the ceo magazine, leadership

“When it comes to how employees feel about their employers, the big theme in this year’s study is trust – or a lack of it. What’s going on here?” - Harvard Business Review, discussing the APA’s recent Work and Well-Being Survey, which found that fully 25% of Americans don’t trust their employers

Do you consider yourself to be a trustworthy leader? Do you think the people you lead believe you have their best interests at heart?

In answering these questions about your own trustworthiness, you may automatically jump to what it means to be untrustworthy. You may compare yourself to news headlines of insider trading, ‘cooked’ books, or unscrupulous ‘golden parachutes’ – headlines which speak to significant betrayals of trust. You may feel comforted by the contrast of these stories with your own performance as a leader, and place your trustworthiness on an, “I don’t do that, holier than thou,” pedestal.

But when you take a closer look at the fundamental math of the APA’s survey, you can’t help but feel uneasy. 1 in 4 U.S. workers don’t feel they can trust their bosses. That’s a substantial proportion. While it’s understandable people couldn’t trust bosses who made the headlines for truly egregious, trust-breaking corporate scandals, those scandals are relatively few and far between. Where has the trust gone in the rest of America’s workplaces? What is going on here? Is your organization contributing to the 25%? Is your leadership contributing to it?

Caution: You may not like the answer. 

We’ve been researching organizational trust – and what builds and breaks it – for more than 20 years. In that time, we’ve discovered that while major betrayals do destroy people’s trust in their leaders, 90% of what a boss does to diminish trust is actually small, subtle, and unintentional.

Unfortunately, these minor trust-breaking behaviors are so common they’ve simply become the ‘business as usual’ of organizational culture – even within high-performing workplaces and even among leaders at the highest levels of responsibility.

Take a look at the behaviors listed below, which we’ve found to be the top culprits in how leaders breach their employees’ trust:

  • Sending mixed messages
  • Withholding feedback
  • Underutilizing employees’ skills and talents
  • Delegating ineffectively
  • Being inconsistent
  • Failing to manage expectations
  • Withholding information
  • Sharing employees’ confidences
  • Resisting new ideas or methods
  • Failing to keep promises
  • ‘Spinning’ the truth
  • Covering up mistakes
  • Gossiping about employees’ performance
  • Overriding and undermining employees’ decisions
  • Failing to seek employees’ input on issues that affect their work

Can you remember a time when you’ve engaged in one of these behaviors – even unintentionally? Most likely you can. We all can. Working with other people can be extremely difficult, and breaking one another’s trust in subtle ways as you do business together under tight deadlines, shifting priorities, and fierce competition is unavoidable.

However, just because these behaviors are common (and even understandable) doesn’t mean they don’t have lasting impact, both in your relationships and in your business. In our work with thousands of people in hundreds of organizations around the world, we’ve learned the cumulative effect of small, subtle trust-breaking behaviors can over time lead to intense feelings of general distrust - feelings equivalent to those caused by major and dramatic betrayals.

In other words, all those little ways you break others’ trust can add up, until you are perceived as a generally untrustworthy as a leader, and land yourself – and your organization - in the APA’s 25%. 

Fortunately, you can do something about this.

The great thing about trust is that no matter how you’ve behaved in the past, you can take action right now to rebuild trust and show others you are committed to being a trustworthy leader. The trust-busting behaviors we listed above are measurable in their impact - which means their opposite, trust-generating behaviors are, too. This doesn’t mean you can spontaneously generate trust, but it does mean you always have the option of rebuilding it once it’s been broken.

There’s an added benefit of revamping your behaviors to demonstrate your trustworthiness: You’ll model the sort of trust-based relationships you want – and need – your employees to practice with one another. High performing organizations are based on effective working relationships, and trust is the foundation of those relationships. When you extend trust to your community of employees (and other colleagues), they’ll begin to pick up on your goodwill, return it, and pay it forward. Your willingness to ‘go first’ in rebuilding trust will spark a cycle of increased energy in your organization, and you’ll begin to see the game changer that trust really is in your bottom line– both in your working relationships and leadership effectiveness and your business productivity and profits.



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