“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
For much of our country’s history, we held a myth of honesty. From George Washington, who supposedly said, “I cannot tell a lie,” when asked if chopped down the family cherry tree to Abraham Lincoln, who was nicknamed “Honest Abe,” we have always cherished honesty – because it fosters trust. However, myths are generally nothing more than half-truths and reality is frequently very different:
“I am not a crook.”
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
“If you like your plan you can keep it,”
“The overall audience was the biggest ever to watch an inauguration address.”
Trust is a belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something. Since it just a belief, trust can be described as a leap of faith that is taken without complete information. Despite this, trust is a foundational component of most relationships, and the ability to engender trust in others is essential to effective leadership.
Great leaders are highly trusted. Vision, strategy, communication skills, etc. are important, but without trust a leader will likely fail. Studies have shown that leaders who inspire trust have more productive teams, that have higher morale, retention, and loyalty. In contrast, mistrust leads to decreased productivity, lower morale and higher turnover. The ability to inspire trust is central to a leader’s effectiveness and just might be the most important factor. In a previous blog I noted that trust is the force that connects people to a leader and by extension, to his or her vision. When people do not trust their leaders, they are reluctant to buy into that vision and they are less likely to follow.
In politics, it has become the norm for half of the country to reflexively distrust the other half. Without getting into specifics or focusing on any particular president, it is safe to say that most Democrats do not trust the current president and most Republicans did not trust the previous president. This is an unworkable situation.
Given that trust is so important to leadership, why do so many of our leaders do things that erode our trust? Sadly, for too many of our leaders (especially our political leaders), lying appears to have become an art form. Whether it is lying to Congress, to the FBI or to the American people, lying has not only become societal norm but an expectation. Perhaps this is because our leaders have learned that they can get away with it, or perhaps it is because they possess “a certain morale flexibility,” but it seems to me that it is a learned behavior.
Management consultant Steve Tobak wrote:
“The first time I heard a senior executive outright lie in the boardroom of a public company, I remember thinking, “The gall of that guy!” There were no consequences. The second time he did it, I thought, “He must be a narcissist, psychopath or some other form of behavioral misfit.” Still, no consequences. The third time, I was numb to it.”
When launched Coca-Cola Vitaminwater, they claimed that it would “boost your immune system” and “help fight free radicals.” However, a review of the ingredients revealed that it was essentially nothing more than sugar water.
When the Wrigley company initially introduced Eclipse Gum, they claimed that it possessed a natural ingredient that kills the germs that cause bad breath. When they subsequently launched another version of the gum, they claimed that it was also an anti-plaque and anti-gingivitis substance. Not surprisingly, both claims were false.
Sadly, we have become immune to such dishonesty. The Edelman Intelligence Company publishes an annual Trust and Credibility Survey. As reported in the Harvard Business Review, the recent survey showed that 71% of the respondents said government officials are not at all or somewhat credible, and 63% said the same about CEOs.
This situation is unsustainable. Rebuilding trust is a shared responsibility and leaders in both the private and public sectors must take positive action. When trust has been betrayed, it has to be fixed.
David Horsager, author of The Trust Edge: How Top Leaders Gain Faster Results, Deeper Relationships, and a Stronger Bottom Line asserts that leaders earn trust by exhibiting eight specific behaviors:
Clarity: People trust the clear and mistrust or even distrust the ambiguous. To be effective, a leader must clearly articulate expectations, priorities, etc. In other words, in order to become an effective leader, one must be clear. A famous company (which I will not name) has stated, “Our worldwide operations are aligned around a global strategy called the Plan to Win, which center on an exceptional customer experience–People, Products, Place, Price and Promotion.” What does that mean? Alternatively, PayPal’s mission statement is: “To build the Web’s most convenient, secure, cost-effective payment solution.” That is clarity!
Compassion: People tend to trust those who think and care about others. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not just an adage, it is an effective plan.
Character: Character matters. People who do what is right rather than what is easy garner respect and trust. Too many organizations focus on competencies rather than character. To some, character appears to be a quaint, old-fashioned word. Others are reluctant to identify examples of poor character in the workplace, stating that we cannot objectively evaluate character. However, character is central to good leadership. Some of the more egregious failures of leadership can be traced to a lack of character. For example, financial crisis of 2008 was largely driven by people who knowingly took bad risks or did not have the courage (i.e., character) to speak up.
Contribution: Actions speak louder than words. People need to see outcomes. A leader can be a compassionate, high character person, but without bottom line results, that leader will inevitably fail. Therefore, a leader who delivers on a promise will be trusted.
Competency: Studies have shown that the key competency of a successful new MBA is not a specific skill; it is the ability to learn and adapt. Good leaders realize that here is always more to learn, so they value listening and gathering information. By doing so, they demonstrate their trust in others, which in turn encourages others to trust them.
Connection: Trust is built by establishing genuine connections and effective leaders listen to others and develop meaningful relationships.
Commitment: People trust those who are genuinely committed to a cause; especially those who are willing to sacrifice their own needs to a greater goal. Such commitment builds trust.
Consistency: Consistency is the bedrock of trust and great leaders are consistent. In fact, without consistency, we cannot trust. The famous entrepreneur and author, Jim Rohn said, “Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying basic fundamentals.”
Good leaders are those who can be trusted and we would all benefit from having trustworthy leaders in government as well as in the boardroom.