All Articles Leadership Inspiration Building trust through leader communications

Building trust through leader communications

3 min read


Miri Zena McDonald attended the 2012 International Association of Business Communicators World Conference in Chicago and is providing coverage for SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Leadership. She tweets @mirimcdonald.

Pamela Shockley-Zalabak almost didn’t make it to IABC. She evacuated from her home as part of the Colorado wildfires.

Shockley-Zalabak,  chancellor of the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and author of eight books, said that she decided to attend despite the grave situation at home because she can’t do anything to change it.

However, she said, we have never before in modern history had issues with trust in organizations like we do today. “Communications is the main thing” in improving trust.

Trust is not more important than integrity, but if no one gets it, it doesn’t matter, she said, adding that we should not bother building trust for a rotten organization. “There must be a floor of integrity.”

In Shockley-Zalabak’s research for “Building the High-Trust Organization,” the data clearly showed that trust in organizations predicts organizational performance and outcomes. Companies that build high-trust organization make more money over time, pay fewer legal costs, and have more engaged employees and customers. Furthermore, organizations that have been tracking trust for 15 years and are using that data to improve outperform their counterparts by 276%!

Shockley-Zalabak also shared her “Five Dimensional Model for Organizational Trust.” These are five drivers that influence trust and impact levels of perceived organization effectiveness as well as job satisfaction:

  • Concern for employees (and stakeholders): Sincere caring and empathy by leaders to understand feelings of stakeholders.
  • Openness and honesty: Sincere exchange of shared information between leaders and followers.
  • Identification: The employees and even customers can identify with the organization’s goals, norms, values and vision. “They can see themselves as part of what the organization is trying to do.”
  • Reliability: Consistent and dependable organizations have congruence between their words and actions.
  • Competence: The organization and leaders are capable and able to meet goals of the marketplace.

Another strategy for building a high-trust organization is to identify measures for trust so that the organization knows how it is perceived. Shockley-Zalabak’s book has an organizational trust index that provides a diagnostic tool that can be used to measure and track organizational trust.

Once trust measures are established and tracked, it is important to set up a communications strategy and gain C-suite buy-in to ensure that intentions are put into action and messaging reflects that.

Leaders should be trained to communicate competently, especially in times of change, uncertainty and in crisis situations. Trust comes from a leader being comfortable communicating positive and negative results, as well as being honest about what they don’t know. If they provide what they know, when they know it and include as many facts as they can, trust can be built.

Lastly, Shockley-Zalabak talked about the importance of knowing the potential negative side of a decision and of learning the attitudes of the most impacted people. Trust comes from people knowing you looked at all sides of the situation and made the best decision for all stakeholders.