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There goes that trust thing again

4 min read


“I just don’t trust him.”

So said a senior leader of a peer recently during interviews I conducted to learn more about their organization’s culture and how their leadership team operates.

It’s a message I hear all too often when working with executive teams. The demands placed on senior leaders cause them to act in ways that help their functional areas — accounting or manufacturing, for example — even if their behavior causes issues with their peers’ functional areas.

In some cases, it’s not the demands of the organization that cause leaders to demonstrate self-serving behaviors, it is simply the way they are personally wired. In other cases, the organization has actually rewarded the senior leaders’ self-serving behaviors.

Let’s agree on what we mean by workplace trust. One of the most commonly cited definitions is from Mayer, Davis, and Schoorman (1995), who define trust as “the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the truster, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party.”

In simpler terms, trust means that I have confidence in another person’s actions with no guarantee of any desired behavior in return by that person. There is some risk involved in my actions because I may not enjoy what I’d like or what I want from you after I act.

Are leaders trusted in our organizations today? Not as much as we’d like. A 2011 Kenexa study found that 48% of employees that responded trust their leader. 28% actively distrusted their leader and 24% were undecided.

Undecided? That’s a big number of respondents saying, “I don’t know.” My guess would be they are saying, “No, I don’t trust my boss, but I’m not going to tell YOU that.” Otherwise, these respondents would have no problem replying “Yes, I do trust my boss.”

A 2014 Interaction Associates study provides powerful insights on the impact of trust on organizational performance.

Their study found only 40% of employees trust their leaders. In addition, 82% of respondents say trusting their boss is essential to their job effectiveness. So, trust is vitally important but few employees trust their bosses.

High-trust organizations – the top 10 percent of companies whose workers have high trust in their leaders – are 2.5 times more likely to experience revenue growth than low-trust organizations. This study notes that high-trust organizations significantly outperform all other organizations in customer retention, ethical behavior, predictable financial results, and profit growth.

96% of respondents in high-trust organizations believe their bosses make decisions that are consistent, predictable, and transparent. Only 29% of respondents in low-trust organizations feel the same.

How can leaders build trust? It doesn’t take an organization-wide initiative; it takes intention and attention. Ask employees for input on decisions that affect them. Give them context so they understand decisions. Provide all employees with tools, resources, and opportunities to learn. Admit your mistakes. Don’t shoot the messenger — support people raising issues.

Consistent top performance and proactive problem-solving only happen when all players are treated with trust, respect and dignity, every day.

How would your employees rate trust in your organization? There’s one way to find out: Ask. Listen. Refine. (And repeat regularly.)

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