Friday, January 9, 2009

How Leaders Tackle the Top Six Trustbusters

Trustj0438625 The dictionary defines trust as “relying upon or placing confidence in someone or something.” Every leader knows how important trust is. Yet, research tells us that trust in leaders and organizations is at an all-time low.

Professor Robert Hurley from Fordham University in New York surveyed 450 executives from 30 global companies and found only half of all these executives trusted their leader. (1) Another survey of 12,750 U.S. workers at all job levels revealed that ONLY:

- 39 percent of employees at U.S. companies trust their senior leaders. (2)

- 45 percent say they have confidence in the job being done by senior management.

- 43 percent of employees say they trust the way their company manages change (e.g., restructuring, downsizing, merging, expansion and growth…).

This epidemic of low trust infects employee morale, retention, recruitment, productivity, sales, as well as office politics, customer service, product quality, and the long-term financial performance of the organization. (3) (4)

One of the reasons that leaders find trust difficult to maintain is that there are three categories of trust within an organization. (3) If any one of these three takes a hit, it bleeds into the others. The three are:

Strategic Trust -- is there confidence that senior management is setting the right direction?

Personal Trust -- does the employee have confidence in his or her manager?

Organizational Trust -- can the employees rely upon the organization itself?


Here are the most common causes of broken trust within these categories and how to repair them:

1. The Moose Is Loose. Mr. Gerrosi was my eighth grade science teacher. He had a big nose, like a moose. As we were sitting in class, the first week back from summer vacation, he made the ridiculous comment that he did not believe in medical operations. I stared at his smaller nose, still scarred from the surgeon's summer knife. I blurted out, "Wasn’t your summer nose job an operation?" I spent the next week staying after school, in detention, contemplating the concept of the "undiscussable."

Organizations, like classrooms, have undiscussables. The more there are the lower the trust. One way to measure this enemy of trust is to ascertain if difficult issues are discussed in meetings the same way they are discussed in the bar at night.

You can increase trust by discussing what was previously undiscussable. Let the Moose loose. One project management team I was working with actually had a stuffed moose as a mascot. Any team member could pick up the moose, plopped it on the table during meetings in order to bring up a sensitive issue… without any recourse. This was a very successful project team. If the nature of the issue is such that you cannot discuss it, it's okay to say, "I'm sorry, I can't discuss this topic in detail because it would violate a confidence. But here's what I can tell you at this time."

2. Inconsistent Messages. Message mismatch occurs at all levels of an organization, thereby affecting all three categories of trust. Consider the all hands meeting recently conducted by the executive team of a billion-dollar high-tech firm. The CEO began the meeting by reinforcing the importance of a major change initiative, which had been introduced a month ago. He said he wanted feedback regarding the implementation of this important initiative. Because many of the employees felt anxious about their roles under the new plan, the first question after the CEO’s remarks concerned the lack of job clarity. The CEO responded by reminding everyone that the initiative was here to stay and he would not tolerate any negativity. This stunned employee sat down, audience feedback stopped, and trust was broken.

Researchers at Harvard University surveyed nearly 1,300 employees, customers, investors, and suppliers to understand the nature of trust with various stakeholders. (5). They found that trust goes up when stakeholders see espoused values in action. The CEO in the above story violated this trust because he said he valued feedback, but shut it down when he didn't like what he heard. Don’t practice what you preach; preach only what you practice.

3. Inconsistent Standards. At a national sales meeting, I observed the senior vice president of sales leaving the hotel with a first-year salesperson. Don, another first-year salesperson turned to me and said that although he had sold more than the departing rookie had, he was confident that the senior vice president was going to select his "buddy" as rookie of the year. During the awards ceremony the following night, Don smiled at me when his prediction came true. Later that evening Don told me that the criteria for selecting who received which sales awards was never published. Therefore, he and his sales colleagues believed politics and the good-old-boy network predominated. Where cynicism is high, trust is low.

Light is the best disinfectant. The best way to avoid the perception of inconsistent standards is to publish those standards. In addition, soliciting feedback from multiple sources provides the capability for early course correction if you get off track.

4. Misplaced Benevolence. Have you ever seen an employee who is performing poorly because he is clearly over his head -- incapable of doing the job? Did you wonder why his supervisor wasn't doing something about this employee? I can guarantee you that his colleagues and direct reports were all wondering the same thing. One company I consulted with had such a strong culture of caring that their CEO asked me to help redesign parts of their leadership curriculum in order to increase performance accountability. Caring about employees is critical. Tolerating incompetent employees is a trustbuster.

Most poor performers receive false feedback. If they are fired, the most common complaint you hear from them is, "look at my great performance reviews!" This is why so many managers find themselves sitting in human resource offices discussing wrongful termination lawsuits. Don't let that happen to you. Employees will not trust you or the organization unless you honor the company's performance review systems. They also will not work hard for you if they see others not held accountable for poor performance.

5. Failure to Delegate. Trusting others to do what they're supposed to do is difficult to do. This is especially true if you have a tendency to be a perfectionist, workaholic, or micromanager. One senior executive I recently coached, Casey had this exact problem with one of his high-performing direct reports, Douglas. Douglas actually told me he did not trust his boss Casey when I interviewed him as part of my coaching assignment. Mediocre performers do not leave when they feel micromanaged, the best performers do. I was worried that Douglas was going to leave.

Two months into our work together, Casey said he received an e-mail from Douglas praising Casey‘s growth. Casey told me that the relationship improved because he improved his ability to delegate to Douglas.

6. Consistent Corporate Underperformance. If a company does not meet the financial expectations set by their executive team, investors lose confidence, stock prices plunge, and employee trust falls. Nature abhors a vacuum; and corporations fill vacuums with rumors. So set realistic expectations and communicate the why behind those expectations.

These are the big six trustbusters. Do you see others operating in your environment? What behaviors do you need to exhibit more often to increase trust?

Keep achieving eXtraordinary results,


1. Robert Hurley; The Decision to Trust, Harvard Business Review, September 2006, 55 – 62


3. Robert Galford and Anne Seiblod Drapeau; The Enemies of Trust, Harvard Business Review, February 2003, 89 -- 95.

4. Ingrid Smithey-Fulmer; Barry Gerhart, and Kimberly Scott; Are the 100 best better? An Empirical Investigation of the Relationship Between Being a "Great Place To Work" and Firm Performance, Personnel Psychology, vol. 56, no. 4, Winter 2003, 965-993

5. Michael Pirson and Deepak Malhotra, The Secrets of Trust, ‘MIT Sloan Management Review,’ Summer 2008, volume 49, number 4, page 43 -- 50.

1 comment:

Eshan said...

This was an extremely nice post. Spending some time and actual effort to create a top notch article…