Part of me is sad because I truly enjoy the carefree, relaxed pace of life during the summer months. At the same time, I find myself beginning to weary of the clutter and chaos of summer. Who is on vacation? Who is about to go out of town? Who is working? Anyone? As much as I heartily advocate going off the grid, it does drive me nuts when I can’t connect with people. September heralds the return to normal routines along with the push to finish up work before year end. I know I will regret losing the laid back days of summer!
In my June newsletter, I made some summer commitments. Thus far I am happy with the progress I made on my pledge to restart my practice of painting and drawing. Like any good learning experience, my painting activities this summer gave me new insights into the business world and leadership which I shared in a few blogs.
For this newsletter, I want to return to the theme I began in June with my reflections on compassion as a critical component of leadership. A second leadership attribute that I feel is equally essential and equally elusive is trustworthiness. Read more below on the why, what, and how of building and maintaining trusting relationships.
Enjoy the glories of the fall, cool weather and spectacular color!
By Dr. Alice Waagen
“How do I build trust? How can I make sure I have trusting relationships with my employees?” The organizational leaders that I work with ask these questions and others like them frequently. My initial response to these queries is to shift the verb from build to earn. When a relationship is new, I am at zero on the trust scale. I do not know this person; therefore I neither trust nor distrust them. Over time, if I am treated fairly and honestly by this person, I will extend trust to them. They will have earned my trust, and my respect, by repeatedly practicing positive interpersonal behaviors. The sad reality is that the trust earned over time as a relationship matures can be damaged or even destroyed by a single action. Trust is an elusive trait. We cannot demand a person extend trust, we can only build the conditions where trust will grow between us.
The challenge of earning trust can be seen by looking at its definition. Charles Feltman (see book review in side bar) defines trust as choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions. When a leader delegates an important assignment, they are trusting that the work will get done. If the work is done poorly, the leader’s reputation will be at risk. Reputation is a very valuable asset for any business person. Thus delegation will be withheld if the leader does not trust that the staff member will complete the task. Recognizing what is perceived to be at risk and its value to a person is the first step in understanding why they may be reluctant to extend trust.
Another clue to trust’s elusive nature can be found in the second classic definition of trust: trust exists when one’s actions and words are in alignment. This definition is useful because it provides us with a concrete example of why a person is to be trusted or not. If they “walk the talk” and do what they say, we trust them. Conversely if they say one thing (“There will be no more budget cuts.”) and do the opposite (“Next year’s budget will be reduced by 5 %.”) we will distrust all further communication.
This matching up of words and deeds seems so simple, why do we see so many instances of it going awry? Let’s take a closer look at this simple equation:
TRUST = [WORDS= ACTIONS]
I believe that the most troublesome component in this equation is the WORDS piece. Words, like human communication, are fraught with ambiguity, multiple meanings and misinterpretations. How your words are received, interpreted and understood has enormous opportunities for varied results. Every listener filters your words through their own rich repository of assumptions, beliefs and experiences. Thus my statement “Our company is doing well on reaching our targets but could be doing better” may mean “we are all getting bonuses” to one employee and “we are all getting laid off” to another.
When thinking about trust, I challenge leaders to think first about the quality of their communication. Here are my top 5 tips for aligning your words and actions in the eyes and ears of others:
- Slow down. Think before speaking. Is your message clear? Are there opportunities for misunderstanding? If so, rethink how you will say it. Use examples, illustrations, metaphors, analogies, anything to reduce the level of ambiguity.
- Test out what you have to say with a trusted colleague. One executive I know uses her assistant to give her feedback on her messages. The executive tends to be a blunt speaker and often needs to tone down her messages or people will interpret them negatively.
- Build in feedback channels. The sooner you hear of misunderstandings, the sooner you can correct them and move on.
- Ask people to tell you what they heard you say. Restating back gives you the chance to rephrase if the message has become garbled.
- Be sure to clearly differentiate between suppositions and guesses and true fact. When leaders casually say “We might ….” It can be heard as “We will…” Later when the “We mights” don’t happen, it is perceived as not keeping one’s word.
Trust is a result, not an action in itself. If you identify the actions you need to take to establish yourself as a reliable, honest and caring person, trust will be extended to you. To be effective, leaders need to have staff that trusts that their actions and intentions are for the good. These are the leaders who will have devoted and loyal followers.