Trust is crucial to organisational and leadership success. But what exactly is it, and how do you establish and nurture it sustainably within an organisation?
You might be surprised to learn that no single management training programme or discipline alone delivers the skills and capabilities needed to ‘create’ a successful global leader.
However, there is one key ingredient every senior leader must demonstrate in order to achieve their goals, and that is trust.
Trust is the most fundamental aspect of the relationship between any leader and their stakeholders. People might follow orders, but without trust there is no goodwill or consent, and its absence can even become a foundation for purposeful sabotage.
Getting to know me
Trust is something that has to be nurtured into the cultural fabric of an organisation and trustworthy leaders are adept at answering two essential questions: How do I get to know you, and how can I let you get to know me?
‘Get to know’ strategies involve a leader finding ways to engage with their stakeholders in order to better understand their values and concerns, while also communicating their own interests.
‘Let to know’ strategies involve the leader finding ways to reveal themselves to stakeholders so that they can understand the leaders’ values and concerns.
Despite their high ambitions, politicians and business leaders – among the keenest in modern-day society to attempt adoption of both get and let to know strategies – are perhaps the least-trusted figures.
Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s Greensill Capital lobbying scandal, or former Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock’s issuing of health contracts to dubious recipients clearly demonstrate how trust is easily lost.
Similarly, memories still remain of the failed enterprises Enron (US) and Marconi (UK), which to this day epitomise a lingering suspicion of company leadership, as does Kids Company for questionable governance, and Tyson Foods for a failure of oversight for its workforce during the heights of the Covid pandemic.
Poor judgement, hubris, overbearing egos and a determination to suppress any view but their own has driven many cause and organisations towards a swift demise.
The four essential dimensions of trust
Our ‘Kakabadse Top Team Research’ project, examining more than 10,000 executives in over 1,000 organisations around the world, suggests that effective global leaders are adept at nurturing and sustaining four essential dimensions of trust which, used credibly, foster extensive leadership capital with their followers.
These four dimensions are:
- Capability: This relates to a leader’s track record and skillset. For example, a sports coach who has won lots of trophies with previous teams is likely to be trusted immediately. An IT manager who has successfully implemented new systems in their previous role will be trusted to introduce similar initiatives. An M&A expert will be trusted to lead new and significant acquisitions.
- Character: Trust is built on a deep sense of a leader’s personality and temperament, and character is perhaps the most powerful indicator of this. It comes from a belief on the part of followers that they know what the leader stands for and how they will react in a variety of different situations.
- Context: The situation in which leaders and their follower find themselves can be one of trust or distrust. For example, a new leader brought in at a time of uncertainty and fear, with a potential for redundancies, will have to work harder to generate trust. A leader who arrives at a time when a business is booming and opportunities abound will find it easier to build trust.
- Culture: This strand of trust can is based on national, professional, organisational and departmental culture. It is a form of trust that comes from the belief that a leader is one of us. Doctors in a hospital are more likely to trust a leader who is also a doctor. Certain managers more likely trust their fellow nationals because they share cultural norms.
What makes these four dimensions of trust challenging to work with is their relationship to two other factors - time and transparency.
The importance of time to trust
Under these circumstances time relates to how long a leader has to win the trust of their followers, and dictates the best strategies to use.
When there is no immediate organisational threat, a leader may have plenty of time to employ both ‘get to know’ and ‘let to know’ approaches, revealing their character gradually and gaining widespread trust and support.
On the other hand, if there is an urgent need to win trust quickly a leader may have to use alternative trust-building strategies.
They might, for instance, emphasise cultural bonds, their own capabilities and track record, or they could use the context itself as a so-called ‘burning platform.’ However, the trust resulting from these strategies will not be as deep as character-based trust, and can even backfire, destroying any fragile bond that might exist.
With regards transparency, or the extent to which the leader can share relevant information with their followers, the greater this is, the more elevated trust becomes. However, be aware – if the transparency reveals unflattering or unwelcome information, then this too can turn ugly.
Generating trust as a leader becomes a question of identifying the most appropriate strategies strategy by using the ‘Trust Matrix’:
The issue of character is crucial when it comes to making an immediate impact and establishing engagement - the very first step of building trust.
The Endgame is to balance ‘get to know,’ or sociability, with ‘let to know,’ otherwise known as intimacy. This is critical to creating a sense of comfort, which others need to feel as part of the relationship-building process.
