Reflections on Trust in Executive Leadership

Vania Castro's picture Submitted by Vania Castro July 23, 2020 - 12:52pm
Reflections on Trust in Executive Leadership

During the pandemic, leaders are called to make shifts at a magnitude and pace that is hard to overstate. McKinsey & Company notes in its 2020 article: The CEO Moment: Leadership for a new era, that the barriers to boldness and speed of shifts are less about technical limits and more about such things as mindsets toward what is possible, and what people are willing to do. When the times call for bold shifts, they also call for a bold investment in trust-building with followers who carry out those shifts.

For example, competent leaders who bring more of themselves to work by demonstrating vulnerability will earn trust and empathy from followers, which will enhance their engagement, even when they do not feel they have much control in uncertain times (Zak, 2017).

Here are some additional reflections for executive coaches to keep in mind in working with leaders on the topic of trust.

Trust is taking a big hit during the pandemic in several ways:
  • In our global crisis we are collectively coping with the physical, mental, and emotional impact of the pandemic.
  • We are in a storm of uncertainty and anxiety about our health, economy, and future.
  • Human societies around the world have never been more interdependent which demands more trust than ever.
  • Globally and nationally there is significant polarization in opinions and responses to the crisis.

All of these stresses are impairing trust. To make matters worse, amidst the chaos we can easily forget the importance of attending to trust, and we can forget why trust matters.

Trust matters more than ever:

“Without trust you can’t have engaged relationships, without engaged relationships, you won’t be a successful coach, leader, manager, salesperson, team member, principal, teacher, or nurse...” notes Jon Gordon in his 2010 book titled Soup.

People who have a greater trust in themselves and faith in a larger evolutionary process may find navigating the pandemic easier than others.

Trust was already low at the start of the pandemic. In January 2020, the Edelman Trust Barometer (global) reported: "None of the four societal institutions that the study measures—government, business, NGOs and media—is trusted. The cause of this paradox can be found in people’s fears about the future and their role in it, which are a wake-up call for our institutions to embrace a new way of effectively building trust: balancing competence with ethical behavior." "In a majority of markets, less than half of the mass population trust their institutions to do what is right. There are now a record eight markets showing all-time-high gaps between the two audiences—an alarming trust inequality."

The Edelman Trust Barometer (2015) study found that countries with higher trust levels overall also show a greater willingness to trust new business innovations. This trust could well extend to new policies and innovations related to managing the pandemic.

Trust is individual and varied, a one-size approach to trust doesn’t fit everyone. We are in the same storm but not in the same boat. The drivers of trust vary widely for individuals and organizations. The nature of trust changes with the situation and context, and over time. The way we see trust emerges from our own mental models that emerged from our particular experiences.

Trust-building is a vital leadership competency. Trustworthy leaders first trust themselves, manage their own fears well and are able to see clearly and objectively (Bligh, 2017).

The impact of leading trust in organizations is well explored by Paul Zak’s work on the neuroscience of trust and high trust organizations that shows employees in high trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better, and stay with their employers longer than those working with at low-trust organizations.

Trust-building needs to adapt to both virtual work and health risks in the workplace. Attention and focus are needed to design work processes which address both rational components of trust (knowledge, competence, reliability, predictability, credibility, and dependability) and emotional components of trust (empathy, security, benevolence, and serving the greater good). "Trust is earned when actions meet words." – Chris Butler.

Trust is particularly emotional, given the high levels of fear and anxiety. Leaders need to pay more attention than ever before to the emotional components of trust including: being benevolent and authentic, showing empathy, addressing insecurities, and focusing on transcendent, other-serving goals. Leaders need to create a safe space for people to ask for advice and help, express their opinions, and resolve conflict. Leaders need also to be authentic about their emotional experiences, including their challenges and concerns.

Trust is cultivated by transparency – business and personal

Leaders are recognizing the need to be transparent about organizational information in order to build trust.  Transparency is also becoming personal with virtual work – people can ‘bring more of themselves’ and can ‘extend hands, truly listening, relating to and connecting with people where they are.’ (McKinsey & Company, 2020).

Trust-building requires exceptional investment, leaders can build trust through extra investments in designing work processes to address the rational components of trust, as well as the emotional components of trust - connecting and relating, crafting thoughtful, honest, authentic messaging, making commitments with great care.

Trust-building is a competitive advantage, given that trust is a vital dimension of the relationship between leaders and followers. It may position leaders a step ahead of others in helping followers to adapt and reinvent their direction during the pandemic.

Michelle Bligh (2017) explains, "Trusting senior leaders enhances employee readiness for corporate transformation. In addition, in a company that is experiencing a merger, relocating, or downsizing, higher levels of trust enhance followers’ commitment to the organization, even when employees do not feel they have much control over the change itself. Trust is also important for the buffering effect it plays against negative workplace situations."

Trust needs a customized approach. Trust is a complex, multifactorial concept and deserves a focused effort to adapt to your coaching, life or organization. Good trust models to consider are Brene Brown’s Seven Elements of Trust, and Paul Zak’s eight factors described in his article on the neuroscience of trust.

Trust Matters in a Pandemic.

Author: Vania Castro, Ph.D.
Contributors: Maura Koutoujian, Karen Casanovas, Patricia Hinton Walker, Işık Taçoğlu, Keyaunoosh Kassauei, Margaret Moore
Inspired by an IOC Fellows Huddle, June 2020

Bligh, M. C. (2017). Leadership and trust. In Leadership today (pp. 21-42). Springer, Cham.
Brene Brown: The Seven Elements of Trust
Edelman Trust Barometer: https://www.edelman.com/trustbarometer
Gordon, J. (2010). Soup: A recipe to nourish your team and culture. Wiley.
McKinsey & Co. (2020). The CEO Moment: Leadership for a new era
Zak, P. J. (2017). The neuroscience of trust. Harvard Business Review, 95(1), 84-90.