The Real Reason Most Leaders Aren't Thinking About Trust

Better-than-average perceptions sideline trust.

Posted Feb 19, 2015

From popularity and work performance, to driving skills and general intelligence, we have the collective tendency to overestimate our skills. Duke University Professor Mark R. Leary calls it the "better than average" effect, noting in his book, The Curse of the Self, that "most of us have a higher-than-average perception of ourselves, often blinding us to our shortcomings."

Unfortunately, this same "illusionary superiority" also applies to how trustworthy we think we are. Take criminals for example. While they wouldn't typically top most trustworthy lists, that's where they see themselves.  According to research from the British Psychological Society: "Jailed criminals think they are kinder, more trustworthy and honest than the average member of the public."

If these criminals think they're more trustworthy than average people, what do you think most leaders would think about how trustworthy they are compared to everyone else around them?

Bottom line: This better-than-average illusion is a key reason the vast majority of leaders aren't interested in trust. They don't think low workplace trust applies to them, and it's certainly not a personal problem.

Sure, leaders want organizational trust, stakeholder trust, and brand trust, but when it comes to low leadership trust, it's about someone else. Unfortunately, today's reality is that the vast majority of leaders aren't perceived as trustworthy by those they lead. But, they don't perceive these statistics as about them.

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Image Source: Bing Images

Operating with the "better than average" effect is a challenge in general, including when it comes to trust. We can increase our objectiveness by considering what-it-looks like in action. In this case, what it means to operate with trust, build trust currency, and be a leader worthy of others' trust. Consider the following statements. How many are true, most of the time, for your staff or work group?

  1. People speak up and ask questions; there is honest feedback, communication, and thoughtful dialogue that spark ideas, innovation, and problem solving.
  2. There is a spirit of cooperation and collaboration around here and teamwork is a natural way to operate.
  3. Turnover is low, especially among top performers; there is a wealth of talent to turn to.
  4. The group keeps each other, and me, informed and up-to-date; there are few surprises and blind-sided occurrences.
  5. People volunteer to take on additional responsibilities when needed, or put in extra effort without being asked.
  6. Other departments or leaders are eager to work with us.
  7. Mistakes and errors are admitted freely, quickly corrected, and not repeated.
  8. Finger-pointing and complaints about others are infrequent.
  9. Our group is known for getting results and we tend to be a go-to group.
  10. There's energy here; people like and respect each other and it shows.
  11. The group pulls together to meet difficult deadlines, handle unexpected issues, or pick up extra work when someone is away, without me having to ask.
  12. People can count on each other, and count on me, to meet commitments, deadlines, and promises. A person's word means something on this team.

The statements above are only a sampling of some of the behaviors you'll find in a thriving trust-culture that sparks passion, innovation, and engagement. If these statements aren't all true for your group, they certainly can be.

Being a trusted leader, building a trust-pocket where people show up and do great work happens when trustworthy leaders embrace the power trust brings. However, none of us, as leaders, can do that until we embrace the reality that trust isn't about those "other" people; it's about us. We are not all "better than average" on trustworthiness (or probably driving either). If we want trust, we need to start it, nurture it, operate with it, and be worthy of it.

More tips for increasing trust at in your work group:

You'll find five trust essentials in my latest book: Trust, Inc.: How to Create a Business Culture That Will Ignite Passion, Engagement, and Innovation (Career Press, 2014).