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7 Leadership Skills of High-Trust Leaders

In today’s pressure cooker business world, there is greater uncertainty and risk for people and organisations.   It’s during these turbulent and unpredictable times that trust issues begin to surface, sometimes unbeknownst to leaders.  Used to the times when things were predictable and the stakes low, leadership didn’t even need to consider trust.  But throw in some instability and fear, and all of a sudden trust problems can become a strategic execution derailer.

That’s because where you have low trust in an organisation, you have low confidence in management.

According to a Tower Watson’s survey, one of the top reasons for disengaged employees in Australia is a lack of trust in leadership.  The reasons cited from employees are they are tired of change and want clear direction and leadership from their managers.

The root cause is that employees don’t believe senior management are taking the necessary action or decisions to deserve trust.  All it takes is a failed IT strategy, product launch, merger or a large drop in sales for employees to start questioning the competence of their leaders going forward.

Essentially, employees want leaders that will do the right thing – by them, their peers and the organisation.

In a high-trust collective, you will find leaders who are trustworthy and who have a concept of what it means to act with trust.  They also expect this behaviour from others, ensuring that trust cascades throughout the organisation.  Over time, it eventually becomes embedded within the company ensuring employees are more resilient to change and confident about the organisation’s future.

But it’s not easy.  And for many leaders, it means exhibiting behaviours that are counterintuitive or just really hard to do.  Let’s take a look at the leadership skills that high-trust leaders consciously demonstrate to increase trust and confidence throughout the organisation.

1. Make Tough Decisions

A common issue with leaders is they hold onto people for far too long who are either underperforming or who are just plain toxic.  In an effort to do the right thing by the performance-challenged employee, leaders actually frustrate other employees who dislike seeing poor performers being kept in a job (and having to cover for their short-falls in performance or just bad behaviours).  It creates distrust and a lack of confidence in leadership because it reeks of a failure to confront issues and a protection of the status quo.  

To improve trust levels, leaders need to remove poor performers and penalise poor behaviours that don’t reflect the culture. As one CEO said to me recently, “I finally got rid of this bloke that had been running a department for 12 years and it was like the culture changed overnight.  He was a bully and all of the other employees were so happy I’d let him go.  If I’d known that before, I would have done it earlier.”

2. Reframe Risk

In an uncertain and risky situation, high-trust leaders need the right communication skills to ensure that they can reduce any anxiety and fear with employees so that they can operate effectively. People differ in their ability to trust others based on their psychological makeup.  Those who are risk averse are least likely to trust others.  In fact, it takes a lot of time to get them over the line and to buy into a new initiative.

Often, when employees are fearful, it’s because they don’t understand something.  To build trust, leaders need to know how to reframe problems, so that people can understand how to minimise negative outcomes and maximise benefits.  It’s about focusing on the solution and reframing the meaning people give to events to help them get through their fear of loss.  Knowing who is risk averse and taking extra time to help them understand how the risk is being handled or even pairing them up with a high-risk colleague goes a long way to getting them on board faster.

3. Show Interest in Others

Numerous studies have found that trust in leadership is one of the most important factors that employees rate when it comes to satisfaction with their job.  After all, we are more likely to follow someone who we know will do the right thing by us.  At the heart of it, is that employees want to know that their boss cares about them.  They want to know that they are more than just their job.

High-trust leaders know how to make others feel important and make a point of connecting with others and treating everyone equally.  Most important of all, they are curious about people and ask the right questions to uncover their dreams and aspirations.  In doing so, they align each individual’s self-interest with the collective interest of the group, while also supporting each person’s career goals.

4. Create a Safe Space

People are tired of being uncertain at work and place a premium on a culture that consistently delivers the truth.  An astonishing 81% of employees would rather join a company that values “open communication” than one that offers perks such as top health plans, free food and gym memberships.  No wonder that in the same survey undertaken by 15Five found that 85% of employees are unsatisfied with the quality of communication in their workplace.

