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Why trust has never been more important

Trust is a hot topic. It’s hotter than the hottest of hot potatoes.

In a world where governments around the world are having to control the behaviours of their populations in ways more draconian than have been seen for generations, whilst fighting misinformation and (actual) fake news across the internet and Social Media, and with conspiracy theorists booming in creativity and exposure, trust is everything. And it’s fragile.

The same goes for trust in our employers and our leaders. It’s all-important. But it can be brittle. It needs to be earned, and it needs to be nurtured.

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer Report has just been published, and it makes for some very interesting reading. Unsurprisingly, it focuses on how the Covid pandemic has influenced trust in the various establishments. It also sheds some fascinating, if unflattering, light on UK business.

Here’s an attention-grabbing headline to set the tone:

Business becomes the only trusted institution.

Worldwide, Business is now trusted more than Non-Governmental Organisations, Government and Media. Business is also the only 1 of the 4 to be seen as both competent and ethical. For reference, in the UK, the government dropped 15 points in its trust index between May 2020 & January 2021.

So far, so good for Business.

However, there’s a kick in the teeth. In the UK, “Trust in my Employer” fell by 6 points – the largest dip after China - and placing us a lowly 22nd out of the 27 countries with supposedly “stable trust”.

Elsewhere in the report, we are told that 56% of respondents worry that “Business leaders are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations”.

So, what are businesses doing, or what can businesses do, to counter this damaging mistrust?

It’s no surprise to read in that same report that “regular employee communications” gained 44 points in importance (as an employer attribute) since the start of the year. This is on a par with “job skills training” and trails only “keeping workers and customers safe” (+49 points). This being top of the pops is hardly surprising during a global pandemic.

Clearly, effective internal communication is essential for building and maintaining trust. More so now than ever. Having an up-to-date (i.e. post-pandemic) and robust Internal Comms Strategy is critically important for the health of the trust within your organisation. As is sticking to it!

Harvard list the following as essential ways to earn your employees’ trust:

Make a connection

…and don’t be afraid to make that connection a little personal. Be approachable – people trust leaders they like. Distant, aloof, cold, removed, and unrelatable don’t work when it comes to generating trust. Leaders should take the time to get to know their teams a little. Senior leaders of large organisations may not be able to “get to know” all of the people on the frontline, and Covid restrictions have made large-scale face-to-face meetings impossible, but you can still use simple technology to make a connection and interact with your people, to find out how they’re feeling, what they’re afraid of, what ideas they have and so on.

"As a person’s power increases, their perceived trustworthiness goes down."

- David DeSteno, professor of psychology & author

Good leaders will fight that lack of trust through carefully considered, sincere and frequent comms, ensuring that these reach all of their people. And creative leaders will not rely on the printed word or messages cascaded (and diluted?) through tiers of management. Is there a better way to make a connection than to show your face to your people and deliver your messages with the tone of voice, body language and expressions that are needed to convey so much of what needs to be said?

Be transparent & truthful

Leaders should share as much as they can to keep rumour and gossip at bay. Of course, not everything can or should be shared, but sharing performance metrics and results as well as future goals and business strategies will show that you trust your people and encourage their trust, faith and confidence in you. And don’t fall into the trap of “protecting people” from the bad stuff. Being transparent means sharing the good, the bad and the ugly. DeSteno again: “If you can’t tell people the hard stuff, they won’t trust you.”

Encourage rather than command

People, as a rule, don’t like (just) being told what to do. If your people are empowered, and understand and believe in the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’ (and the ‘by when’), they will work harder and smarter and be more trusting and loyal.

“You don’t succeed in the long run by telling people what to do. You have to motivate them to do it.”

- Jim Dougherty, senior lecturer at MIT & veteran software CEO

To earn trust, delegate and grant autonomy to the right people, but with clear expectations and targets. Include detail on how and when these will be measured. It’s a simple equation: give trust - to get it back.

Take blame but give credit

I can speak from personal experience when I say that a leader taking all the glory for your hard work or great ideas will kill trust a lot quicker than Covid killed my social life. On the flipside, giving credit reinforces the feeling of a shared goal and builds trust. It also encourages more of the effort that went into the first achievement. Feedback is incredibly, and increasingly important for the levels of trust, loyalty and motivation of your people. Make sure there is an active channel for this.

Similarly, employee recognition is crucial and should not be abandoned because Covid has made your team meetings an impossibility.

Harvard also list not showing favouritism and demonstrating competence as the final two critical ingredients in this recipe for trust. No further explanation required.

I would also add these to the list:

  • Be dependable by doing what you say you will do.

  • Be consistent by ensuring that words and actions match all of the time.

  • Be supportive. Even when people make mistakes. Blame fixes nothing.

  • Be respectful of others’ ideas and perspectives.

Trust is a valuable commodity. It is hard-earned and it is perishable.

Under-value it at your peril!


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