Building a Culture of Trust Empowers Your Company

by John Hamm

Do your employees trust you? The brutal truth is probably not. It may not be fair, and you may not want to hear it, but chances are that previous leaders have poisoned the ground on which you’re trying to grow a successful business. Make no mistake: Unless you and all the leaders in your organization can gain the trust of your employees, performance will suffer. And considering how tough it is to survive in today’s business environment, that’s very bad news for your company.

Why is trust so pivotal? It’s a matter of human nature: When employees don’t trust their leaders, they don’t feel safe. And when they don’t feel safe, they don’t take risks — and where there is no risk taken, there is less innovation, less “going the extra mile” and, therefore, very little unexpected upside. Feeling safe is a primal human need. Our attention on whatever scares us increases until we either fight or run in the other direction, or until the threat diminishes on its own. Without trust, people respond with distraction, fear and, at the extreme, paralysis. That response is hidden inside “business” behaviors — sandbagging quotas, hedging on stretch goals and avoiding accountability or commitment.

If your employees don’t trust leaders, they won’t feel safe — and when they don’t feel safe, they spend all their creative energy covering their butts. (Hint: This is terrible for business!)

Trustworthiness is the most noble and powerful of all the attributes of leadership. Leaders become trustworthy by building a track record of honesty, fairness and integrity. Cultivating this trust isn’t just a moral issue, it’s a practical one. Trust is the currency leaders will need when the time comes to make unreasonable performance demands on their teams. And when they’re in that tight spot, it’s quite possible that the level of willingness the employees have to meet those demands could make or break the company. Most employees have been hurt or disappointed, at some point in their careers, by the hand of power in an organization. That’s why nine times out of ten leaders are in “negative trust territory” before they make their first request of an employee to do something. Before a team can reach its full potential, leaders must act in ways that transcend employees’ fears of organizational power.

Trustworthiness is never entirely pure. Everyone fails to achieve perfection. So the goal for a leader is to make those wrong choices as rarely as possible; admit them quickly, completely, and with humility; and fix them as quickly as you can and make full recompense when you cannot. Trust is the most powerful, and most fragile, asset in an organization, and it is almost exclusively created, or hampered, by the actions of the senior leader on the team.

A working environment of trust is a place where teams stay focused, give their utmost effort and, in the end, do their best work. It’s a place where we can trust ourselves, trust others, trust our surroundings or — best of all — trust all three.

As a leader, you must “go first” — and model trustworthiness for everyone else. Yes, being trustworthy creates trust. But beyond that, there are very specific things you can do to provide trust-building leadership at your organization.

First, realize that being trustworthy doesn’t mean you have to be a Boy Scout.
You don’t even have to be a warm or kind person. On the contrary, history teaches us that some of the most trustworthy people can be harsh, tough or socially awkward — but their promises must be inviolate and their decisions fair.

As anachronistic as it may sound in the twenty-first century, men and women whose word is their honor and who can be absolutely trusted to be fair, honest, and forthright are more likely to command the respect of others than, say, the nicest guy in the room. You can be tough. You can be demanding. You can be authentically whoever you really are. But as long as you are fair, as long as you do what you say consistently, you will still be trusted.

Look for chances to reveal some vulnerability.
We trust people we believe are real and also human (imperfect and flawed) — just like us. And that usually means allowing others to get a glimpse of our personal vulnerability — some authentic (not fabricated) weakness or fear or raw emotion that allows others to see us as like them and, therefore, relate to us at the human level.

No matter how tempted you are, don’t bullsh*t your employees.
Tell the truth, match your actions with your words, and match those words with the truth we all see in the world: no spin, no BS, no fancy justifications or revisionist history — just tell the truth.

Telling the truth when it is not convenient or popular, or when it will make you look bad, can be tough. Yet it’s essential to your reputation. Your task as a leader is to be as forthright and transparent as is realistically possible. Strive to disclose the maximum amount of information appropriate to the situation. When you feel yourself starting to bend what you know is the truth or withhold the bare facts, find a way to stop, reformat your communication and tell the truth.

Never, ever, make the “adulterer’s guarantee.”
This happens when you say to an employee, in effect, “I just lied to (someone else), but you can trust me because I’d never lie to you.” When an employee sees you committing any act of dishonesty or two-facedness, they’ll assume that you’ll do the same to them. They’ll start thinking back through all of their conversations with you, wondering what was real and what was disingenuous.

