When I see a provocative headline, I check the veracity with at least two reputable news sources before I accept it as at least a close approximation of the truth. (And even then, many major news outlets often fail to report the really important news, which undermines their credibility, in my book.) I am not alone. In a recent Pew Trust survey, only 18% of Americans report that they trust national news organizations. (Feel free to double-check this claim against your own favorite news sources!)
This erosion of trust is not confined to news organizations or government. It’s pervasive across business organizations and growing by the day. In a recent HBR blog, author Sue Bingham reports that 55% of CEOs are concerned about a lack of trust in businesses today, compared to 37% just three years ago. (See article link below.)
This downward trend should make us all very scared. Why? As Bingham points out, a high level of trust between managers and employees is a key indicator in assessing “best workplaces,” and drives overall company performance and revenue. Quoting Stephen M. R. Covey in The Speed of Trust, “When trust goes down…speed goes down and cost goes up. The inverse is equally true: When trust goes up, cost goes down, and speed goes up.”
So what actions can leaders take to cultivate trust? (And yes, the most meaningful actions really must be taken by leaders across their own organizations, rather than waiting for an entire organization to make drastic changes that may never come.) Here are some tips for bolstering trust within your organization, whether team members are close by or work from a distance:
- Demonstrate warmth first, competence second. According to Amy Cuddy, MIT prof and author of the bestselling book Presence, people ask two questions before deciding how they will relate to another person: Can I trust you? Can I respect you? Psychologists refer to these dimensions as warmth and competence, respectively. You may have an amazing array of skills and an unparalleled depth of knowledge, but if you come off as uncaring and inaccessible, your competence does little to inspire trust. Find ways to demonstrate warmth. Examples: Smile frequently, even when you’re hidden from view. Ask probing questions to show that you’re genuinely curious about another’s viewpoint. Comment appropriately to show you’re listening. Let people know how you can be reached, and make yourself accessible.
- Check in frequently with the “whole person.” Remember enough details about your team members’ lives to ask them about things that matter to them, whether it’s a special milestone, an upcoming vacation, 10K run, community service activity, or a new skill they’ve been honing. Try to keep these social conversations separate from official business. It will mean much more if you contact the person with the sole purpose of inquiring about the health of an ailing child, for example, rather than asking about the status of a deliverable in the same breath. If you have a large team with many new members, you may have to keep tabs (literally, using an Excel sheet, or some other way) to keep track of important milestones, hobbies and other salient personal details. Use a variety of ways to check in: IM, email, call, text or drop by, when possible.
- Practice transparency. This can take many forms. Examples: Err on the side of oversharing (relevant) information vs. holding back important details that you assume people don’t want or need. Tell the truth, even when it may be hard to hear. Share your personal feelings when they affect the team, and explain why you’re feeling angry, frustrated, disappointed, ecstatic, relieved or grateful. If you suspect that team members disagree with a new strategic direction, invite people to discuss thoughts and concerns openly instead of hoping the resistance will magically melt away. If you realize that you are asking people to do the impossible by meeting a wildly ambitious deadline, admit it and apologize, even if you can’t change it. When you make difficult decisions, explain your logic.
- Assume good intentions. Give people the benefit of the doubt unless and until proven wrong. If you’re puzzled by certain actions or behavior, ask probing questions (gently!) to try to uncover what s/he was thinking at the time, rather than automatically assuming the worst. (This approach has the added benefit of helping you both to capitalize on teachable moments that can help foster self-sufficiency and autonomy.)
- Be fair. Hold people accountable for their performance and behavior. (This means everyone, including your most trusted team members.) Once you and your team have established team and individual goals, operating principles, and other important guidelines for teamwork and collaboration, insist that everyone abide by them. Make it everyone’s job to hold each other accountable, but the buck stops with you. Spend equal time with all members, regardless of their proximity and relationship to you. Provide everyone a chance to shine by doling out coveted projects around the team, and not just your usual go-to people.
- Admit when you’re wrong. There will be (probably many) times when you’ve overpromised, undersold, misjudged, miscalculated, misstated, or otherwise just messed up. Maybe you promised your manager that your team could somehow beat an already-ridiculous deadline. Or you inadvertently overburdened a few team members, while the others enjoyed a nice break. Perhaps you gave away the team’s training budget to a struggling colleague who seemed desperate to secure needed program funding. Admit your mistake, acknowledge the implications and harm caused, and seek to make it right, without making excuses.
- Take the time to celebrate achievements and reward exceptional work. Did your team just achieve a key milestone? Have a pizza or ice cream party to celebrate, whether in-person or virtual. Think a congratulatory plaque or a team mug sounds hokey? Not to those who feel their work goes unnoticed. Even if your budget won’t allow much more than modest gift cards or a day off here and there, team members will realize that you appreciate their hard work. Simply sending an actual thank-you card can mean the world to a far-flung team member who feels alienated from the rest of the team. And if a thank-you email is all you can muster right now, by all means go for it.
Earning the trust of your team members doesn’t come easily or quickly. And nor should it. People pay close attention to both your words and deeds to determine the extent to which they feel they can trust you with their well-being. And that is really the crux of the matter: For people to have faith in you, you have to prove to them that you have their best interests at heart, even if it’s by saying a few thoughtful words or taking a few small actions every day.
- HBR blog by Sue Bingham, If Employees Don’t Trust You, It’s Up to You to Fix It
- Amy Cuddy, MIT professor and author of the terrific book, Presence
- The Neuroscience of Trust – article in Harvard Business Review, Jan. 2017, print edition (This may require a subscription to view)
- Questions to perform a virtual team health check intended to inspire greater trust – PDF download from Guided Insights
- Jumpstart your own charter for a new virtual team with these questions as a guide – PDF download from Guided Insights
- Listen deeply in a virtual world – tips for gaining trust – excerpt from my virtual teams tips guide – PDF download from Guided Insights
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Facilitation Skills Training – delivered in person or remotely, covering both face-to-face and virtual facilitation skills
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Guided Insights tips guides – PDF documents available for ordering online