“Trust is like the air we breathe—when it's present, nobody really notices. When it's absent, everyone notices.” Warren Buffett
When homo sapiens first made their appearance on the plains and mountains of planet Earth several hundred thousand years ago, life was tough, and the threat of becoming a sabre-tooth tiger’s lunch or being taken out by an extreme climatic event was a real and present danger.
These early humans realised that, by forming themselves into social groups, or clans, they stood a greater chance of protecting themselves from imminent demise. They knew that everyone in the clan was sticking their necks out for everyone else, and, in so doing, they developed a deep sense of cooperation and trust.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and humankind’s social arrangements have advanced from clans to tribes, to entire societies, and the one thing that continues to underpin the success of these large communities is the same:trust. Consider any high-performing team or organisation, and you’ll find that the central thread holding it all together is no different: It’s still trust. People who trust each other and their leaders feel safe, and when people feel safe, they instinctively combine their strengths to work tirelessly to face outside threads and build successful organisations.
But what exactly is trust, and how do you build (or rebuild) it when it doesn’t exist, or it has been eroded? According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, trust is the "firm belief or confidence in the honesty, integrity, reliability, justice, etc. of another person or thing."
One thing we know for sure is that trust is not something that can be easily quantified. It is also not something that can be done on command. If someone demands that you trust them, your initial response might be, “Why?” The answer to that why is because trust is something that is earned. It is grounded in emotions and backed up by actions.
In it’s most basic form, trust is an innate feeling where the person experiencing it knows, without a doubt, that they can count on the people they trust to have their backs, no matter what. According to Solomon and Fernando Flores in their bestselling book, Building
Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships, and Life, “…trust often seems invisible ('transparent,' simply taken for granted), [but is] the result of continuous attentiveness and activity.”
Simon Sinek, in his blockbuster TED talk entitled: Why Leaders Make you Feel Safe, says, “If you get the working environment right, everyone has the capacity to do remarkable things.” Michael C Bush from Great Place to Work, Inc., believes that happy employees make more money, producing three times more revenue than organisations where employees are unhappy. They also outperform the stock market by a factor of three. And, if you look at employee turnover, it’s half of what happens in organisations with unhappy employees.
None of this has anything to do with the perks the firm offers - it has everything to do with the way their people are treated by their leaders and the people with whom they work. And what is this all based on? There are two main elements: Respect, and yes, you guessed it, trust.
As a leader, the way you behave, treat, and support others defines the work environment around you. Frances Frei, Senior Associate Dean for Executive Education at the Harvard Business School, took a leave of absence in 2018 to join Uber as their Senior Vice-president for Leadership and Strategy. She was hired to help improve the company’s culture and rebuild trust among its people following a series of PR nightmares. The author of the books
“Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business” and “Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You”, Frei places a significant emphasis on trust as the foundation of every thriving organisation.
There are statistics out there that state that up to 70% of people are not satisfied in their jobs. According to Frei, when people are dissatisfied at work, they become actively disengaged, and disengaged employees do little for the organisation’s brand.
Many of the people who are dissatisfied at work feel this way because their leaders have not engaged them in ways that feel meaningful to them. We cannot expect employees to get job satisfaction out of performing routine work if we don’t provide them with a context that explains why they are doing it. As leaders, we have to create a sense of purpose and meaning for employees, to heighten levels of employee engagement.
Many leaders have not yet figured out how to unleash the full potential that already exists within their employees. They have successfully compiled all their strategies, which require a certain number of people performing a certain number of tasks, and they have set about making their people do it. By the same token, telling their people what the company’s vision is and then expecting them to throw themselves into their work barely moves the needle.
Frei believes that to win somebody’s trust, you need to demonstrate authenticity, empathy, and logic. People need to believe that all the nice things you’re saying are coming from a place of deep authenticity. People can tell at a moment’s glance if you’re faking it. You might be afraid to bring your message forward, or you might be delivering a message on behalf of your boss that you don’t believe in yourself. While you might be physically delivering the message, the people listening will know that you’re being inauthentic. That lack of authenticity will send trust running for the hills.
When your people believe that you’re only in it for yourself, they will find it difficult to trust you. When you’ve demonstrated that you’ve taken the time to understand their perspective, they will trust you. The benefit of having people trust you is that you get enormous benefit of the doubt, which goes a long way in accelerating everything else you want to do and achieve.