While character is important in establishing comfortable interactions, it is also a short-term approach. Making a positive impact does not require high levels of transparency, it just needs enough to initiate meaningful conversations.
Naturally market and community needs are dynamic and ‘let to know’ is just one small part of surviving and prospering in a particular organisational culture. The irony is that building a sustainable culture takes time.
What can complicate matters is that complex cultures display limited transparency. Considerable effort needs to be invested, especially by newly appointed leaders, to get to know a culture so that a leader can establish their credibility and generate long-term trust.
This requires another four-step approach:
- An openness that allows others to relate to character
- The establishing of trust within context
- Embedding trust through an appropriate positioning of capabilities to deliver on strategy
- A consolidation of trust in the organisation’s procedures and routines
At each stage, what quickly becomes evident is that the effort required to become familiar with the unique and particular nuances of establishing long-term trust can vary considerably. This being the case here follow eight strategies outlining how the Trust Matrix can be most effectively employed:
The Trust Matrix in action
Revealing character to make an impact – get to know.
“As you get to know me and from my experience, you will see why I have taken the course of action I have!” – newly appointed CEO.
Symbolic display of character – let to know.
“Whatever the challenges, we and particularly I, have to be seen to live the values we espouse” – CEO addressing the C Suite on entering a new market.
We are in this together – get to know.
“I know the numbers don’t make for good reading, but the Board must feel we are totally committed to the strategy for recovery” – Finance Director briefing C Suite before a board meeting announcing a downturn in business.
Enhancing understanding of current pressures and constraints – let to know.
“This is really what is behind the circumstances we face” – CEO addressing the management and employees of the company.
Focusing on the capabilities that make the critical difference – get to know.
“We are ready. We have been seriously working on what it takes to drive forward and face our challenges” – Managing Director of key subsidiary.
Done this before – let to know.
“This is nothing new for us. We have successfully handled situations like this before “– CEO addressing the annual strategy meeting of the senior management.
Deeply held values bind all together – get to know.
“Above all else, it is our deeply-rooted sense of service that distinguishes this organisation” – Executive Chair addressing the board at the end of year meeting.
Raising the critical issues without fear or favour – get to know.
“Contributing here means being transparent and resilient” – Human Resources Director welcoming applicants to the company’s assessment centre.
Sustaining the Trust Matrix
Extending these conversations and interactions requires a detailed assessment of the context in which interactions are taking place.
Do more dominant individuals shape the nature and flow of discussions? Is active listening and respect the norm, or do overbearing voices always win the day?
The nature of these interactions in context are evident through the way meetings are conducted and the manner in which newcomers to the organisation are greeted, to name just two everyday scenarios.
Embedding trust into the fabric of the organisation requires clarity on which capabilities have a long-term, positive impact on people and the organisation.
Distinctions can be made between skills, competencies and capabilities. Skills and competencies, generic and technical by nature, can be adopted in any organisation at any time.
By contrast, capabilities are more contextual. An individual may be skilled and competent in finance, but this doesn’t necessarily make them a highly capable finance director.
Capabilities are the lever that effectively delivers on strategy. A service-based strategy demands particular service capabilities from individuals and teams.
The John Lewis Partnership approach to quality service is reputably unique in comparison to other UK retailers.
Nurturing service-related capabilities in individuals, teams and the organisation, John Lewis delivers strategy demands, resources and time investment, as well as high levels of transparency that make its desired behaviours and mindset clear to all stakeholders. This ensures that trust is in the foundations of how the organisation operates.
Such high levels of transparency are achieved by continually adapting capabilities through re-organisation. This involves a reshaping of culture, including fundamental behaviours, attitudes and mindset, to allow strategy implementation and sustainable success.
All organisations recognise the value of trust and the issue is discussed repeatedly as a point of value, but it can often seem intangible and difficult to pin down the processes that support this ideal.
Yes, building trust can be a long and difficult process, particularly in environments where strategic miscalculations and short-termism thrive.
What makes a genuine and lasting difference is how the dynamics of building trust are handled.
Detailed consideration of the issues at hand and establishing the right levels of sensitivity to nurture comfort in others are two vital components to pursue. In this way, trust becomes integral to the fabric of the organisation and leaders recognise that building trust is for those who are truly smart.
* A version of this article originally appeared in Governance + Compliance magazine