Article published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on December 18 2023. Updated 5 am.
Have you ever worked in an organization where there was a low level of trust among peers, or where direct reports did not trust their boss or the company’s CEO? This type of organization has a toxic atmosphere, which significantly reduces its effectiveness.
In 2019, I wrote a column headlined “9 ways to build trust within your organization.” This is an update of that column.
Quoting Harvard Business School professor Ranjay Gulati from an article written by Morgan Smith, “Trustworthiness is the most desirable trait CEOs tell me they look for in their employees.”
The late motivational speaker, writer and advisor Stephen Covey once wrote, “Without trust we don’t truly collaborate; we merely coordinate or, at best, cooperate. It is trust that transforms a group of people into a team.” When people don’t trust each other, there is an invisible elephant in the room, which adversely impacts the effectiveness of the organization.
Quoting Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania after UPenn’s president Liz Magill resigned following her deplorable Congressional testimony on campus antisemitism, “No matter what title you have, once you’ve lost the trust of your followers, you can no longer be a leader.” In Magill’s case, I would add those to whom you report, the UPenn board.
Whether you are the CEO, a mid-level manager or an individual contributor with no direct reports, trust needs to be earned. So, how do you earn the trust of others?
Be consistent and readable
As a CEO or other leader, there should be no misunderstanding regarding your tone at the top—the values to which you hold yourself and your employees accountable, and the type of organizational culture you are nurturing. Employees want to work for an organization with high ethical standards and for a leader that lives by those standards.
Meet your commitments
Don’t make a commitment you cannot keep. If the situation changes and you find that you can’t keep a commitment to someone, notify the individual immediately. They may have made a commitment to others based on your commitment to them.
Don’t blame other people for your mistakes
If you make a mistake, own it and share how next time the issue will be handled in a different manner. You don’t create trust by blaming others for your mistakes.
Allow your direct reports to share with you a contrary point of view
I have worked for bosses who were not interested in hearing contrary views. This did not engender trust. As the leader, compare other opinions on how to proceed on an issue with your own view. Through discussion and debate, you may accept their view, or you may discover a third alternative path that is better than either of the first two paths. Follow this process and you will rarely choose the wrong way to proceed.
Create an environment that allows employees to share the brutal facts of reality
As a leader, you want your people to feel safe in sharing bad news. Don’t shoot the messenger. You can’t solve a problem unless you know what it is. You want your people to have trust and confidence that you will listen to them.
Help employees develop a sense of ownership in what they do
Empower employees, rather than micromanage. Show your employees that you trust them by letting them decide how to accomplish an objective and then cut them loose to do their thing. When this occurs, you can rely on them to drive results.
Be accessible and transparent
Wander around and talk with your employees. Avoid, however, telling them what to do. If you learn of an issue that needs to be addressed, talk with your direct report responsible for that area. Hold town meetings to talk about the business and respond to employees’ questions. Be as transparent as possible.
Before making a decision, hear both sides of an issue
No matter how compelling one side of an argument is, there is always the other side, which may be more compelling. Hear both sides before making a decision. The individual on the losing side of the issue may not like your decision, but they will respect the fact that you went through a fair process and heard both sides.
Live your values
Living your values engenders trust. As CEO of PQ Corporation, I experienced a minor OSHA recordable accident while traveling on business. I insisted that the accident be written up, and for that quarter, I was one of PQ’s safety statistics. Word spread to our 56 manufacturing facilities around the world that the CEO called an OSHA recordable accident on himself. This demonstrated that I held myself accountable to the same standards as I held our employees.
The best talent will want to work for companies where there is a high level of trust with the senior leadership and among fellow employees. This is the type of company at which we all want to work.
Stan Silverman is founder of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership. He can be reached at email@example.com.