Top Leader’s Role in Building Trust

November 9, 2013

CEO croppedI have never met a CEO, or other top executive, who does not desire higher trust within his or her organization. Perhaps there is one out there, but I have never found that person.

The enigma is that while the quest for higher trust is nearly universal, often the senior leader does not recognize that the power to accomplish it is within herself.

I have written about this phenomenon several times, as I believe that once we can accomplish wider recognition of the role of the senior leader in creating higher trust, we will have “cracked the code” that will enable the attainment in a significantly higher percentage of cases.

In my consulting work, I am often called in by senior executives (CEO, COO, or VPHR) to help them improve trust within the organization.

The conversation usually starts out with some form of description of a dysfunctional organization at the shop floor level or with the sales force or customer service, etc.. Often the lower level managers and supervisors are singled out as the culprits, and the top officers are asking me to come in and “fix them.”

This is a dilemma for me because if I say something like, “Have you considered what your contribution is to the problem?” I find myself out in the street on my butt.

If I do take the challenge to go in and “fix” the lower ranks, it is inevitable that these lower managers will tell me the main source of the problem is the senior leaders. I want to offer some ideas on the cause of this disconnect, because I believe it contains the seeds of a cure.

The CEO is ultimately responsible for everything that happens in an organization, but there is often great frustration because, while the top leader has set out a vision and tries to communicate it often, the rank and file keep accusing him of not communicating well.

Several studies have revealed that employees most often state “lack of communication” as either the number one or number two reason for employee dissatisfaction (Wiedmer, 2009).

This is extremely frustrating to many top leaders, because they are sincerely working hard to communicate every day. Given a choice between their own inadequate “mouth,” and the employees’ defective “ears,” most leaders would rather focus blame on the employees.

In most cases, the root cause of the frustration is neither defective outgoing communication nor listening prowess. It is a lack of trust. There is a cultural schism between organizational levels that is based more on fear than on lack of communication. Workers do not often verbalize the fear because, well, they are afraid. So the issues get reported as communication problems.

Top leaders are frustrated because they understand their own objectives clearly and are fully justified in their own mind for every action they take. Reason: it is next to impossible for a sane person to take an action different from what he or she believes is the best one at the moment.

If there was a better choice, that would be the one selected. So the CEO is doing the “right” thing in all cases in his or her own opinion.

If people interpret the CEOs actions as inconsistent with the values, then they must be wrong. Here is where we crack the code. It is the inability of leaders to make workers feel good when they verbalize the inconsistencies that blocks the building of trust.

If top leaders can understand that last point, things can change rather quickly, and higher trust can be developed in nearly every organization. The top leaders really do hold the key, yet they often do not recognize it. In the song “Already Gone,” The Eagles had a great lyric that applies here:

“Well I know it wasn’t you who held me down
Heaven knows it wasn’t you who set me free
So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains
And we never even know we have the key”

Cracking the code for the development of higher trust in any organization means enlightening the leaders that they hold the key. It is as simple and as profound as that. Let me clarify what that key is again and associate it with a phrase: “reinforcing candor.”

The key is for leaders to make people feel glad when they bring up what appear to be inconsistencies. People may think an accounting practice is too near the ethical edge, they may think that a decision is not consistent with stated values, or they may believe a leader is shading the truth to get out of a tight spot.

These are just a few examples of the countless apparent inconsistencies people see happening every day at the senior levels yet are afraid to voice.

Top leaders need to reinforce employees when they have the courage to be candid about what seem to be wrong actions.

By reinforcing candor, leaders enable people to voice their concerns openly and know they will be rewarded, not punished. This practice forms a kind of mirror surface where the leader can actually see himself through the eyes of the people who work for him. What an amazing blessing that is! Imagine actually being able to see yourself the way others do.

Having the mirror to see one’s own actions accurately prevents leaders from getting on a slippery slope that ultimately leads to lower trust.

In most cases unethical or otherwise wrong behavior occurs because of a slow erosion of standards. The top leaders allow a slight timing adjustment in inventory valuation that is perfectly legal and it helps performance look better.

There is nothing wrong with this, except if we can do it this month we can do that plus just a bit more the next month and still feel right about it. Before too many months go by, we have walked ourselves into believing that unethical actions are okay.

That is how Enron and so many other organizations got in trouble.

