Leading the way: Building trust with your team

“Trust is like the air we breathe. When it’s present, nobody really notices. When it’s absent, everyone notices.”
– Warren Buffett

This piece starts with a scenario all learning & development professionals will recognise:

Jamie was the vice president of global leadership development for a Fortune 50 corporation. She was charged with overseeing the implementation of the company’s new performance management system, overhauling their approach to change management, and developing and rolling out a leadership development training program. 

However, the unit was paying the price of three restructurings in two years, the loss of 35 percent of its people, and significant budget cuts. Roles and responsibilities were unclear, decision-making boundaries were blurred, and expectations were not understood. 

This lack of clarity and alignment created confusion and distractions. The trust people once had in one another eroded, and relationships collapsed. Channels of communication and collaboration, already challenged by having to accommodate people working all over the world, gradually broke down. Reference: Dennis and Michelle Reina, authors of Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace, Building Effective Relationships in Your Organization.

In the above scenario, high levels of trust had previously enabled the unit to have effective relationships that made them successful. As trust across the unit dissipated, it undermined relationships and compromised the unit’s overall ability to perform. 

The art of building trust is a slow and delicate process, and it’s largely an art very few have mastered. Trust within an organisation is complicated by the fact that people use the word trust to refer to three different kinds. 

The first is strategic trust—employees’ trust in the people running the show to make the right strategic decisions. Do top managers have the vision and competence to set the right course, allocate resources intelligently, fulfil the mission, and help the company succeed? 

The second is personal trust—employees’ trust in their managers. Do managers treat employees fairly? Do they consider employees’ needs when making decisions about the business and put the company’s needs ahead of their own desires? 

The third is organisational trust—the trust people have not in any individual but in the company itself. Are processes well designed, consistent, and fair? Does the company make good on its promises? 

Clearly, these three types of trust are distinct, but they’re linked in important ways. Every time an individual manager violates the personal trust of direct reports, for example, their organizational trust will be shaken.

Paul J. Zak, Harvard researcher and neuro-economist, has invested decades in researching the neurological connection between trust, leadership, and organisational performance.

During his research, Paul discovered that “compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, and 40% less burnout.”

He continues: “Trust is kind of this economic lubricant. When trust is high, morale is high. Higher trust environments produce individuals who are happier.”

Trust provides an organisation with a culture of honesty, dependability, collaboration and strength in the character of the staff and its leaders. For an organisation to successfully initiate and sustain a change program, it must have trust engrained within its people, the organization, and culture. 

Leaders have an important role to play in building organisational trust and need to be genuinely and authentically themselves. That means being willing to be a bit vulnerable, which, in turn, helps others be comfortable being who they really are around a leader.  It could be as simple as mentioning in conversation that you didn’t sleep well the night before. Or perhaps admitting that you forgot about some details of a previous conversation because you have been engrossed in the detail of another project. 

Trust within organisations isn’t easy to pin down. It’s hard to measure and if you could measure it —the truth is that no company would ever get a perfect score. Organisations and people are too complicated for that. What is clear, however, is that trust is the crucial ingredient of organisational effectiveness. Building it, maintaining it, and restoring it when it is damaged must be at the top of every chief executive’s agenda.

5 ways you can help create a trusting relationship within your team:

  1. Honest communication – Encourage your team to freely share thoughts, ideas, and concerns. Communicate facts and being considerate of the feelings of your team members can all go a long way in building trust with your team.
  2. Listen – Are you only hearing good news? Are your team asking questions? If the answers are–only good news and no questions then you’re not being told things! Your job is to connect, engage, ask questions, listen to the answers and then do all that again, and again and again.
  3. Invite participation – Create forums for input from the team. These could be formal events such as team meetings or informal channels of communication–both in-person and on-line. 
  4. Behaviour modelling – as a leader, you need to set an example. You set the tone and culture. 
  5. Acknowledge your mistakes – hold yourself accountable and share your mistakes and learning. 

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