Lead more from middle to build trust

by | Feb 4, 2013 | Blog | 0 comments

Lead more from the middle.

That’s my key takeaway from this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer.

People like you and me are nearly twice as trustworthy as a chief executive or government official, according to the research results.

How bad is the lack of trust?

Less than one in five respondents trust a business leader to tell the truth “regardless of how complex or unpopular it is.”

Also, less than one in five respondents trust leaders to make ethical and moral decisions.

These results show a serious crisis of confidence in business leaders. This is Edelman’s 13th annual trust and credibility survey, and while the numbers are better in some categories, they present a somber state of affairs.

After all, trust serves as both the glue and lubricant in organizations. When individuals trust one another, they can work faster with less friction and rework. They can be more creative. And they can help one another get more done.

As Richard Edelman describes it, we’re continuing to see “influence and authority moving away from CEOs and government leaders to experts and peers.”

This democratizing trend has other facets and implications.

Stakeholders are putting more credibility and trust in businesses that make a commitment to engagement, integrity and purpose rather than just financial results.

For example, people care more for business that treat their employees well, have ethical and transparent practices and place customers ahead of profits.

According to the report, this is a significant change from just five years ago. Back in 2008, operational features, including financial performance and being recognized as a “best place to work” were nearly twice as important (76%) as they are today (39%).

To meet stakeholders’ expectations, businesses—and the people inside them—need to develop a broader skill set. The roles need to widen too, including how the CEO and others in the C-suite position themselves inside and outside the organization.

For example, the CEO and others in the C-suite need to share the spotlight with subject matter experts and others who are considered more trustworthy. These individuals should serve as advocates and ambassadors, also speaking as the voice of the business inside and out.

For these individuals to stay trustworthy, they can’t be just mouthpieces. They must speak up and out authentically with courage, candor and conviction.

Speaking truth to power with courage is just one must-have skill though.

In the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world in which we live and work,  leaders at all levels must act in more inclusive ways. As we’re seeing with the trust survey and experiencing in real life, people don’t want to be just spectators on the sidelines waiting for authority figures to act, especially if the leaders aren’t perceived to take actions in others’ interest.

Instead, individuals—including employees, customers and community members—want to be on the playing field, sharing their insights and getting involved in the action.

Engaging well with others is a learned skill for many, innate for just a few. That’s where this broader skill set for leaders at all levels comes into play.

As the futurist Bob Johansen writes in Leaders Make the Difference: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World, “leaders must have new skills to take advantage of VUCA opportunities—as well as the agility to sidestep the dangers.”

Three of the ten new leadership skills are especially helpful for those in the middle as they interact with their peers, especially collaborating on implementing strategic initiatives. As defined by Johansen, these three particular skills that will help build and maintain trust in our VUCA world, are:

  • Quiet transparency—being open and authentic about what matters, without being self-promoting.
  • Constructive depolarizing—calming tense situations where differences dominate and communication has broken down and then bringing people from divergent cultures and points of view toward positive engagement.
  • Smart-job organizing—creating, engaging with and nurturing purposeful conversation and decision-making with broad networks through the intelligent use of electronic media and in-person communication. (See Mobilize mobs for a purpose for more about this.)

We can’t solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. That extends to trust. Leaders can no longer expect others to trust them because of their position. With the diffusion of technology and the democratization of information, the world has changed.

It’s not who we are, but how we act, including respecting others, that’s trustworthy.

What wise actions are you taking to build and maintain trust?


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