The word trust has so many meanings. Depending on the context, saying “I trust so-and-so” could indicate so-and-so’s capability, intention, objective, competence, or reliability, to name a few. However, there is a common theme when we do not trust someone or a group of people, we feel the need to fend for ourselves (or our group). There is so much “us versus them” in the world, and oftentimes the “them” are not trusted, whether it is politics, sports, race, religion, or anything else. The people we refer to as “them” are seen as not going to consider the best interests of the people we identify with “us”. That is a hurdle we need to overcome to attain unification.
How about we take a slightly narrow perspective of trust in the workplace fully acknowledging that there are trust issues due to political affiliation, gender, race, or religion in the workplace. The latter is related to diversity and inclusion. However, let us focus on the former issue which is trust in the workplace. If you are a teacher or a professor, do you trust your students? Do you trust your administrators/bosses? If you are working in a company, do you trust the people that report to you? Do you trust the leadership? Even in an extremely collegial work environment where there is tremendous trust among the peers, many-a-time there is little trust in the higher ups.
In his book The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything, Stephen M.R. Covey says, “Trust is equal parts character and competence… You can look at any leadership failure, and it’s always a failure of one or the other”. Although I would recommend reading the book, a quick commentary on trust, in particular about character and competence, can be found in Matt Harrington’s article. Good thing is that as we go through life, we are building both character as well as competence. When we are put in leadership positions where we supervise other people, we can use that character and competence to build trust with the people we are leading.
Having said that, it is important to note that people with excellent character and high competence do face trust issues especially when they are in leadership positions where employees report to them directly or indirectly (i.e. skipping levels). One of the symptoms of this is tremendous stress at work. If we find that people that report to us are feeling stressed, it could be an indication of lack of trust in us or our highers ups. The employees may perceive that the leadership does not value their contributions or they do not trust that the leadership would take care of them even if they fail. We may believe that we are acting in the subordinates’ best interests but it may not be perceived that way.
As leaders, a first step would be to measure the trust level among the people that report to us. This is hard to do but careful observation can give us some indication of the stress levels. It would also help to diligently listen to people that report to us, as there may be clues in there. We also want to observe the language we use. For example, although W. Edward Deming’s quote “In God we trust. All others must bring data” is appropriate in many situations, sometimes it could indicate we do not trust the people that report to us. Then where is the hope for our subordinates to trust us? Trust goes both ways, we need to give trust to expect it in return.
Here are some ways to work toward earning trust within an organization. Even if trust is not lost, when there is an organizational change, incorporating some of these right around when the change is made, could be useful.
It is important to communicate what we do. Explain why we did what we did. It would also be useful to clarify the assumptions, and give an opportunity to all to ask questions. The intro to the song Civil War by Guns N’ Roses starts off as “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate …” (if you are familiar with GNR, this is the song that ends with outro “What’s so civil about war anyway?”). As leaders we need to clearly communicate our individual goals and objectives, as well as our rationale for decisions.
Act with Integrity
Once we have communicated our goals and objectives, we need to act so that it is obvious that our actions align with our goals and objectives. When this is done by adhering to moral and ethical principles, then we have integrity. Along with it comes consistency and predictability. That leads to dependability which is a hallmark of trustworthiness. Too many big words (phew, glad I didn’t use conscientious!), basic idea is we earn trust by showing integrity.
While many organizations have formal mechanisms for subordinates to provide feedback about their supervisors, we need to feel the pulse on a much more frequent basis. Opportunities to anonymously ask questions and provide feedback would be an easy way to measure the trust levels. We ought to estimate if our peers and subordinates always feel that we’ve got their back, and that results in trust. As a result, it will enable people to do big things and be less afraid of failure.