to say, “Well, you need to do both,” which is a kind of cop out statement. Of course both are needed. If you fail to do right by the long term there is no future for the entity, but if you fail in the short term, there may be no future for you.

Compensation plans for most senior leaders have tended to favor the short term focus. Ethical or legal problems crop up when the pressure for quarterly numbers becomes too great. There are hundreds of stories where companies have pulled material from inventory and called them “sales.” This is an example of an unethical behavior that ultimately causes a crash. Reason: When accounts are juggled in an effort to maximize the short term, the organization is already on a slippery slope. The difference has to be made up sometime, so the long term is in jeopardy.

When you recognize the temptation to “shade” earnings to look most favorable is like a drug, it is easy to see how large corporations get caught in a whirlpool that eventually pulls them under. The Sarbanes Oxley Act was one attempt to make it more difficult to cheat on short term results. In fact, SOX worked! It is more difficult to cheat, but it is also much more expensive to operate, and cheating is still possible. It simply requires more creativity. We should not depend on legislative band-aids to save our corporations.

There is ample evidence that doing business in an ethical manner with a balance of emphasis between long and short term goals is not only more comfortable, it is much more profitable. The Conscious Capitalism Movement is one example of how organizations are finding ways to become more secure, more profitable, and more ethical at the same time. By working to satisfy the needs of all stakeholders rather than just the shareholders, a kind of self-balancing situation arises that is clearly good for business both short term and long term.

John Mackey and Raj Sisodia wrote a book entitled Conscious Capitalism that has started an entire movement. They stress the balance of having all decisions work to satisfy all six stakeholders: 1) Stockholders, 2) Customers, 3) Employees, 4) Suppliers, 5) Community, and 6) Environment. Balancing the needs of all stakeholders gives a better chance at making rational decisions that balance the short and long term benefits to not only the corporation but to society as a whole.

The entire Conscious Capitalism model includes much more than just considering the six stakeholders in decision making. The full model includes:

1. Developing core values and a higher purpose
2. Instilling higher leadership
3. Integrating the needs of all stakeholders
4. Developing a conscious culture of management

The Conscious Capitalism Model is a great way to view business, and I recommend the book to any leader who feels habitually caught between the long term and short term decisions that drive them crazy. It is a very good read that makes a convincing case that doing things the right way from the start is not only less stressful, but far more profitable and sustainable.


The Golf Ball of Trust

May 4, 2013

golfball_fixedJust as a golf ball is completely different on the inside and the outside, so trust built by leaders has important characteristics inside that may not be obvious from the outside.

For any leader, the aspect of trust in the organization is a foundation for performance. Without trust, groups might look the same on the outside, just as a golf ball looks shiny and dimpled on the outside, but it is the compressed inner layers that give power and flight characteristics to the ball.

Actually, golf balls come in numerous designs from one piece (practice) balls to five piece balls: each design having different characteristics. For example, the two-piece ball is designed for low spin to allow excellent stoppage on the green and to minimize the magnitude of any slice or hook. Trust also comes in a variety of designs, and you cannot tell how well established the trust is by just looking at the outside. The striking difference between high trust groups and low trust groups can be seen on many levels. Let me name a few ways trust impacts how groups operate.

What people say

One good barometer of trust is to monitor what people are saying to each other in normal conversation. If you just walk around your place of work for a day and listen to how people talk, you will get a quick view of the level of trust. Mark an X on your score card every time you hear a conversation about pursuing the goals or vision of the group. Mark an O on the card every time you hear a conversation that is basically badmouthing other individuals within the group. If, at the end of the round, you have more X’s than O’s, then you are likely witnessing a high trust group. If it is the other way around, then trust is low, just like cheap “driving range” golf balls.

How groups deal with challenges

All groups have challenges from time to time. Groups with low trust get stopped in their tracks because the interpersonal problems make it very difficult to even figure out what is wrong. It is as if a golfer accidentally used the wrong style of golf ball off the Tee. The error would be evident from the results. Groups with high trust can resolve challenges quickly and easily because they communicate honestly. They deal with the root cause of problems rather than getting hung up on symptoms. They also frequently come up with more creative solutions to problems because they are free to explore out-of-the box ideas. Teams at work have a style of operating that works to produce the highest level of trust. Golfers find a type of ball they are most comfortable with, based on their swing and strength.

The level of people development

In high trust environments, the leaders are vitally interested in developing all employees to be the best they can be. Investment in people is a hallmark of high trust groups. In low trust organizations, you can find leaders who are less interested in training people for a few different reasons: 1) They are so busy trying to survive that they have no time to devote to training, 2) Leaders are afraid if people are properly trained the leader might be overtaken, or 3) There is so much apathy that nobody really feels like development would be helpful. Not investing in people would be the equivalent of using a cut ball where the surlyn cover has been damaged to the extent that the core is compromised.

Making ethical decisions

The study of ethics is very interesting because most leaders are convinced they are ethical, yet many of them find ways to shade things somehow when nobody is looking. We see this all the time in scandals that seem to come up like crocuses in spring. The important part of being ethical is not what you do when people will see it but what you do when nobody would know if you were cheating. Having two sets of books, one for public display and one that is kept hidden away is a good example of a kind of empty shell of a leader, like a golfer who is inclined to write a wrong number on his or her card if nobody is keeping track. For an honest golfer, it is annoying to have another person checking to see that the right number of strokes has been recorded for each hole. This verification step signals a lack of overall trust, and it can lead to hard feelings.

Exposing hypocrisy

When leaders talk a good game, but really do not act in ways that are consistent with their words, there is a falsehood that is obvious to everyone. It is like we all have x-ray vision and can see inside the ball. One good example of this is when senior leaders have a value like, “People are our most important asset.” It sounds really good until you realize that the decisions made on a daily basis rarely reflect that as a reality. If it was so, then when times were tough, the senior leaders would scale back by selling off buildings and equipment and keeping people on the payroll. Instead, they do the opposite. People notice the hypocrisy quickly, so the value becomes something we say but not something we back up with actions. We may look good on the outside but we are missing an important layer inside.

The analogy here may be kind of wild, but it is an interesting one because we rarely think of what is going on inside as being that important, but we sure would notice a difference on the links if we were using incorrectly fabricated golf balls. Likewise leaders need a firm foundation that is as true under the surface at it appears to observers.

Incidentally, the golf ball in the picture is real, not Photo-shopped.  I obtained it in the late 1970’s at the home of a relative who found the ball in his garden. He lived next to a fairway on the golf course at San Clemente, California, where Nixon lived at that time. The ball is a “Titleist 4” and is identified “K2 Acushnet.”  It is available, if anyone is interested.