• Leadership

Trust is a Leadership Issue

Five key ways to build trustworthy leaders

Wednesday 21 September 2016


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“An absence of trust in the workplace impacts negatively on innovation, engagement, team co-operation and agility. Organizations that operate at a low level of trust do not enjoy business confidence, sustainability or financial success. Building trust is a long-term strategy to achieve sustainability, you can achieve quick results in a culture of fear and mistrust, but these results won’t be sustainable,” says Marlinie Ramsamy, CEO of Franklin Covey, South Africa.

Her comments, which relate to a National Corporate Trust Index for South Africa, published last week, are not only relevant in South Africa, possibly a particularly bad case, but universally. Organizations both large and small only exist as long as they earn and maintain the trust of their customers - and trust, like charity, begins at home. Organizations must build a culture of trust from within and this starts by ensuring trustworthy leadership.

Useful insight on this was provided by Professor Veronica Hope-Hailey, dean of the University of Bath School of Management at the University of Bath, speaking at the CIPD’s L&D Show in 2014. As part of her research, Hope-Hailey had been working with 13 different organizations who, despite having had problems during the recession, had maintained a culture of engagement and trustworthiness. From this research she has identified five key ways to build trustworthy leaders:

Use 360 feedback: Hope-Hailey cited a technique used by the BBC called ‘The Well’. In these feedback sessions, senior managers sat in the centre of a room filled with the people they worked with. Here, they were given face-to-face feedback and asked to respond to the comments. The technique is not for the faint-hearted, she warned, as some members of the senior team left as a result of their session but it did help the media organization to build more trustworthy leaders.

 Admit mistakes: The most trustworthy leaders are “human, real and personable”, she said. They acknowledged and admitted their mistakes, rather than trying to brush them under the carpet. One of the companies studied for the research was Unilever. Their global VP HR marketing, communications, sustainability, water and talent, Geoff McDonald, agreed with Hope-Hailey and said: “People don’t expect perfection but what we expect is honesty.”

Respect legacy: McDonald is particularly passionate about respecting legacy. He speculated that most of today’s big organizations – Unilever included – were probably started by “a group of men and women sitting around a kitchen table, asking: ‘How can we make things better in the world?’” Hope-Hailey cited John Lewis as another big name that has successfully used legacy to build trustworthy leaders.

Listen to gut feeling: One surprising thing the research found was that they weren’t afraid to admit that they occasionally just used their intuition to tell whether a leader could be trusted. Hope-Hailey said that the complex systems and processes that some HR departments use could actually be counterproductive as they can get in the way of natural intuition, which prevents HR professions listening to their inner voice.

 Base recruitment on values: Hope-Hailey said that the best organizations did not flinch from measuring leaders against a set of values. In one utilities company she studied, the best person they had for assessing the trustworthiness of their leaders was not anybody in the HR department but the car park attendant. He saw how people behaved when they thought nobody was watching, for example inappropriately parking in a disabled space.


On the political front, from the Brexit vote to the US presidential campaign, the message to the establishment is clear - we don’t trust you anymore. With recent corporate scandals and revelations of excessive executive pay, scepticism about trust in business leaders is also rife. Furthermore, in our increasingly complex, often dispersed organizations, building and maintaining a culture of trust is not easy – but as Ramsamy says it is critical to sustainability. 


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