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Why trust matters most: Leadership in the face of change and disruption

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Trust is the foundation that holds relationships, teams and organisations together through thick and thin. And for leaders at the top of their companies, maintaining that trust can make or break their success.

Why is trust important for executives, especially during times of change and disruption? What does it take to build and repair trust in your organisation? Let’s explore.

Trust is essential

For companies large and small, there must be a connection between leadership teams and employees. At the core, that relationship is established and destroyed based on the level of trust.

Vistage speaker, author and coach Chalmers Brothers argues that trust is necessary for cooperation and commitment.

‘If we want to coordinate action, we have to have some level of trust in the organisation,’ he says, ‘some capacity to depend on and be confident in the other people’s ability to do what they say that they’re gonna do.’

When challenges arise, such as times of market uncertainty or slow growth, trust can encourage team performance.

According to Hilary Blair, a Vistage speaker and CEO of Denver-based training firm ARTiculate, ‘When we have trust, we know we’re going to hear what we need to hear and there will be an openness. You can power through it together.’

Benefits of having a high-trust organisation during challenging times

Leadership trust is one of the top indicators of success during change and disruption in organisations. Why is this foundation so beneficial?

Brothers explains that working in a high-trust organisation allows ‘much more productivity because I’m not looking over my shoulder.’ This can lead to quicker decisions, outcomes and actions when faced with obstacles.

Another benefit of trust is comfortability with risk, according to Blair. ‘When we’re in high trust, I think we’ll risk a little more, we’ll put a little more sweat and tears in,’ she says. Taking calculated risks can help organisations improve their innovation and solve difficult problems.

‘The subjective experience of working together … it’s simply more enjoyable to be with people that you have a track record with whom you trust,’ Brothers adds. Collaboration is most seamless when the team and its leadership trust one another.

Blair notes how trust can lead to better results, whether that’s more revenue or a stronger organisation.

‘I think greater trust and more voices save us from stumbling,’ she says. In a high-trust environment, team members are more willing to speak up when they see problems or opportunities.

How to build trust as a leader

Here are 5 ways leaders can build a foundation of trust.

1. Start on day one

Blair compares building leadership trust early to being a substitute teacher. When subbing for a class, these teachers are tasked with overseeing unfamiliar students often putting them in a difficult position. Full-time teachers, on the other hand, have ‘the status and the power already established, that ‘I am the leader’ attitude,’ she says.

‘I think sometimes new leaders come in with the substitute teacher energy,’ Blair explains. They aim to maintain the environment instead of working to build relationships over time. The small things, like establishing best communication practices among the team, are essential at this stage.

2. Encourage open communication

Brothers defines open communication as ‘communication in areas that historically may have been troublesome or difficult.’ That means light and breezy conversations about a future company trip or ideas on an upcoming project don’t count as true open communication.

Instead, he describes the idea of ‘carefrontation.’ When you really care about someone, you can and should have difficult conversations that will further their success.

Leaders who want to establish a high level of trust must be willing to talk with their team openly when issues come up.

3. Share information

One of the most important pieces of trust is transparency. It’s a leader’s responsibility to be with their team during both high and low periods.

‘I think it’s being available and being transparent about what’s going on,’ says Blair. Maintaining honesty within your organisation establishes your credibility and discussing the details, especially in times of uncertainty, can prompt unique solutions.

4. Be authentic

‘Authenticity, sincerity and vulnerability are strengths, not weaknesses, and it’s a powerful way to build trust,’ explains Brothers. Leadership shouldn’t be about control, and in the current corporate environment, employees want to feel inspired by their superiors.

Blair cautions that ‘If we suggest that, as a leader, there’s only one authentic way to show up, we are not honouring the different facets of that human being.’ She argues that being authentic doesn’t mean acting the same way with friends, parents and co-workers. People are complex and human relationships mirror that fact.

5. Have high integrity

Leading with integrity is a great strategy to develop trust with both employees and customers. More than ever, the younger generations want to support and work with organisations that present consistent, socially conscious morals.

It’s critical that leadership ‘is in alignment with their values, the mission of the company, how they’re actually showing up, their integrity,’ says Blair. ‘That builds trust that even if things aren’t great, we’re going to stay with you.’

How to repair trust

After spending months or years developing trust, losing that connection can be frustrating as a leader. However, just as trust can be built, it can also be repaired.

Brothers underscores that ‘the way that we make and manage commitments and the issue of reliability is at the core of building and rebuilding trust.’

Even when you can’t make a deadline or an event you committed to, the next step is to communicate and provide an alternative option.

Blair advises leaders to ask for feedback, but not just any feedback. ‘It has to be very specific questions and the more specificity, the stronger it will be,’ she explains. Then, it’s all about the follow-through. Leaders must say ‘I hear that feedback. I’m going to think about it.’

Finally, showing you care can help repair trust. According to Brothers, ‘If we’re working together, I’m gonna have your interests alongside mine when you’re not in the room and I’m making decisions. I care about it, so I’m gonna be explicit and conscious about these things.’

In the face of change and disruption, trust is the foundation leaders need to weather the storm. As Brothers says, ‘What is it like to be in an organisation where distrust is rampant? It’s no fun at all.’

This article was originally featured in the Vistage Research Centre.

Successful business leaders recognise trust builds successful, sustainable organisations

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