Every entrepreneur and business leader believes that he or she has the full trust of their team and their customers, and in fact most do in the beginning. In my experience, most business professionals still believe in the old proverb, “trust but verify.” In this context, that means you trust your leaders initially, but you look for signals that your trust in them is deserved and reciprocated.
Unfortunately, many aspiring leaders I mentor are not aware of the signals people are looking for, or are not attuned to the subtleties of their own actions. I saw a good summary of the required principles for long-term trust in a new book, “The 10 Laws of Trust,” by Joel Peterson, Chairman of JetBlue, professor at Stanford University, and thought leader in this area:
- Practice personal integrity in all that you do. Integrity is the practice of being honest and showing a consistent adherence to strong moral and ethical values. Your actions better always match your words, and your public and private behavior must be consistent. Without integrity, you lose trust quickly, and will likely not regain it.
- Demonstrate respect for every constituent. Trust grows out of respect for individuals manifested in simple, daily interactions, often reflective of listening without agenda. Respecting every individual is also the foundation for learning and changing to meet new challenges in the marketplace.
- Empower others to do their best. Mistrustful leaders and organizations are preoccupied with keeping people from doing their worst. Empowerment means granting trust to people in increments and expanding it with results. Granting trust is a strong signal that motivates returning the favor.
- Define metrics to measure what you want to achieve. Only when people know what’s expected can they put the right programs in place, rather than working on the wrong objective, and losing trust in you at the same time. For example, measuring marketing team members on sales leads may not get you the revenue growth or trust you expected.
- Create a clear and meaningful common vision. Trust grows as a shared dream brings all members of the team together in the pursuit of something beyond profits. I find that visions that includes a higher purpose, such as improving the environment, are particularly powerful in increasing trust with employees and customers alike.
- Communicate clearly and often on business issues. Leaders who share key aspects of the business openly, bad news as well as good news, to everyone, garner more trust. In my experience, too many owners try to hide key issues, in order to protect employees, and this often backfires into a loss of trust as employees find out from other sources.
- Do not suppress constructive conflict. Respectful conflict surfaces and refines new ideas. Always keep the problem separate from the person when in conflict (do not make them the problem). Making sure the best idea wins, not the most powerful person, promotes a sense of teamwork and leadership trust from deep within an organization.
- Show humility while acting as a mentor and coach. High-trust leaders see themselves as stewards, rather than owners, guiding people, assets, and decision making. Humility makes it possible for a leader to be seen as a real person, worthy of trust and respect.
- Strive for win-win negotiation outcomes. Most conversations have an element of built-in, if subtle, negotiation. A trusted leader knows that all negotiations with an individual are cumulative, not independent and soon forgotten events. Everyone needs to win sometimes, and will not trust a leader who pushes for a win-lose in every case.
- Recognize and address trust breaches immediately. Trust is a leader’s most valuable currency, but always at risk from misunderstandings. These must be fixed immediately, lest they harden into a permanent wariness. If the breach is willful or rooted in an ethical violation, the best approach is to terminate the relationship, to retain the trust of others.
Based on my years of mentoring, too many leaders remain blissfully ignorant of their team’s low levels of trust, and too many professionals see mistrust as the natural response to repeated betrayals. Thus it is incumbent on new entrepreneurs and leaders to start early practicing the principles outlined here, to build a trusting culture and a powerful competitive advantage.