When people are reinforced for their candor, if you have 100 employees, you have 100 people who will call you if the decisions are not really right. That keeps you from getting on the slippery slope, and trust is built on a consistent basis.

Cracking the code of helping top leaders build higher trust involves getting them to see that they have the key in their hand every day. The key is to foster an environment where people know it is safe to bring up scary stuff and know that will be rewarded rather than punished.

For a great compendium of articles on trust see “Trust Inc.: Strategies for Building Your Company’s Most Valuable Asset,” by Barbara Brooks Kimmel of Trust Across America: Trust Around the World.

Wiedmer, Stacey M. (2009). “An examination of Factors Affecting Employee Satisfaction.” Missouri Western State University

Meaning of Trust

January 6, 2013

Trust, Colorful words hang on rope by wooden pegIn your opinion, what is the meaning of trust? Most of us use the word trust several times a day. It is actually one of the more common words in our lexicon, yet when I ask people in my seminars to define what it means, I often get an awkward silence, then a few definitions come out, like “confidence,” or “integrity,” or “walk the talk.” Eventually, most groups come up with a dozen or more definitions, and they begin to realize that what they pictured as one single phenomenon is actually a myriad of concepts that mean vastly different things in different circumstances.

I have been working in the area of trust for nearly 20 years. The topic is infinitely fascinating to me, and I am always gaining new understanding thanks to the many other authors and people who network with me. I have found several concepts to be central to the idea of building and maintaining trust, and as I thought about some of these words, they started to form an acronym for the word TRUST.

Acronyms are strange mutations of the language that I find curious. Sometimes an acronym will seem rather strained or far-fetched as an attempt to be cute or simply a trick to help people remember concepts. The acronym below is neither of these; instead it is a way for me to highlight five central issues about trust that I continue to emphasize.

Trusting others. I have coined what I call “The First Law of Building Trust.” It is that when leaders are not satisfied with the level of trust they see within their organization, the first question to ask is how they can show more trust in others. Trust is a reciprocal relationship, and numerous authors have identified the best way to have people trust you more is to increase your visible trust in them.

I once observed a Vice President who really struggled with trust. I asked him if he could find ways to demonstrate more trust in his people. His reaction was, “You are asking the impossible; these people show me by their actions every day that they cannot be trusted to do what is right.” As I dug into the situation, I found that his workers had been so abused by this manager, they had no reason to even try to do things right. It was a toxic environment, where the VP would literally yell at the people and say things like, “You are so stupid I cannot rely on you for anything. I have to watch you like a hawk or you will just goof off and not even try to do your job right.” This is a classic case of a Theory X management style described by Douglas McGregor in the 1960’s, and the VP was truly unaware that he was the real cause of his problem.

I grant that in any workforce, there are some bad apples who can never be trusted, but if you have any of these people on your team and tolerate them, shame on you. Get rid of them. The vast majority of workers, I believe over 95%, will respond positively and do good work if they are treated correctly. When trust is low, The First Law of Building Trust puts the onus on the manager to do three things:

1. Recognize his own contribution to the problem,
2. Modify his behavior to be more trustworthy, and
3. Start showing more trust in his workers.

Unfortunately, the first step is the most difficult. I have observed numerous managers who are simply blind to the fact that they are causing their own problem. It is so much easier to blame the workers than to take a hard look in the mirror and ask some tough questions.

There are numerous other actions required to build and maintain trust, but the three steps above are the precursors that must be in place, or nothing will change. Also, recognize that the process to rebuild lost trust is arduous. Wounded workers will observe improved behaviors for a long time before believing they are genuine.

Reinforcing candor. After a couple decades studying trust, I believe the most central enabler of it is reinforcing candor. This is the leader’s ability to refrain from punishing people when they speak their truth. Most leaders cannot do this. When workers state that a manager is doing things inconsistent with the vision, they take a risk because most managers punish that kind of candor. Brilliant leaders recognize that if they can establish a pattern of making people glad when they bring up difficult issues, it enables trust more than any other single factor.

I put reinforcing candor in the center of my Leadergrow Trust Model because it is the one skill that most leaders find difficult to do, yet once they understand its power, they have a much easier time creating and maintaining trust.

Universal goals. I have found when trust is absent in an organization, usually individuals and groups have conflicting goals. They often do not realize they are pulling in different directions. When you have an organization that is truly focused on one consistent set of goals, then you have alignment. Many organizations struggle with poor alignment such that only a small fraction of the workforce is actually pulling in the direction of the stated vision. Organizations with high trust achieve the reverse of that condition and have almost all people in the organization pulling in the direction of the vision.