Don’t punish “good failures.”
This is one of the stupidest things an organization can do — yet it happens all the time. A “good failure” is a term used in Silicon Valley to describe a new business start-up or mature company initiative that, by most measures, is well planned, well run, and well organized — yet for reasons beyond its control (an unexpected competitive product, a change in the market or economy) it fails. In other words, “good failures” occur when you play well but still lose. When they’re punished, you instill a fear of risk-taking in your employees, and, with that, you stifle creativity and innovation.

Instead, you should strive to create a “digital camera” culture. There is no expense associated with an imperfect digital photograph — financial or otherwise. You just hit the “delete” button and it disappears. No wasted film, slides or prints. Because we know failure is free, we take chances, and in that effort we often get that one amazing picture that we wouldn’t have if we were paying a price for all the mistakes.

Don’t squelch the flow of “bad” news.
Do you (or others under you) shoot the messenger when he or she brings you bad news? If so, you can be certain that the messenger’s priority is not bringing you the information you need; it’s protecting his or her own hide. That’s why in most organizations good news zooms to the top of the organization, while bad news — data that reveals goals missed, problems lurking or feedback that challenges or defeats your strategy — flows uphill like molasses in January.

We must install a confidence and a trust that leaders in the organization value the facts, the truth and the speed of delivery, not the judgments or interpretations of “good” or “bad,” and that messengers are valued, not shot. Make it crystal clear to your employees that you expect the truth and nothing but the truth from them. And always, always hold up your end of that deal. Don’t ever shoot the messenger and don’t ever dole out some irrational consequence.

Unusually excellent leaders build a primary and insatiable demand for the unvarnished facts, the raw data, the actual measurements, the honest feedback, the real information. Very few efforts will yield the payback associated with improving the speed and accuracy of the information you need most to make difficult or complex decisions.

Constantly tap into your “fairness conscience.”
Precise agreements about what is fair are hard to negotiate because each of us has our own sense of fairness. But at the level of general principle, there is seldom any confusion about what fair looks like. Just ask yourself: Would most people see this as fair or unfair? You’ll know the answer (indeed, as a leader, you’re paid to know it). If you treat your followers fairly, and do so consistently, you will set a pattern of behavior for the entire organization. This sense of fairness, critical to the creation of a safe environment, can be reinforced not only by complimenting fair practices but also by privately speaking to — or, if necessary, censuring — subordinates who behave unfairly to others in the organization.

Don’t take shortcuts.
Every organization wants to succeed. That’s why, inevitably, there is a constant pressure to let the end justify the means. This pressure becomes especially acute when either victory or failure is in immediate sight. That’s when the usual ethical and moral constraints are sometimes abandoned — always for good reasons, and always “just this once” — in the name of expediency.

Sometimes this strategy even works. But it sets the precedent for repeatedly using these tactics at critical moments — not to mention a kind of “mission creep” by which corner-cutting begins to invade operations even when they aren’t at a critical crossroads. Plus, when employees see you breaking your own rules — by lying to clients or “spinning” the numbers to get out of trouble — they see you as less trustworthy. After all, if the client or the company’s executive suite can’t trust you, why should they?

Separate the bad apples from the apples who just need a little direction.
The cost of untruths to an organization can be huge in terms of time, money, trust and reputation. As a leader, you have to recognize that you are not going to be able to “fix” a thief, a pathological liar or a professional con artist; all of these must go, immediately.

Chronic selfishness — manipulating outcomes for individual gain at the expense of the larger opportunity — and lack of integrity or commitment are character traits, not matters of skill, practice, knowledge or experience. That said, one huge mistake leaders make is to doubt or distrust someone because their work or performance disappoints them. Performance problems should be managed fairly and with little judgment of the person’s underlying character — unless that is the issue at the root of the trouble. Ultimately, improving performance is often merely a matter of feedback, course correction and some coaching.

John Hamm, author of back-to-basics reference book Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership, is one of the top leadership experts in Silicon Valley. He was named one of the country’s Top 100 venture capitalists in 2009 by AlwaysOn; has been a CEO, a board member at more than 30 companies, and a CEO adviser and executive coach to senior leaders at major companies. Hamm teaches leadership at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. 

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