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Building a High Trust Workplace: Today’s Strategic Competitive Asset

September 7, 2020

Think of a time when you worked with a group of great people, where trust prevailed, where your leadership had earned a followership and where everyone worked towards the same vision. It doesn’t have to have been paid work; community service counts, too. No luck?

Workplaces like this do exist. However, it takes a committed effort by managerial leaders to initiate and sustain the process to create a high trust workplace.

Trust is the most difficult part of leadership. It could be argued that trust is the currency of leadership.

Time is the essential ingredient to establish a climate where people know that their leader’s words and actions are consistently aligned, and where peers function the same way. It takes only a moment to shatter or injure a trusting relationship, but weeks or months to restore it, if at all.

The late Stephen Covey, as part of his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, articulated two key elements needed to create a high trust workplace:

1) Create win-win situations
2) Seek first to understand before being understood.

The habit of interpersonal leadership is thinking win-win. Compromise should be avoided because it involves people transacting with one another. With true synergy (the outcome is greater than the sum of the parts) people have created strong relationships. For leaders, this means they must lose the “I” focus and assume a “We” focus. They must come to the realization that freeing people is superior to controlling them. Once a leader is convinced of this, he’ll be able to act much more easily in an interdependent manner. Covey described three essential traits to interpersonal leadership.

1) Integrity: This is the cornerstone to win-win thinking. People need to understand their personal values and what winning means to them. Moreover, they must learn to keep commitments they make to themselves and to others.

2) Maturity: Covey defined this as “…the balance between courage and consideration.” Leaders must astutely determine how to increase the wellbeing of their followers while at the same time meeting the objectives of their organization. Achieving high levels of courage and consideration are the hallmark of true maturity.

3) Abundance Mentality: People with a scarcity mentality see life as having only so much to give. They have difficulty giving recognition and credit to their staff or sharing credit with peer leaders. They’re weak team players. On the other side are those with an abundance mentality. They take great pleasure in helping others and are self-fulfilled when they allow others to take the credit for something well done.

The interpersonal leader looks to continually build strong relationships based on a high level of trust. And a vital component of this process is the use of what Covey called empathic listening. This is more than what some would call “active listening.” Instead, it involves listening with intent. If a leader wants an employee to understand her point of view then she must first understand that individual’s frame of reference. This is expressed as the habit: Seek first to understand, then be understood.

Empathic listening means getting into the other person’s head to really understand from where they’re coming, both intellectually and emotionally. It’s not to be confused with sympathy. What the leader is seeking is to understand her follower in order that she in turn will be clearly understood. This concept is extremely important for leaders to understand and to put into practice because it relies heavily on close communication between the leader and the employee.

 That interpersonal leadership requires a high degree of listening should come as no surprise. But it demands a big shift from the traditional “hard” management approach to one that’s referred as the “soft” people approach. Authoritarianism is giving way to employee participation and delegation of authority. This means that employees aren’t just listened to but their ideas are actively encouraged by management. As Roger Enrico, a former vice president of Pepsico once put it:

“The soft stuff is always harder than the hard stuff…Human interactions are a lot tougher to manage than numbers. So the trick is to make the soft stuff hard, to operationalize it.”

It’s commonly accepted that leadership is about focusing people towards common goals and enabling them to reach these goals by taking the necessary actions. Underlying this is something so simple yet so difficult to achieve: getting people to follow their leader voluntarily. However, without trust a leader will have great difficulty in getting her people to follow.

It’s great for a leader to have a well expressed vision. However, if she can’t create an environment of trust the vision doesn’t matter. The late management thinker Warren Bennis explained that this is not just trust in the abstract sense, but it entails the leader’s ability to”…connect with people in their gut and in their heart and not just in their head.

The absence of trust lowers an organization’s performance, making it impossible to meet its goals and deflecting it from its vision. Intellectual capital is weakened, with negative effects on creativity and innovation. Instead of people being enabled to unleash their imaginations and try out new ideas, they feel disempowered, scared and anxious. This scenario is not uncommon in both the private and public sectors today, and reflects a major challenge for managerial leaders at all levels, but especially for those guiding organizations.

 Creating and sustaining a workplace of trust should be viewed as a strategic asset in today’s volatile, highly competitive global economy. However, as Roger Enrico said many years ago, it involves the soft stuff–interpersonal relationships. It demands commitment, focus and resolve by those leadership organizations.

Reflect on these words by Jean Kvasnica, a global account manager with Hewlett-Packard, who at the time was a team leader:

“The kind of person I would follow. It’s like there is a stick down through the center of them that’s rooted in the ground. I can when someone has that. When they’re not defensive, not egotistical. They’re open minded, able to joke and laugh at themselves. They can take a volatile situation and stay focused. They bring out the best in me by making me want to handle myself in the same way. I want to be part of their world. When someone comes into the room with those attributes, it makes everyone in the room feel like we’re all contributing.”

Are you ready to lead?

Frozen people can’t perform. – Ron Bar

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