When employees are asked what qualities they look for in their leaders, trust is always among the most mentioned responses. Employees want leaders they can trust, but they don’t think they have them now.
One of the most dangerous mistakes leaders can make, no matter what capacity in which they serve, is to think that by virtue of their role they have earned staff trust. It’s much more likely that a new leader starts from a position of lack of trust. Until proven otherwise, it is the leader’s responsibility—and perhaps job one—to earn employee trust. Accomplishing that requires more than just being pleasant or accommodating, and hoping that being liked equates to being trusted. Nice is good, but a leader can be perceived as nice yet not trustworthy. Act like a jerk, demonstrate pettiness, fail to live up to a promise—it may only take one occurrence to shatter trust. Leaders need to know how to build trust, and should perhaps begin that journey by dropping any assumptions about starting from a position of being trusted.
Bank Account Deposits
Whatever you may think of Stephen Covey and his motivational works, I have found his Emotional Bank Account story helpful as a way to think about building trust—or a cautionary tale for how to lose it. You may know it by other names, such as the Trust Battery. It’s a simple, common sense approach that at its core reminds us to be decent to, thoughtful about, and considerate of our colleagues. A bank account is built up over time through regular deposits. No matter how much we try to continuously deposit and grow our savings, occasionally there’s a withdrawal. That’s fine, but what happens when withdrawals exceed deposits? Now apply that thinking to a leader’s relationship with followers. What constitutes an emotional deposit? Kindness. Honesty. Keeping promises. Loyalty. Listening. Consistency. Acknowledging mistakes. How about withdrawals? Pretty much the opposite. Dishonesty. Gossip. Arrogance. Failure to keep one’s word. Inconsistency. When leaders come into a new job or have a new appointment, the balance in the bank account should be zero. Sometimes though, if predecessors went bankrupt, there is such deep organizational mistrust that leaders find themselves in the hole before they even have a chance to prove themselves.
We Don’t Trust You
If you are a leader and new to your team, you may be wondering why they withhold their trust. Perhaps the first thing to know is that it may be about more than you. Consider that one in three employees do not trust their employer. Fewer than 50 percent of support staff and front-line workers report having trust in their organizations. Managers and executives report much higher rates of trust. Those same workers report having more trust in their coworkers than in executives or managers. That’s according to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer that surveys many thousands of workers across the globe about trust in their workplace. The qualities employees seek for trust building are similar to those that add deposits to the bank: take responsibility for actions; practice transparency; communicate frequently and honestly; listen. No matter how trustworthy library leaders may think they are, they must operate in a workplace environment that is increasingly shaped by worker mistrust of leaders. Fortunately the report offers leaders a “roadmap for building trust.” No surprise that “communication with employees” is the top sought after action employees want from leaders, as well as treating employees well, being ethical, and other common sense values. There is one less-expected quality employees seek: They want to get to know their leader on a more personal level. What motivates the leader? What’s the leader’s personal success story? What obstacles had the leader overcome? Leaders should be good storytellers and perhaps the best story they can share with staff is their own.
Getting to No
New leaders worry they will lose their workers’ trust when they say no. Anyone who wants to lead will need to get over that quickly because rejecting an idea, a project, or a request for funds is inevitable. It should always be the leader’s aim to get to yes—to try to find a way to support staff in their efforts to innovate. When that’s impossible or unwise, leaders need to be firm in deciding what not to do and in communicating the rationale for the decision. Workers may be disappointed, but they know leaders are unable to say yes to everything. When leaders are arbitrary, when there is an ambiguous pattern to what they approve and reject, when it seems that favoritism is at play, it withdraws heavily from the Emotional Bank Account. Leaders can say no, and when they do it well, with clarity and fairness, they will earn respect and trust. Then there are times when you know something and workers want to know what you know. But you’ve been told it’s confidential. Make a deposit. Be honest. Tell staff that you do know something, that you are unable to share it now, but will do so as soon as possible. Some staff may dislike it, but they will appreciate the truth. Cynical staff will still think you are playing games with them. There may be little you can do but focus on adding to the bank account.
You Earn It
If you want to make an assumption about trust, assume there’s a lack of it. Assume the Emotional Bank Account you maintain at work is overdrawn. Your job is to start making deposits. Look for opportunities, and carefully avoid withdrawals. When two staff members asked me if they could organize a program for students, it sounded like a good idea. I agreed to support it and greenlighted the project. I should have asked for more details, specifically the logistics and cost. It turned out this would be more complicated and costly than we could manage. Scaling the program back would have caused a failure. Ultimately I had to inform the staff the program would be put on hold. I made a commitment that I failed to keep, and that cost me. They were disappointed and they let me know it. Fortunately, I could afford a withdrawal thanks to prior deposits, and offering an apology and admitting my failure to think things through helped soften the blow. Make another assumption that if you lead you you’ll eventually have a similar experience. Try to avoid it if you can, but start making those deposits now. I have a feeling you’ll need them.