This edition of “Leadership Briefs” is primarily based on Stephen M.R. Covey’s book, Speed of Trust, and on a recent article I read where best-selling author and leadership expert, Kevin Eikenberry, was interviewed concerning trust in the workplace. Eikenberry’s most recent book is entitled “Remarkable Leadership: Unleashing Your Leadership Potential One Skill at a Time.” There are also other supportive references and quotes included as well.

“The turbulent economic conditions of the past few years that have crippled many businesses certainly diminish the trust levels within them.” – Inc. Magazine, Aug. 2, 2010

As many of us recently heard, The National Bureau of Economic Research, an independent group of economists, released a statement on Sept. 20, 2010 stating that a review of economic data clearly indicated that the recession ended and the economy began to improve in the summer of 2009*. In spite of this statement, most of us realize that we still have quite a bit of work ahead of us to truly move to a robust economy. In fact, some economists still concede the possibility of a second dip recession and see continued improvement as a significant challenge.

”Trust is… “the state of readiness for unguarded interaction with someone or something.” – D. Tway ‘A Construct of Trust’

Along these same lines, there is less-than-a-positive perception of our organizational leaders, both in government and in private industry, as many believe that the economy and general health of our nation is as a result of our leaders either lacking the ability to lead effectively or being self-serving. A couple of examples used to make this point are … the greed on Wall Street, abuse in governmental powers, the inability of our government leaders to act in unison in the face of problems, the high salaries and bonuses of top executives during times of marginal performance, layoffs and high unemployment. This has led to cynicism regarding leaders, their abilities and their commitment to the organization. It has also led to a breakdown in trust between leaders and the people in an organization looking to them for leadership. As a result, this perception, underlying cynicism and breakdown in trust have become barriers to organizational improvement as people do not believe that their leaders and the organizations they lead have the capacity to turn things around.

Recent surveys

A few recent surveys that illustrate the level of cynicism and the breakdown in trust in the workplace…

  • In the Korn/Ferry Institute’s Confidence in Leadership Index, the North American scores for credibility and trust in leadership are at all-time lows.
  • Deloitte’s annual Ethics and Workplace Survey found that a third of Americans plan to seek new jobs as the economy recovers. The top reasons: a lack of trust in their employers and lack of transparent communication from leadership.
  • “A modern economy simply can’t function if people don’t have faith that the institutions around them actually work.”
  • “Yet this year many, many people stopped believing that our financial institutions – and to some extent the companies in the broader economy – were trustworthy. Rebuilding confidence … will take a long time.”

Harvard Business Review, 6/09

Why Trust is So Important

In his book, Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey identifies the following key points on why trust is so important in business today which lead to his belief that “Trust is a key leadership competency in the new economy”.

Covey’s key points:

  • Trust is a hard edged economic driver because it always addresses speed and cost. When trust decreases, speed decreases, and costs rise.
  • Trust is needed to acquire and keep customers, create and maintain community, and inspire and retain team members
  • Trust is a function of credibility and behavior. You build credibility by acting with integrity, demonstrating respect for people, building and maintaining relevant and current capabilities and getting results.

Therefore, a primary issue in moving to prosperity, organizational high performance and resiliency is enabling people to once again trust in leadership and in the organizations they lead and be confident that once again leaders can be relied upon to create and execute a strategy that will lead them to success.

“An engaged workforce is a huge competitive advantage; disengaged workers impose enormous financial costs, resist needed change, and inhibit customer advocacy. Finding a solution to any problem requires first making an accurate diagnosis, and the evidence suggests employers are generally barking up the wrong tree; it is the way people are treated in the workplace that is the critical factor.” – Nick Mitchell

What leaders can do to reduce cynicism and build trust

So, what do leaders need to do to reduce cynicism and build trust with the organizations they lead? “Leaders have to make [building trust] a priority,” Eikenberry says. To gain the organization’s trust, leaders must demonstrate they can be depended upon by ensuring they follow-through on what they say they will do (i.e. that their actions match their words). “Trust is a two-way street: The best way to build trust is to grant trust,” Eikenberry goes on to say. “If we want to build trust, we need to be more other-focused.” When employees see that you care about them and aren’t just pursuing your own agenda, their confidence in you grows.

