Building a Culture of Trust

Think about the most impactful leader you’ve ever known. Is there someone, a boss or a mentor perhaps, who truly inspired you? Someone who made you want to give your best effort, day in and day out, simply because you didn’t want to let them down.

Even if you’ve never personally experienced a leader like that, chances are, you know they exist because you’ve heard about them from your friends or read about them in books.

What is it about these leaders that make them so special? What rare gifts do they have to make us want to be part of their team, to be on-board, to go all in and commit ourselves to their team or their cause?

I believe that our most effective leaders understand that the fundamental value at the center of powerful, transformative relationships is trust. Trusted leaders create trust within and across teams. They ignite commitment from their people by fostering an environment that is safe for us to be vulnerable — to open ourselves up and buy into their vision without manipulation or coercion. Trust holds teams together through the toughest times and encourages people to have “skin in the game”.

It is axiomatic that one cannot command trust with offers of money, position, or title. That type of transactional, quid pro quo relationship can compel compliance, to be sure, but it will never be enough to “win hearts and minds.” Trust is an expression of free will. It can only be given as a vote of confidence.

So how do leaders inspire the confidence that leads to trust? The short answer is by being a trustworthy person — by being worthy of someone’s trust as a prerequisite of earning it. The essence of trust can be distilled down to three basic elements: Authenticity, Competence and Empathy.

Authenticity. We’re all familiar with the expressions, “if you’re going to talk the talk, you better walk the walk”; “actions speak louder than words”; “practice what you preach.” These well-known maxims are calls to authenticity. Acting in accordance with your stated values should be simple, but it is rarely easy. We’ve all witnessed the corrosive effect of the “say-do gap” that occurs when leaders fail to act in accordance with their stated values, but what about those instances where a leader makes the tough call to stick by their values, regardless of the consequences?

Larry Merlo, the CEO of CVS Pharmacy, is an example of a leader who made such a tough call when, in 2014, he announced that CVS would eliminate tobacco sales in all of its stores. Despite analysts’ predictions that CVS would lose $2 billion in annual sales, Merlo insisted that, “the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose.” As a company dedicated to the proposition that “health is everything,” Merlo decided that his responsibility to his customers outweighed his responsibility to the bottom line. Clearly Merlo made a difficult call, yet his example reminds us that trusted leaders must be willing to make tough choices to be authentic — to be who they say they are.

Competence. Competence is a basic prerequisite of trust. No sane person would trust their financial advisor to perform open-heart surgery, yet they trust that same person to manage their life savings. Competence is contingent upon circumstances — a leader does not need to be competent in everything, just the things that matter to those with skin in the game.

Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, was a Wall Street banker and hedge fund manager when he started the selling books on-line from his garage. With no experience in either book selling nor retail, Bezos went on to change the way the world shops. Bezos started his company in 1994 with $250,000 he borrowed from his parents. The company did not turn a profit until 2001, and even then he continued to plow his profits into the business, rather than return it to shareholders. Regardless, investors stuck with Bezos because they believed in his vision, and they trusted his competence.

People place their trust in leaders whom they believe can deliver on promises in pursuit of team and business objectives. Conversely, it is not uncommon to find leaders who are well liked and respected, but who are unable to earn real commitment and trust because their teams don’t believe they can deliver results.

Empathy. Finally, team members must believe that their leaders have their best interests at heart, and that they care about their future and will never sell them out for personal gain. Employees want to know that their leaders will share in the hardships during challenging times as well as the rewards when times are good.

In 2009, at the height of the financial crisis of the Great Recession, Ford Motor Company Chairman Bill Ford, and CEO Alan Mulally, mandated a 30% pay cut for all executives and suspension of bonuses for salaried employees, as a sign of solidarity with their factory teams who were being asked to accept wage concessions and early retirement packages to avoid a government bailout.

The leadership at Ford backed up their words with tangible actions requiring shared sacrifice that demonstrated empathy and signaled to the team that they would stand by them.

Having a healthy measure of authenticity, competence and empathy are key components of a transformational culture based on credibility and trust.

How to become a trustworthy leader

It is never too late to develop the skills of a trustworthy leader. Just as every journey begins with the first step, here are some things you can do to improve your effectiveness as a trustworthy leader:

1. Practice regular self-reflection. Self-reflection is an important part of emotional intelligence. Taking stock in what we believe and assessing our actions through that prism, contributes to our personal and professional growth. When considering our effectiveness as a culture leader, we might ask ourselves, “Am I an authentic leader who acts in accordance with my stated values?” Do I demonstrate genuine care and concern for the people I lead?” “How have my actions demonstrated this concern in real and meaningful ways?” “How am I leading my team to success and achieving our goals for the future?” As imperfect beings, none of us can answer these questions with 100% satisfaction, but by asking the questions, we begin the process of self-discovery and personal growth.

2. Find a trusted agent. The Scottish poet Robert Burns lamented, “Oh would some Power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us.” All too often, we see ourselves, not as others see us, but rather as an idealized image of ourselves. This is a natural human tendency, and understanding that is the first step toward self-awareness. Thankfully, most of us have someone who is willing to tell us the truth, regardless of how difficult that truth may be to hear. Whether it is a spouse, a close friend, or a colleague, we all need someone who cares about us and is willing to tell the emperor he has no clothes. Find that person and ask them how they would rate you in regard to your authenticity, competence and empathy. Remember, however, that even your most trusted agent will err on the side of kindness, so take their feedback as a data point, not the whole truth.

3. Connect with a coach. What do Tom Brady, your daughter’s soccer team, Tony Bennett, elite US military Special Forces operators and nearly every weekend golfer in the world have in common? You guessed it: they rely on coaches to help improve their performance. In nearly every endeavor, coaches help improve individual and team performance at all levels, from novice to expert. Just as athletes don’t wait until they are failing to seek out an expert coach, business leaders should find a trusted coach who can help them achieve peak performance at every stage of their career. Whether you are a new manager, a seasoned vice president or a CEO, your coach can help you unlock your full potential or help get you “unstuck” when progress is stalled.

Authenticity, competence and empathy are critical leader skills that create trust and build the foundation for a winning culture. Leaders at every level can and should continuously develop these skills through self-reflection, honest feedback and professional coaching. What are you doing to transform your organization and promote a winning culture?

Leadership Speaker, author and coach. Managing Partner at UTC Partners

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