Does it seem to you like we live in a moment when trust of leaders is at a real low? In politics we are more suspicious than ever. In the religious world, established and esteemed leaders of respected organizations are falling like dominos. In the workplace, it feels like the “us vs them” animosity keeps growing. And, everything about covid has made it worse.
Most leaders I know work really hard to serve their people and their organization well. As a result, it hurts to when people doubt your trustworthiness.
So, what can a leader do to earn, keep, or rebuild the trust of their people? What can you do to increase trust among those you serve?
I’d like to propose a three-legged stool approach to trust building leadership. It’s not the whole story or a magic panacea, but it is a pathway to move forward.
Leg #1: CONTENT
I know that “content” is not the first word that would come to mind, so, hang with me here. By content I mean all of the normal stuff of leadership. This is that big bucket that holds all the basic stuff leaders need to do well. Decisions. Vision. Strategy. Communication. Culture. Innovation. Goals. Alignment. Results. Evaluation. etc. etc.
I deliberately chose the word “content” as a way to de-sensationalize the components of leadership work. Think of all these critical tasks as the content of leadership.
I am also going to assume that you have learned to do most of this big stuff well. You may not be a rockstar at everything, but you are reasonably good at most of it. And, you work hard. The quality of your work should be enough to engender trust right?
So, why is it that you can work crazy hours, produce good results, and still get blowback from people who don’t seem to trust you?
The answer, and the solution, begins in the other two legs of the stool. Let’s start with the quality of your processes.
Leg #2: PROCESS
The processes you follow to develop and execute the work of leadership are often more important to the work and results of those you lead than the content of that work.
Process defines the way we get to the decisions and plans we will act on. While leaders typically focus on the what, the content, processes focus on the how. Healthy processes gather people, provide feedback, give opportunity for input, solicit insight, shape evaluation, and more. And, importantly, when people are part of the process, they are biased to trust the outcomes.
Consider the processes you follow as a leader and ask yourself, “have I built deliberate opportunities for…"
Different voices to be heard, to give input, to be listened to?
Evaluation and refinement that engage broad-based participation?
Review and feedback before rolling out big initiatives with broad implications?
Grassroots story-telling and celebration?
Not so long ago, the workplace operated within hierarchies where leadership was almost exclusively top-down. Today, expectations have changed. People want their voice to matter. They desire to be heard and understood. They expect to participate in the process. In fact, the emerging generations find it hard to fully trust a leader who operates from a top down posture.
But, processes aren’t the only piece. Building relational culture and practice matters, too.
Leg #3: RELATIONSHIPS
We want to be known. To be seen. To be valued as people, not just for our work.
If someone works a 40-hour week, they leaves another 128 hours every week that becomes the fabric of life. People have hobbies, families, interests, longings, goals, disappointments, crises, and so much more. All of this combined fills out the meaning and substance of our lives.
So, when we come to work, we want those we work for to recognize that we are more than what we produce. Far too often, it feels like the world around us treasures things and uses people. We long for our workplace to embrace us holistically. We aren’t robots.
What’s the point? When the environment at work and the leaders we work for take a personal interest in our lives it is easier to trust the decisions and direction they provide. Trust goes up.
Think of relational engagement like putting money in the bank. Occasionally, when difficult decisions have to be made, those decisions draw on your emergency fund. You’ve been there. You’ve had those moments when you were handed a tough pill to swallow, but you still believed the best about your leaders because of all the ways they had “put money into your account” over time.
Patrick Lencioni, makes a great case for the power of connecting relationally with your people in his book, “Three Signs of a Miserable Job.”
There are lots of ways to get started.
Just start asking people about their lives, their plans for the weekend, etc.
Create a system that will prompt you to remember big life events in people’s lives.
Place a follow up call or send a text that asks, “How did [that thing] go last week?”
Ask people about their kids.
Read Lencioni’s book and implement his ideas.
Let’s bottom-line it. This is CPR for building the trust quotient of your leadership. The content stuff is familiar territory, but the soft skills of process and relationship build a trust-building engine.
One caveat. If your character is flawed, if your word can’t be trusted, if your ego drives you… well, you’ve got bigger and deeper work to do. But, if you are fundamentally a person with integrity, then go to work on the P&R of your CPR.
And, to be very direct, understanding all this won’t get you anywhere. Trust is built by what you do. So, ask yourself, “what will I start doing today?”
What do you think?