“Trust is a pragmatic, tangible asset that can be created.” – Stephen M. R. Covey

Behaviors to develop that enable leaders to build trust with employees

The most effective way for leaders to demonstrate that they truly care about employees and for employees not to perceive that they are simply a “means to an end”, is to spend time with them and to actively listen to their concerns and their hopes. As Kevin Eikenberry states “Listen more carefully … Listen, listen, listen. When we listen, we’re sending another important message: that [employees] are important and their ideas are important.” Conceptionally, this is easy to understand. However, to actually become skilled at asking questions that lead to authentic dialogue and stimulate the imagination and to attentively listen to gain a deep understanding of the thoughts, ideas and especially the underlying emotions expressed is a skill that must be developed. Great leaders learn this skill and, most importantly, practice it until it is so ingrained it becomes their habitual way of interacting with others.

Leadership Behaviors that build trust:

  • Talk Straight – Be honest & tell the truth
  • Demonstrate Respect
  • Create Transparency
  • Right wrongs
  • Show Loyalty
  • Deliver Results Practice Accountability

Stephen M.R. Covey

What leaders need to do to prepare employees for the changes ahead

In this time of continuous change, it is imperative that employees trust that their leader will keep them posted on the relevant information concerning changes that will affect them and/or the organization. “Communicate more and communicate sooner,” Eikenberry advises. Many times leaders wait until they have all the changes “nailed down” before talking with employees. Most of the time this is already too late as the gossip mill has begun to expand all possible suspicions, attention is taken off the work that needs to get done, trust starts to break down and cynicism takes over. I have said many times over the years, in the absence of information, employees will “fill the gap” with the suspicions usually grounded in the worst case scenario of what they think may be happening.

A better way to handle this is for leaders to involve employees early in the process, before all the answers are known.

It is much better to meet with employees early and at times have to say “I will let you know as soon as I know it,” as Eikenberry explains, versus waiting until all aspects of a situation are known (which in most cases never happens). Simply meeting and discussing what the leader knows will lower anxiety, stop cynicism before it starts and gain credibility and trust for the leader.

What Leaders need to highlight during change

The focus of leaders during change needs to first be on the people who will be responsible for successfully carrying out the change and then the specifics of how the change will be made. Most times this is reversed in organizations and the form (i.e. the details) become more important that the level of readiness and wherewithal of the employees who will be caring it out. Kevin Eikenberry observes that “Organizations tend to want to manage change and not lead change. They focus on the mechanics of making the change, ignoring the people who are necessary to successfully carry out the plan.”

Leadership’s role in change is one of sponsorship; to communicate, nurture, advocate for, remove obstacles and overall to support people through the change. It’s a high involvement, hands-on approach with a lot of two-way dialogue. People openly ask questions and express concerns which enable them to work through their potential resistance and more fully understand the desired future state as well as their role in helping get there. Through this process, both the sponsor and the people involved more fully appreciate the impact of the change on them and the organization. It also creates a higher level of trust in the organization and minimizes cynicism as people are able to express and resolve concerns directly. As Kevin Eikenberry states in the interview, Leadership’s role is much “…more than having a really great PowerPoint slide. Leaders need to engage people in a conversation about the change.”

“A 15 year study to determine the key leadership characteristics identified the top four as: Honest, Forward-Looking, Competent and Inspiring.” – Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner

Key Leadership Behaviors that instill trust and reduce cynicism

In their article “Combating cynicism in the workplace”, Organizational psychologist and consultant, Philip H. Mirvis, and Professor Donald L. Kanter identified the following leadership behaviors that create trust and reduce cynicism:

  • Managing fairly
  • Operating in an open, honest, straightforward and realistic manner
  • Have employees participate in governance
  • Give employees the opportunity to provide regular reality checks to management
  • Ensure current and future management are people viewed as positive role models
  • Ensure an open, honest and equitable pay system
  • Give employees something to believe in – corporate mission and values statement are valuable here provided they are widely distributed as well as actively and consistently implemented.

“When trust exists between employees and management, and more importantly with customers, business will thrive.” – Inc. Magazine

In Conclusion

Building trust, reducing cynicism and creating an organization with a high level of belief and commitment are foundational aspects of leadership and organizational prosperity. At Center for Organizational Success, this is a principal area of focus for us; one based on years of training and experience and the resulting expertise we’ve developed. Please feel free to write or call us at no obligation for our assistance in developing and implementing an approach to create the enthusiastic and successful organization you envision.

The Best!

Dave Fleck



* That makes the year and a half recession which began in Dec. 2007 the longest and deepest downturn for the U.S. economy since the Great Depression” (CNN/Money Magazine, 9/20/10).