I hope that with age comes a little wisdom, and since my years place me far closer to autumn than spring, I write this to share what I think is a life lesson about trust.
What I’ve learned is this: a sure-fire way to build trust is to do what you say you are going to do. It’s not a hard concept; its clarity is reassuring considering it explains one of our most basic, yet elusive human values. There’s not a lot of wiggle room here. If you make a promise, keep it. If you commit to a course of action, do it. If you espouse a point of view, live it. If you do this, trust — in your word, in your vision and plan, in you — will follow.
The corollary is that if you violate this rule, you won’t be trusted. Destroyed trust is insidious. It steals our joy, distances us from the ones we want to love, entices us to abandon our dreams, causes us to fail, and turns us into cynics and naysayers.
Destroyed trust is extremely difficult to re-build. This is true in every facet of life I can think of, but since I’m wearing my change consultant hat , I’ll tell you a story about when business leaders lose trust.
A colleague of mine was helping a company with an initiative to consolidate and improve a core administrative process spanning a central organization and multiple lines of business (LOBs). The client team leader reassured the LOBs (as reportedly he had been reassured by his executive vice-president [EVP]) that the only goal for the initiative was process improvement.
However, the EVP had a reputation for empire building and team members were suspicious of the true motives behind the initiative. To overcome their skepticism, the team leader repeatedly and publicly guaranteed that org change was out of scope, not on the table. Team members suspended their skepticism and committed to the effort. The team was engaged, and work was progressing well.
At the 11th hour, the team leader abruptly changed his position. Whether he buckled under pressure from the EVP or made his own choice, it didn’t matter. Despite prior guarantees, reorganization was suddenly very much in scope and in the center of the table. The reaction was instantaneous; the team revolted. This was the “land grab” they suspected in the first place. LOB members quit the team, and their managers refused to backfill them. The team leader lost respect, and the initiative fizzled. The company lost potential gains from an improved process.
But it didn’t stop there. News like this spreads. The feelings of distrust and betrayal went well beyond the initiative itself. The story was all too familiar to those who heard it. It confirmed their suspicions about the way things were done and fortified the company’s already fear-based culture. People were openly reluctant to take risks or offer their ideas. They chose to “color inside the lines,” do their work and collect their paychecks. They opted-out, and their best was lost to the company and, in turn eventually, to us.
The leaders in this story should have known better and should have done better. But this is not an isolated story. It can be told about many companies. The players and the circumstances change, but the result is the same. Broken promises, hidden agendas, lack of transparency, and self-serving decisions kill trust and cripple leadership.
When trust is destroyed and leaders are rendered ineffective, people opt-out. And the cost to all involved is great.
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