Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to attend a conference in which the keynote speaker was from the Covey Institute and did a presentation on The Speed of Trust. I walked away from that presentation with a sense of energy I hadn’t felt in a while. This is a subject I feel passionate about, particularly when it comes to leadership. It’s not rocket science, but many leaders seem to struggle with building trust in the workplace.
I was struck with how Covey had broken down key elements into a practical framework. As soon as I was back from the conference I went out and bought his book. If you are interested in delving more into this subject, I would recommend picking up a copy of “The Speed of Trust” by Stephen M. R. Covey for a more in depth read.
Reading the book prompted me to do some reflection on some of the high trust and low trust relationships I have had in the workplace and what makes those easy or hard. The contrast between the two is significant in how you end up approaching your work and often the differences comes down to communication. In high trust relationships, communication flows easily and free. In low trust relationships, communication is challenging and guarded.
In Covey’s book, he states it well in this way, “The difference between a high and low trust relationship is palpable! Take communication. In a high-trust relationship, you can say the wrong thing and people will still get your meaning. In a low-trust relationship, you can be very measured, even precise, and they’ll still misinterpret you.” Exactly!
So, what creates trust in relationships? Covey indicates that trust is a function of character and competence. Character being a function of integrity, motive and intent with people and competence being made up of capabilities, skills, results and your track record. His book goes into much more detail of each of these and he specifically calls out thirteen behaviors that need to be demonstrated in balance with one another in order to build trust. You can find the list here.
While all are important to practice and I agree with them wholeheartedly, I’ve put my own list together. Based on my 20+ years working in human resources, there are a few things that I think are critical for leaders in creating trust in the workplace. My list is based on what’s worked for me and what I’ve learned from the many people I’ve had in my office over the years telling me all of the reasons they don’t trust their leader or how their leader is letting them down and asking me for my confidential advice on what to do.
If you want to be a leader who inspires trust in those around you, here are five things you should do:
1. COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE. This is not as easy as it seems. This is all about the what, when, where, why and how of the message. It’s about being candid and open with any and all information that you can. Share everything that you can, as soon as you can. If you can’t share information with your team, explain why you can’t. Certain things need to remain confidential and that’s understandable. Share information timely. Don’t let them hear important things through the grapevine. If the message is sensitive, share it in person. Other things can be shared via email. Be thoughtful about this.
Give them context to decisions and own the information. Don’t blame decision making on senior leadership or it will undermine your own leadership and authority. If you don’t understand why a decision was made, go find out before you share the information with your team. Avoid using “they” when sharing information. If you are in a leadership position, you are part of the “they.”
Once your team knows they can rely on you for timely and accurate information, if they hear other things from other sources, they will know to question it first and go to you for the truth. This means they trust you. They will also begin to bring you information when they receive it. Which brings me to my next item.
2. LISTEN. GENUINELY, LISTEN. Listen with an open mind. Suspend judgement. Assume positive intent. Even if what they are saying is something you don’t want to hear, try not to react to it…at least not immediately. If someone is approaching you at a time that isn’t good for you, ask if you can reschedule to a time where you are really able to give it your full attention, but don’t shut them down…show them you are open to hearing them out. If they are bringing it to you, it means it’s important to them.
Don’t feel like you need to respond right away. It’s okay to say you don’t know or you need some time to think about it. Don’t commit to something you don’t think you can follow through on (more on this later.) Seek to understand their concerns, incorporate their feedback and use their recommendations to make improvements.
Don’t wait until you’ve fully formulated your thinking to seek out their input. If a decision is already final, don’t ask for input at that point or it’s giving a false sense of being open and that will erode trust. If you can show that you are really open to hearing someone and validate what they are saying, it will create huge strides in creating trust.
3. FOLLOW THROUGH, RESPOND TIMELY AND SHOW UP. When you make a commitment, be sure you follow through on it. This is so key in building trust. I can’t tell you how many leaders and staff I’ve heard from over the years who have been in my office in tears because they tell me that their boss said they would do something and then just didn’t follow through on it. Or just never replies to their emails or constantly reschedules their 1:1s or, worse yet, just didn’t show up for their 1:1s. Talk about making someone feel unimportant and eroding trust.
So, while these things may seem unimportant to you, and, yes, I get that occasionally they are unavoidable, when they happen over and over again, they are eroding trust with that individual and telling them that they are unimportant to you. Remember that while that email may seem like a burden to you, on the other end of it, there is someone needing an answer.
If you have a meeting set with someone, SHOW UP ON TIME. These things tell people they are important and they establish trust. And if you tell someone you are going to do something, by golly, do it. Or explain to them why you can’t. Your credibility is on the line. Which brings me to my next item.
4. UNDERPROMISE AND OVERDELIVER. This is about results. Many people I’ve worked with over the years make promises that are aspirational. They have good intentions, but then something goes wrong and they fall short on delivery. When this happens over and over again, you learn not to trust what they say.
Those who have worked with me for any length of time know my mantra has always been to “under promise and overdeliver.” It’s all about managing expectations in a way that you can deliver on results and, preferably, exceed expectations. To some this may come across as reluctance to commit initially, but it’s really about being realistic and practical in delivering on commitments. It’s about service.
If you continuously promise something and fall short on delivery, your credibility takes a hit. If this happens time and time again, trust is eroded. Your reputation matters. It’s built from results and your track record. People’s ability to trust you is built from their experience of you, not from the promises you make. Intentions are good, but if you can’t deliver on those intentions, the rest doesn’t really matter.
5. BE GENUINE AND VULNERABLE. This can be hard for some people. But it’s important in establishing trust with others. It’s important for people to see their leaders as human and vulnerability is part of that. Being genuine is also about being honest and direct in your thoughts. I’ve heard some in Oregon refer to a style that is demonstrated here as “Northwest nice” but that implies you have to be mean to be direct and I don’t agree. Kind and direct don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
I’ve often been referred to by colleagues as “brave” because I was the one willing to speak up in meetings and say what others were thinking but weren’t willing to say. Did this feel vulnerable? Yes. Did it feel brave? No. It felt genuine. I was speaking my truth. That’s important in building trust as a leader.
Others need to know they will get from you what you really think and not something that is sugar coated or only a partial truth and that you will leave the room having fully said what is on your mind. That is genuine. And being genuine means sharing your full self which sometimes means being vulnerable with others. And doing that, builds trust.
According to Covey, trust is an economic driver that impacts both speed and cost. Trust is also a learnable skill. And learnable skills take practice. When building trust, don’t worry about what everyone else is doing – start with yourself. The payoffs will be huge in the environment you will create with your team and those that you engage with. And, in time, others will follow your lead.
Laurie is an experienced Human Resources executive who is passionate about organizational culture, creating great workplaces and employee engagement.