Leaders, Followers, and Trust

What do your actions say to your followers about trust?

Posted May 18, 2015

A recent study found that 82% of employees "say being able to trust their managers is crucial to their work performance.” Yet as important as trust is to high performance, engagement, and innovation, trust workplace levels remain low. In fact, the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer found " an alarming evaporation of trust across all institutions, reaching the lows of the Great Recession in 2009.”

Certainly frequent headlines reinforce skepticism about who is worthy of trust. From lying politicians and cheating teachers, to manipulating athletes and misdeeds from police stations and boardrooms, it's no surprise trust levels continue at historic lows.

Yet, when it comes to the people we work with and for, most of us ignore these headlines and judge for ourselves. By observing what our boss and organizational leaders say and what they do, i.e. their behavioral integrity, we decide to give, or not give, our trust to them. We also perceive through their actions if we're valued and trusted by them, or not.

To be influenced by powerful story headlines regarding categories of people who work in government or business is one thing, but to work with individual leaders and still perceive their trustworthiness as low is another. Yet that's happening in our workplaces today. If that lack of trust doesn't alarm you as a leader, it should. There are three questions we collectively, as leaders, should be asking:

  1. What are we doing to create these perceptions?
  2. Why is it that those we lead are not deciding to invest their trust in us?
  3. What can we do about it, right now?

First, as a leader, you need to grow awareness about everything that matters when building trust. What if you could start by seeing your actions from the perspective of those you lead and need to influence? Or listen in on their thoughts?

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The following message to leaders, adapted from my book, The Titleless Leader, is intended to provide a glimpse of what people you lead want you to know:

Dear Leader,

While you may not know me well or the exact work that I do in your area of influence, I know you. I know you by comparing what you say with what you do; by how you go about your work and get things done; by who you thank or don't thank, who you involve or don't involve.

I know you by how you treat me, and others like me, when you don't need anything from us; and by how you treat us when you do. I know you by the words you use, the emails you write or don't write, the credit you take or share; by the people you hire or choose for your teams, the office politics you use, and the stories you tell.

I know you by the people I trust who trust (or don't trust) you; by the courage of your integrity or the silence of your voice. I know you by watching you pass by the trash in the parking lot or stooping to pick it up; by your hurried passing and no acknowledgement in the hall, or the smile and greeting you always give; by the openness or withholding of your communications, and the consistency of your delivered promises.

I don't care much about your title, but I do care what kind of person you are. I'll do a good job while I'm here regardless. But, if you want me to help you get the great results you desire or you need my engaged involvement, innovative ideas, or extra efforts, you'll need a different kind of currency: trust.

A staff member

How much trust currency do you have with those you lead or influence? What do your actions compared to your words communicate? What trust-enhancing or trust-diminishing messages are you sending by how you do what you do? More tips for increasing trust in any 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).