It is easy to see if goals are not universal when you observe silo thinking, conflict, low trust, lack of respect, fear, management abuse, and any number of other organizational ills. The starting points for establishing an environment of high trust are 1) complete agreement on where the organization is trying to go, and 2) enrolling all members of the organization to engage their full effort toward that vision.

Sincerity. This is the human dimension that shows leaders care about everyone in the organization. It is never the case that all people in an organization are exactly equal, yet the role played by each individual is of critical importance to the organization’s success. When managers and leaders are duplicitous, people quickly get the idea, because they see a lack of sincerity and care for individuals.

The antidote for low sincerity is very simple. The Golden Rule is the most important concept to show others that we care about them. If you treat other people the way you would like to be treated, you will find they respond in a positive way because they know you care. It is quite simple, but unfortunately many leaders have their priorities mixed and put short term financial performance above the notion of caring for the people in the organization.

The best approach is to treat people the right way, which means being alert to the needs of each person as a unique individual and treating him or her as a person who will happily perform well if treated properly.

Transparency. The final T in my trust acronym is transparency. Organizations that share information widely about what is happening, what the goals are, where we are going, what the strategies are, what behaviors are needed, and how we have been performing recently, get the best that people have to offer. Transparency is an interesting concept because it is not always good, or even legal, to be totally transparent. You must combine common sense, kindness, ethical behavior, and care into the equation when deciding how much information to reveal. Unfortunately, most organizations err on the side of too little transparency rather than too much.

The irony is that transparency is becoming less of a choice for senior executives due to social networking and the ability for people to get information more quickly and easily than ever before. Leaders who try to hide information from workers are becoming increasingly frustrated because the information leaks out anyway. A better approach is to aim for maximum transparency and very fast response time when incorrect information gets out in the social networks.

These five concepts: Trusting others, Reinforcing candor, Universal goals, Sincerity, and Transparency form the acronym TRUST. While there are many other concepts and issues around trust and being trustworthy, I believe these five concepts are really at the core of creating an environment of higher trust.

Researchers have established through numerous studies that organizations with higher trust out-perform those that have low trust. A high trust group enjoys two to five times the productivity of a low trust group. No organization can survive for very long if they have an environment of low trust. Focus efforts on these five concepts, and you will improve your ability to achieve and maintain high trust in any organization.

Leadergrow Trust Model

June 13, 2010


Here is a short description of the Leadergrow Trust Model followed by a graphic showing how the elements work together.

The Leadergrow model of building trust focuses on three dimensions: 

Table Stakes – These items are intuitive and must be fully in play if a leader is to have a chance of building an environment of trust.  They are called “table stakes” after the phenomenon in poker where a player must have a level of investment to even be in the game.  Leaders who cannot meet the minimum standards of honesty and integrity should get out of the leadership game and hit the showers. 

Enabling Actions – These items are important ingredients to building an environment of trust.  The Leadergrow model lists 10 examples. In the real world there are numerous additional items that constitute enabling actions. Having these items in play helps foster the right kind of culture where trust can grow and endure. The more these elements are present, the greater the ability for the leader to withstand trust withdrawals that happen as a result of ill advised decisions or unfortunate circumstances. 

The Heart of Trust – Reinforcing Candor is what makes the Leadergrow model unique.  Other models on trust discuss this element as a part of “honesty,” one of the table stakes.  In the Leadergrow model reinforcing candor takes center stage because the concept goes far beyond honesty. It is the magic that most leaders find difficult to accomplish, but if done well, it makes a huge difference in trust.  Reinforcing Candor is the ability to make people glad they brought up an observation of a leader’s inconsistency. In most organizations, people are punished in some way for bringing forward a problem with the leader’s actions. Where the highest levels of trust are present, the leader has the ability to set aside his or her ego and reinforce the person who challenges an action. Doing so creates a large trust deposit and allows for future trust building exchanges.  Without this critical element, the table stakes and enabling actions are not sufficient because candor is extinguished. People hide their true feelings and do not feel empowered to challenge the leader, hence real trust is hard to maintain regardless of the effort to do so. Leaders who consistently reinforce candor build an environment were trust continually grows and deepens.