How can we earn trust - and keep it?
Written by Sadie Visick | February 2022
“There is the authority of position and the authority of knowledge - 'Authority flows from the one who knows.' But sharing in hardship confers upon a leader something quite rare - moral authority.”
- John Adair, The Leadership of Muhammad
We all know that the days when authority figures automatically commanded trust and respect are long gone, but it feels like the pendulum has now swung very far indeed in the opposite direction.
But it’s not as if the demands on leaders have got any easier.
On top of the usual challenges, they are now also wrestling with how to maintain and build trust in a ‘living with COVID’ world, with a fatigued, anxious and dispersed workforce and a strategic context of economic uncertainty. Employees, meanwhile, having discovered the benefits of a life without commuting, are reluctant to get on that treadmill again, and voting with their feet if management seems to be out of touch with their desire for more flexibility or with support for their well-being.
All this has made me reflect about a time where my courage and resilience as a leader were tested to the limit. As a result of proposed policy changes, my organisation was at risk of losing a significant amount of income and facing a radical restructure. The leadership team had just embarked on some intensive scenario planning, when an operational issue developed into a crisis, and we were threatened with legal action. Fortunately, things went our way – we rapidly got on a war footing, pulled together as a team, listened to what our people and stakeholders needed, made sound decisions, communicated effectively and steered a safe course through some very choppy waters.
So that experience taught me a lot about how to get through a crisis. But there’s a coda to the story that was just as instructive. Later that year, I hired a new senior manager and thought that they had made a reasonable, if not spectacular, start. After about six weeks, a member of their team was nominated to tell me the truth. While the new hire was doing an okay job of looking good to me, they had created a culture of fear and confusion in the team.
“Things have been really tough this year - we had to work flat out and were worried about what would happen,” the nominated spokesperson explained. “But we were clear about what we needed to do, and we supported each other, so we felt like a strong team and really positive... Now we’re all dreading coming to work and feeling stressed out and anxious.”
I beat myself up for not realising what was going on, and quickly put in place a plan to get things back onto a positive footing for all concerned - and I learned the importance of checking out for myself how things are going when new people joined the organisation.
But I also learned that if people feel a leader genuinely cares about them and is right there alongside them when times are tough, people will not only rise to the challenge, but will also feel a powerful sense of camaraderie and achievement in doing so. Conversely, where there is a lack of trust in the leader - for example in their agenda, integrity or authenticity - even a strong and motivated team can rapidly unravel.
I hear the term ‘psychological safety’ used more and more these days, in general discussions about the workplace, and also as an aspect of some ED&I initiatives. Actively creating and nurturing a culture in which people feel valued and able to be themselves has always been part of what good leaders do. But today’s leaders need to deeply understand what it means in their current context if they want to build trust with their people and empower them to face the challenges of the future with courage and resilience.
And when our people see that this matters to us, and that we are striving to provide an environment in which they can feel safe, take risks and thrive, then perhaps we may even find there is a little forgiveness for us when we don’t get things 100% right, 100% of the time.
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