Trust or Bust

January 1, 2010
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Why senior executives and leaders must earn, not expect, trust from their employees.



Larry is the president of NuParts Inc., a small manufacturer of components. The business has enjoyed good relationships with its customers over the 25 years it has been operating. Similar to many manufacturing firms in the United States, however, increasing competition from overseas suppliers has required the company to reduce its prices. Larry was brought in by the owners to reduce costs so pricing could be more competitive and profitability maintained.

On the surface, Larry and his management team did well. They retained their key customers and their rigorous cost-cutting program maintained previous levels of profitability. The owners placed a lot of trust in Larry, and they certainly saw him as trustworthy.

Beneath the surface, however, the picture at NuParts was not as rosy. Larry and the senior team decided to lay off 10% of the workforce to save money. They thought that existing production levels could be maintained by the reduced workforce if they worked harder and smarter. Quality suffered some after the layoffs, with defective parts increasing by 6% and staff turnover increasing to 20%, up from just 5% two years previously.

Larry was aware of morale problems and ran an employee survey to identify solutions to boost morale and employee engagement, as well as to solve the quality and turnover problems. Survey results provided quality feedback, including the surprising news that the worst scoring area was trust for management.

Being trustworthy, as Larry learned, does not guarantee that you will be trusted - building trust and trustworthiness are two different things. Trust is a feeling toward someone else. Have you ever trusted someone whom you later found out was not trustworthy? Have you ever not trusted somebody and later discovered that person was trustworthy? Being trusted is not just a factor of your trustworthiness; it is based primarily on your ability to build trust. Leaders must understand the distinction between building trust and being trustworthy.

Larry did not consider the need to build trust with the employees at NuParts - he was too focused on being trustworthy to the owners, which, in turn, diminished trust with the employees and alienated his team.

To understand the difference between trustworthiness and building trust, an understanding of the elements that must be present for trust to develop is needed.

The Four Elements of Trust

The Elements of TrustTM emerged out of research conducted by Ralph Colby, a founder of the consulting group Integro Leadership Institute. Colby determined what needed to be present for trust to develop in a relationship: congruence, openness, acceptance and reliability.

1. Congruence
Congruence is about principles. It is walking the talk, or practicing what you preach. Honesty, ethics and integrity are all part of congruence. It is through congruent behavior that your team learns about your honesty and integrity.

When you are not congruent, other people will notice - whether in your body language, facial expressions, or inconsistency in the tone of your voice. A gut feeling can tip us off to how other people are feeling. Sometimes, we feel the need to sugarcoat things or tell white lies so we do not hurt someone else’s feelings. But this can dilute your message as well as diminish the trust the other person has for you now and in the future.

2. Openness
How open are you with the members of your team? Do you encourage them to share their ideas, feelings, concerns and, most importantly, their expectations of you as their leader? The openness you create directly reflects your team’s involvement. Openness engages people; they want to know more about what is going on. When openness is high between you and your team, they are more interested in what the organization does and how well the team and the organization are doing. Most importantly, openness is a two-way street.

3. Acceptance
This is the least obvious element of trust, but the one that allows the other three elements to flourish. When people know they are accepted and respected, they are willing to be more open and are more committed to being congruent and reliable.

4. Reliability
Reliability is more than keeping commitments and following through; it means committing to certain actions, such as punctuality.

As a leader, it is crucial that you can rely on your team members to deliver the results they are capable of and, in turn, that your team members can expect the same of you. How often have you been in a meeting where the start time is pushed back, waiting for people to arrive? Are you the cause of these delays? Not only does your reliability suffer when you do that, but you are also suggesting that your time is more important than others’. When you keep others waiting, you diminish their trust.

Belief in People

Integro offers a variety of diagnostic tools to assess leadership competencies, one of which is a 360-degree assessment. Basically, the report compares how managers perceive their own leadership competencies against how their team members, peers, and immediate supervisors rate them.

Several years ago, I came across one of the worst 360-degree reports I had ever seen. The manager’s team members were, at times, brutal in their assessment of him, particularly in his lack of interpersonal skills. They commented that he had a tendency to micromanage. However, the manager had rated his own performance very high in every category. The huge discrepancy troubled him.

I met with this manager to discuss the results. During the debriefing, he admitted to micromanaging people. When I asked why he felt he had to be so controlling, he said, “To make sure everyone does what they are supposed to do.” He operated under the assumption that unless he controlled his team and their situation, they would do the wrong thing.

So I asked him what he believed about his employees. After some thought, he told me he had good people working at the company - a thought that had not occurred to him prior to seeing the results of the 360-degree report. He knew his employees were trustworthy, but he had not demonstrated this trust. He also realized he had lost some of his best people because they refused to work for someone who did not trust them.

Even self-directed people who embrace accountability resent constant surveillance and control. Ask yourself how you feel when you are being watched and checked on all the time. If you don’t like it, why would your team members?

Control-based leaders send a clear message to their staff that they don’t trust them to do a good job unless they are controlled. At some point, these managers convince themselves their team’s results would be worse if they did not control them. Soon the most worthwhile employees begin to lose focus and their productivity decreases.

If that situation were to continue, most of the best employees would quit. The 360-degree report was the catalyst that convinced this particular manager that his outlook on both leadership and his team was not working.

Everything I know from working with many different clients tells me that when employees are asked what they think they can achieve, they set their goals higher than management could have ever set for them. It comes back to that basic decision about whether you believe in people or not.

Do You Believe in Your People?

Trust is the essential foundation for creating a responsibility-based culture. By trusting, believing in, and partnering with your employees, as well as getting them involved and increasing their responsibility, you get both more self-directed behavior and more-passionate workers.

Believing in people lays the foundation for an open and honest work environment where employees feel engaged, prepared, and passionate about their work. People really want to make a difference; believing this will enable you to build the kind of trusting relationships necessary to get the best performance out of your team and ignite their passion.

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