Organisations that have high-trust environments ensure that people feel safe to have open, candid conversations about topics that are often taboo in most organisations (you can read more at Six Steps to Build a High-Trust Culture).  In a low trust organisation, a subordinate would never even consider challenging their boss for fear of losing their job.  In a high-trust company, that sort of candour is not only encouraged, but it’s expected.

To produce a psychologically safe workplace, leaders need to have the right skills to facilitate a high candour environment.  They need to be able to put aside self-interested and protectionist tendencies and have a friendly demeanour where people are able to express their concerns, fears and ask questions about what is really going on.  At the same time, the leader probes on what people think about a new initiative and what they would do.  No topic is taboo.  In other words, high trust leaders have learnt to have the tough conversations other leaders prefer to avoid and they accept people as they are and not what they want them to be.

5. Purpose-Driven Leadership

People feel greater trust and empathy toward people who are similar to themselves and are part of the same social circles.  A clear sense of purpose, values and mission connect everyone together through being able to collectively see the meaning of their work.  It’s how you get a diverse group of people aligned.

High trust leaders are experts at defining and communicating the collective interests and reward those who promote them, to generate the right collective actions. They always connect people back to the company purpose in meetings and presentations.  They also make it clear what values drive them.

In doing so, they make it clear what they value most, in order to make it easier for others to determine whose interests they will serve.  After all, we are more likely to trust others when we can see that they put other people’s interests ahead of their own.  

6. Share the Decision-Making Process

People are more likely to accept a decision, even if they disagree with it if they know that a fair and rigorous process has been involved.

High-trust leaders involve all parties in a decision process right from the start.  Whether that’s through forming work groups to make difficult decisions or through consulting individuals about what they believe needs to be done.   They always ask for people’s thoughts on how to solve a problem and then follow them up on their ideas for improvement.  This goes a long way towards building trust and helping people feel comfortable with a decision.

7. Connect Everyone Together

One of the common issues with organisations as they get bigger is that departments splinter into their own fiefdoms.  Department leaders compete against each other on who has the most people, sales and resources, resulting in an”us versus them” mentality.  Over time, trust is destroyed due to the complexity of misaligned interests slowing execution and growth.

High-trust leaders are effectively integrators who deeply understand why the organisation exists (purpose), the required behaviours (values) and the obligations to stakeholders needed to achieve the company vision.  They work to align and integrate all stakeholder interests, through ensuring that departmental leaders understand each other’s perspectives.  At the same time, they demonstrate that they care that the other department is successful, rather than displaying self-interested and competitive behaviours.  

While working seamlessly with other departments, high-trust leaders also ensure their own employees collaborate well in teams.  They also provide them with opportunities to work in other departments or in cross-functional groups, to not only improve their skills, but to increase their number of social connections within the business.  They also provide ample social opportunities for people to connect.

Trust Behaviours of a Leader – A Valuable Asset

Today, trust has never been so valuable and precious.  The good news is that those who lead with trust will be rewarded with loyal followers and a productive and healthy workforce.  

But being a high-trust leader is not an easy task, in the complex, multi-stakeholder and competitive world we live in.  Our education system has rewarded us to compete against others and be the best.  While most business environments encourage employees to compete against each other for promotions and even sales.     These environments push us to act opportunistically and it hurts the organisation long term.

Being a trustworthy leader requires to not only understand what that trust means at a comprehensive level but to do the hard work of increasing trust with others every day.  It means putting aside your own personal agenda, for the good of the group.  

Business conditions change rapidly and employees look to leaders for signs that they know what they are doing and that the organisation will prevail.  Leaders who are clear on their intent, who can create an emotionally safe workplace and who work towards the good of the group ensure they are seen as being credible and worthy of being trusted.  The result is coworkers who understand that while change may bring uncertainties, they are comforted by a strong support system with fellow employees, who are all working in concert towards a common goal.  But best of all, work becomes fun and more enjoyable for everyone, where there is high-trust.

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