Leaders can build
by Casey Wilson
(or begin to rebuild)
trust to foster a more
he newspapers are riddled with stories of deceit and deception
engaged workforce. from leaders in both the commercial and government sectors.
Leaders everywhere face the challenge of disenfranchised and
disengaged employees, who, in many instances, attribute these failures
in leadership to anyone in a leadership role. More than ever, leaders at
all levels of the organization must recognize the perceptions people
have of the “state of leadership” in today’s organizations and, if they
want to lead effectively, rebuild trust in the ranks of employees. When
employees trust their leaders, they engage in the work and the organ-
ization, buy into organizational changes and transitions, and operate
from an inclusive, collaborative perspective.
In this article we explore
F trust in today’s organizations,
F distrust in the workplace,
F the concept of rebuilding trust, and
F how to build trust.
Although this article paints a dismal picture of trust and distrust
in organizations and illustrates the implications, it also offers leaders
ways to build (or begin to rebuild) trust to foster a more status quo, leaders protect their legacy by withholding
engaged workforce. Trust is the foundation on which information, filtering information to the public, and si-
employee engagement is built. lencing critics by marginalizing and politicizing others’
perspectives. The true state of the organization may be
Trust in Today’s Organizations unknown to the outside world, but employees are acutely
Trust in today’s organizations, particularly in the aware that issues and challenges are buried and hidden.
public sector, is at an all-time low, and the reasons are In the absence of honesty and transparency, the
many and varied. We examine three perspectives, in- workforce has come to expect their leaders to engage
cluding how command-and-control leadership styles in this self-protection and not tackle the issues head on.
are perpetuating distrust among rank-and-file employ- Whether it stems from the inability to or disinterest in
ees, the reasons for distrust in work groups, and how tackling tough issues, fear of labor union reprisal, or
promotion processes have not positioned individuals to simply avoidance, not facing the real issues fuels a per-
succeed as leaders. vasive distrust in organizational leadership. Rather than
deal with poor performance, leaders hide or move the
Command-and-Control Leadership performer.
Command-and-control leadership has been tradi- The reason that this hide-or-move mentality fu-
tionally viewed as the way leaders could get the best els distrust has to do with employees’ expectations that
performance from their employees. Over the past few good leaders
decades, this notion has been put aside, as more people-
F do not shy away from tough issues,
oriented leadership practices have achieved results and
provided countless other benefits. Concepts like em- F do not allow poor performance to continue,
powerment, emotional intelligence, collaboration, and
F break down barriers that threaten success, and
engaging leadership have been slowly and steadily mov-
ing into the practice of leadership. However, a number F provide a vision where all employees can
of leaders, still operating from this outdated paradigm, contribute.
have not evolved with the needs of organizations and
workforce. When “power” rather than “empowerment” Rather than inspire and empower individuals to per-
is the cultural norm, people disengage.Too many leaders form more effectively while eliminating poor perform-
still operate with this command-and-control mentality, ers, many leaders have acquiesced. They have encour-
and in doing so, have created cultures of fear, resistance, aged control and compliance rather than engagement
disengagement, and distrust. and adequacy rather than excellence.This incongruence
between what is expected of leaders and what has ac-
Self-Protection tually happened has fostered a deep-rooted distrust in
On the one hand, the public sector has improved the leaders’ integrity.
transparency of the performance of organizations and
leaders through score cards and surveys. However, trans- Technical Promotions
parency has not realized its full potential, and the push A group of people sharing an office distinctly differs
for transparency has led to increased self-protection. from a team of people collectively working together to-
Some leaders fear that if the true state of their or- ward a shared goal. Teams share the belief and trust that
ganizations were known, they would be viewed as inef- they are bound together by more than the walls of the
fective.Therefore, rather than transparently surfacing and office. Fostering teamwork among individuals requires
discussing organizational issues and seeking a coalition more than technical expertise; however, many people
of those committed to tackling them and changing the have been promoted into managerial and leadership
roles on the basis of technical expertise and length of
Casey Wilson is the practice lead for Management Concepts’ Leadership and service rather than their ability to form a cohesive team
Professional Skills practices. He is also the author of The Cornerstones of and shared vision among their employees.
