It’s a demonstrable fact, now repeated in study after study, that organisations that focus on building trust in leaders perform better across a raft of indicators, from employee engagement, to knowledge-sharing, to innovation, and even to the bottom line itself: profitability. Trust can no longer be neglected. It’s a core component of an organisation’s success: any Organisation Development process that overlooks the critical importance of building trust in leaders is unlikely to achieve a healthy and worthwhile evolution. How can an organisation ensure that trust is truly enhanced in its leaders?

Whereas employee engagement has focused on building organisational cultures that facilitate discretionary efforts by staff, it’s only relatively recently that business leaders have started appreciating the vital part that system-wide trust plays in healthy and productive organisations. Trustworthy environments provide cognitive, emotional and practical containment for the inevitable human vulnerabilities that are mobilised in times of uncertainty. In our continually changing business environments, we can’t simply dispense with uncertainty but we can learn to support one another through it as authentically and good-heartedly as possible.

This, in effect, is the core message to a new generation of leaders. You need to be seen and experienced as authentically trustworthy by those who report to you and by those you report to. You need to cultivate a climate of reciprocal communications between your staff in which they intuitively trust one another to offer solidarity and support when they raise vulnerability issues. Uncertainty, paradoxically, undermines trust; but building trustworthy workplace relationships is probably the only “cure” for it.

People will only experiment with or embrace change when their propensity to trust is enhanced. This means that leaders have an overriding obligation to demonstrate their own trustworthiness, consistently and reliably. Academics who have studied building trust in leaders have identified four foundational characteristics that must be in place if a leader’s trustworthiness is to have any credibility:

  • Ability – how competently a leader fulfils his or her role.
  • Benevolence – a genuine concern for others beyond the leader’s own needs and an ability to show authentic care and compassion when the need arises.
  • Integrity – a leader’s visibly consistent adherence to principles of honesty and fairness.
  • Predictability – a leader’s ability to demonstrate consistent behaviour over time.

A recent study by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) in association with Bath University’s School of Management found that clear evidence for trustworthiness during candidate selection could be obtained through techniques such as values-based, evidence-based and whole-person-based interviewing, where candidates are encouraged to share their personal stories. However, that’s just Step One.

The study also found that ongoing development practices such as action learning continually expanded leaders’ awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses – a process that helps build trust in oneself as a leader. Development practices such as training courses and masterclasses were found to measurably help expand a leader’s consciousness of the needs of others, while assessment practices such as 360-degree feedback helped build trust in leaders by providing clear evidence of their trustworthiness.

Importantly, where trust behaviours (i.e. behaviours that are perceived to be trustworthy) were visibly rewarded, trust was continually recreated and renewed, as it was when platforms were created to stage open conversations about trust.

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