A guilty verdict was recently rendered in the trial for the murder of George Floyd. A Black man arrested by white police officers, Floyd was placed in a restraint position and held down with a knee on his neck for more than nine minutes.
That action, the jury determined, resulted in Floyd’s death. The incident also ignited a growing storm of protest and cries for social justice and accountability that have continued to escalate for nearly a year. The crux of the issue is a lack of trust in those holding positions of authority.
During a recent Clubhouse call with colleagues, we pondered how the prevalence of social justice issues around the world might be influencing the ability of leaders to engender trust within their teams and organizations. The group agreed that trust in large institutional structures and organizations of authority has eroded significantly over the last year.
The implication of that decline suggests that building trust may be more of a challenging task for leaders than ever. Workplace trust, we concluded, can’t be examined in a vacuum; it’s influenced by the larger culture we all experience.
Given this context, we wondered, how should leaders approach trust-building in today’s world? What important insights can be gained by exploring the shifts in our global culture and applying that understanding to leadership?
Consistency in action alone is not enough. Your conduct must be honorable and demonstrate caring if gaining trust is your end goal.
Here are some insights from our discussion to consider:
- Trust is no longer the automatic outcome of positional power. In the past, leaders may have been viewed (by virtue of their position in the organization) as all-knowing and omnipotent. The changes in our social structure, where the actions of those in power are increasingly being called into question, reinforces the need for leaders to appreciate that trust is earned, not bestowed.
- While demonstrating consistency has often aligned with a team’s ability to trust a leader, there have been too many social examples of leaders consistently behaving badly. Therefore, consistency in action alone is not enough. Your conduct must be honorable and demonstrate caring if gaining trust is your end goal.
- We live in a world dominated by social media that provides an easy platform for building influence, shaping mindset and even manipulating what is deemed as factual. As a leader, gaining and maintaining trust requires an understanding of the forces at play that can change perceptions.
What are you doing to reinforce the key facts employees need to understand about your business? How are you leveraging technology to build your influence, demonstrate your credibility and show that your actions match your words? What are you doing to separate fact from fiction in a way that leads to greater trust that you are the leader to follow?
- A quick Google search of the word “gaslighting” leads to over 6.7 million results, many of which were posted in the last few years. Gaslighting is a phrase that refers to an attempt to psychologically manipulate another in a way that causes them to question their own perception of reality. It’s a word firmly established in our lexicon and in the minds of your employees, in part because so much of it has gone on in our social and political environments.
Consequently, your leadership may be evaluated by your team in accordance with your willingness to speak truth even when it’s not politically advantageous to do so. Are you pushing for ideas, approaches and policies that you know won’t work because you’re following the “party line”? Do you deny the failing of a project because it was conceived by someone more senior than you in the organization? Doing so erodes trust, and building it back isn’t guaranteed.
- Purity of motive is your most powerful trust ally. Of all of the factors that can support your efforts to build trust among your team, demonstrating that your motives are to be in service to others, rather than coercing them into action for your own benefit, has the greatest lasting impact.
As you consider the requests you make of your team, ask:
- Is this serving a higher purpose?
- Will this make a meaningful positive impact on the business?
- Have I considered the ramifications of my request on others and accounted for them in my planned actions?
- Will our work be something we can all appreciate and celebrate together?
- Will I be proud of what the team and I have accomplished?
- More importantly, will I be proud of how we did it?
While the tragedy of Floyd’s death is a prominent illustration of declining trust in institutional systems and leadership, the lessons of this event apply to leaders everywhere, across all dimensions of diversity and culture. What steps will you take to remain worthy of trust in a world so desperate for leaders who want to earn it?
This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, April 2021.