To genuinely be an inspirational leader, you need to practice empathy. Being empathetic is not simply a matter of smiling and saying, “I feel your pain”. It’s about demonstrating
that other people are more important than you are. It’s about being more interested in what other people have to say instead of what’s about to come out of your own mouth. Being primarily interested in what you have to say makes it incredibly difficult to communicate empathy unless what you’re talking about is entirely about other people. It’s about actively participating in meetings and discussions from start to finish, leaving your personal technology out of the boardroom, and instead of enduring the rest of the meeting when you’ve gotten the point across, you engage with others to help them “get it” too. If you don’t completely reveal that concepts of: “I get you”, “I see you” and “I’m doing this for you”, nobody will trust you. All you’re going to be doing is lowering the bounds of what people are going to give of themselves in the workplace.
If you want people to trust you, you need to provide some sense of transparency in terms of what you are doing. Telling people to trust you is not enough. People want to see the map (understand the vision) of where you’re taking them so that they can understand and believe in your logic. Communicate your goals and ideas clearly. Show people what they’re aiming for. If people don’t know what they’re aiming for, they’ll hit nothing every time. This is particularly relevant in today’s workplace with more and more millennials joining the ranks. For this generation of young leaders, understanding an organisation’s business models in detail is critical to their level of engagement in the workplace.
True leaders can be found in every level of an organisation, not only in the higher echelons. They’re easy to spot because they’re the ones engaging in tangible acts of leadership, making others better because of their presence. While they are awesome in their own right, they are helping others to get in touch with their own inner awesomeness, giving them a chance to shine too.
To unleash this inner awesomeness, they’ve built a relationship of trust with their people. These people have absolute faith in their leaders’ logic, empathy, and authenticity, but their leaders are also teaching them how to help others have faith in theirs.
When people are brought closer to the action and understand why they’re doing the work they do, and they trust the logic of it, they move out of their silos and into cooperation. Trust, as we know, fosters cooperation, and when people cooperate, they use fewer resources. People who cooperate find more value in their work, which simultaneously makes them feel more optimistic about their organisation, its future, and their role in it.
According to a recent report by prophet.com, employees who feel optimistic about their company and are engaged at work are far more likely to stay with their companies. Employees who believe in the future of their organisations are significantly more motivated than those who don’t and won’t be handing in their letters of resignation any time soon.
According to a recent report by the Harvard Business Review, compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout.
Where there is a high culture of trust among its people, organisations thrive because their employees are motivated, feel valued and trusted, and are given the freedom to manage people and execute tasks and projects in their own unique way. This has a direct ripple effect because their customers instantly pick up on this positive, proactive, and customer-centric energy. Follow through by delivering on your promises, and you will have a customer for life. An organisation cannot exist without its customers, and few organisations want the first time a customer walks through their doors, whether physical or virtual, to be the last.
In a 2014 BIA/Kelsey and Manta Joint Report entitled “SMBs Shift Priority to Customer Retention”, it was reported that 61% of small-to-medium-size businesses accrue more than half of their revenue from repeat customers rather than new business. According to Forbes, it can cost five times more to acquire new customers than it costs to retain
existing customers. And, according to a report by Bains & Co, a 5% increase in customer retention can increase a company’s profitability by 75%.
Organisations who have gotten it right on the inside are getting it right on the outside. Their internal levels of trust, empathy, authenticity, and logic flow directly outwards when dealing with their external stakeholders. Customers can feel it, and when they experience the integrity of your words and actions, they will return time and time again. According to Rare, 86% of consumers say their loyalty is driven primary by likeability and trust.
Likeability and trust translate directly to what people are saying about your organisation, especially on social media. In a 2016 Forbes report, 74% of consumers said that when searching for a local business to work with, positive reviews made them trust a business more. Can you even begin to imagine the effect that this can have on your bottom line?
When leading your organisation into the future, start with trust. Build it and nurture it. Allow it to permeate every aspect of your business. Employees who are coached and shaped by their leaders along the way (rather than waiting for their annual performance reviews) are automatically going to be more engaged. Employees who are mentored will stop waiting for others to do things for them—instead, they will take charge and do these things themselves. For the things they don’t know, they will actively seek out help, vertically, horizontally, internally, and externally, without fear of reprisal.
Great leaders encourage accountability and communication, and not only when their people have slipped up. They teach their people to be accountable, much in the same way that they hold themselves accountable. Through this accountability, employees retain the discretionary effort they can put in to do a job well, doing more than the minimum because they understand that mediocrity is reserved solely for mediocre people who work for mediocre organisations.
Foster a sense of belonging among your people, bring in the right strategy, and then live the culture. When you bring all these pieces together, you will create an organisation capable of making a massive difference in the world.