Trust transforms everything inside an organization.
When people trust each other, they are willing to fight for one another, work more readily toward mutual goals and aren’t afraid to take calculated risks to drive positive change. Externally, the story is no different: Trusted organizations can command a premium for their products and services, attract top talent and enjoy strong customer loyalty.
Like a reputation, trust is difficult to develop and easy to lose. It also takes constant work to maintain, particularly in large enterprises that constantly have to fight to preserve their culture while adding employees.
Senior leaders must foster trust inside an organization, but it’s absolutely crucial that they ensure it cascades through middle management and is felt on the front lines, reaching all the way to customers and clients.
I’ve had the luck and pleasure of working with many skilled, honest and dynamic leaders. Those who are most trusted invariably share certain important habits that sustain existing trust, nurture it in new employees and strengthen company culture.
How do they do it?
1. They communicate early, often and openly. Good communication is vital to a leader’s overall success and essential to building trust. Open communication helps teams understand the “why” behind a project or initiative, rather than just the actions required to achieve the outcome.
When things go wrong, transparency keeps the focus on learning, planning and moving forward, rather than on assigning blame. (Dialogue can help, as opposed to one-way announcements or speeches. See point No. 2.)
Whenever possible, effective leaders communicate about a project or initiative well before the final decision is made. By communicating early in a project’s life, a leader is effectively telling everyone in the organization, “We want to hear what you think before we decide what to do.”
There’s a fine line, though, between open communication and turning every project into an all-employee vote. Some projects are highly confidential, so discussing them ahead of the announcement might not be an option. However, employees provide a vital voice, so when possible, leaders seeking to build trust lean toward more and earlier communication.
If you don’t trust your employees enough to involve them in a major decision until after the fact, it’s unrealistic to expect them to reciprocate. Unfortunately, research shows that many don’t. If decisions (particularly contentious ones) are always announced after they’re made, speculation as to motive and ultimate outcome can take on a life of their own, which can be a difficult narrative to manage.
A steady stream of communication from top leaders also ensures that new employees entering the organization hear from senior executives often, and not only around the business-as-usual exchanges (quarterly results, an annual meeting or periodic employee engagement survey results).
2. They listen as much as they speak. Trust builds when everyone involved has a voice. That’s why using modern, two-way communications channels is so important. However, just giving your employees an opportunity to chime in simply isn’t enough.
Employees expect and deserve to be heard and to have their voices reflected in final decisions. Listening is just the start; leaders have to be prepared to act on employee input, even if it challenges their initial plans.
Empathy also plays a part, because in order to listen attentively, leaders need ample emotional intelligence, as well as a handle on their egos. This lets them understand the perspectives of employees or customers.
In one instance, an internal announcement of a pending business decision was criticized by employees who worried about the impact the news would have on customers. Using an internal comment engine, employees urged the leader who had made the announcement to reconsider.
The leader accepted the feedback and reversed course within days. It could not have been easy, as the proposed decision would have made a contribution to the bottom line. However, as a result of the reversal, employees felt heard, empowered and respected—all key ingredients for trust inside an organization.
3. They are themselves, always and in all ways. Authenticity is crucial to building trust. If your teams don’t feel you’re being yourself whenever they see or hear you, they won’t respond as well because they will feel that you’re acting.
This is true across written and in-person communications alike. If you use stilted or excessively formal language in written communications, but then at a town hall you appear very casual, you risk creating cognitive dissonance rather than trust in your audiences. Though it’s true that leaders should adapt their style and approach to the occasion at hand, your “core you” shouldn’t swing too wildly.
Just as a customer would be unlikely to trust a food brand whose hamburgers taste different every time, employees require authenticity from their leaders.
Organizational trust is a dynamic dimension of a business, rather than a static characteristic, or a box to be ticked. You can’t “solve for” trust. It must be maintained, proven in action and unshakeable in its consistency.