Engaging Leadership, which has earned praise from both public and com-
mercial organizations for helping leaders find practical ways to engage and lead Technical competence increases employees’ trust in
their employees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org their manager’s abilities, but it does little to help build
THE PUBLIC MANAGER F SPRING 2009 49
cohesive, collaborative, mission-focused teams. The employees protect themselves by withholding their
practice of promoting people on technical merits only discretionary effort. Distrust fosters disengagement, as
loses sight of the entirely different skill set that effective exhibited by mere compliance and a lack of caring, pas-
management and leadership requires. This promotion sion, and connectedness.
practice has contributed to employees’ perceptions of
ineffective leadership throughout the organization. Turnover
However, this portrait of organizations is not com- Employees’ direct supervisors have the biggest in-
plete. While distrust has crept into the cracks of organi- fluence on their workplace performance, ability to suc-
zations and made a home, some leaders earn trust and ceed, and overall workplace satisfaction. In organizations
foster environments that engage employees. There are where distrust is pervasive, employees are more likely to
simply not enough of them. leave.The cost of turnover is estimated as the equivalent
Transforming a bureaucratic, technically focused of an entire year’s salary of the employee who left. In
culture requires leaders at all levels to become adept at other words, turnover is expensive.
building trust and becoming more engaging.This means Even when employees do not leave, distrust fosters
developing individuals’ leadership capabilities before disengagement. Productivity stalls when employees give
they get promoted and believing that employees at all without receiving anything in return. Absenteeism in-
levels can lead. Employees need role models with the creases, sick leave skyrockets, and health care costs rise.
technical and leadership capabilities that live up to their Even worse, employees’ disengagement weighs on the
expectations of effective leadership. organizational culture like a stone.
Distrust in the Workplace The Data
Distrust in the workplace has serious implications Distrust has financial and productivity implications.
for employee morale and engagement, productiv- It slows down the pace of progress and bogs down even
ity, turnover, and the financial vitality of organizations. the simplest actions.
Consider the following pitfalls. Consider the micromanager who checks every piece
of work by his employees. What could be accomplished
Employee Morale and Disengagement if the supervisor trusted his team’s capabilities? How
Distrust lowers the morale of employees as it saps much are those extra hours of checking work adding up
the passion and integrity associated with being part of a to? What opportunities are lost? If you take the hourly
group of people working toward a common mission or wage of the micromanager and multiply by the num-
goal. When distrust is pervasive or the organization and ber of hours wasted each month micromanaging, costs
its leaders lack consideration, employees withhold their add up to thousands of dollars per month. Consider the
enthusiasm and commitment. When employees believe cost if micromanagement is a cultural norm within your
that leadership doesn’t consider their needs, they are un- organization: tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars
likely to extend trust and give their discretionary effort. wasted. The cost of distrust can quickly balloon to mil-
Employee engagement has a high correlation with their lions of dollars per year in large organizations.
willingness to put in extra effort. Research by Gallup and other organizations has
An executive in one of our recent programs shared shown that employee disengagement is costing organi-
a story about two different peers’ interactions with their zations billions of dollars per year. If trust and consid-
direct reports. One of the direct reports distrusted his eration are the foundations for employee engagement,
supervisor, intentionally holding back his effort and not how much is disengagement costing your organization
giving his best.The other employee had developed a solid in terms of lost productivity, turnover, absenteeism, and
relationship built on mutual respect and trust. The lat- increased health care costs? What if every person in your
ter employee stayed late to finish important work, volun- organization used three extra sick days per year to avoid
teered for assignments, and gave her best effort every day. coming to work? The ripple effects, and their associated
The formula is relatively simple: when leaders look costs, are staggering.
out for employees, employees extend trust to their lead-
ers. When leaders only consider their own interests,
The simple fact is that distrust not only saps the way F Communication practices
people feel in an organization, it is fiscally irresponsible.
The good news for leaders is that trust can be built.
F Balanced competence.
Contrary to the myth that trust takes years to devel- Communication Practices
op, leaders can quickly take action to build (and rebuild) Leaders who want to build trust need to be aware
trust in the organization. of how they communicate. One way to build trust
First, building trust requires intention. Trusted with people is to speak with transparency. When com-
leaders intentionally take the time to establish the municating with others, be willing to share the facts,
trust in relationships with employees, and employees but also your thoughts, reactions, and feelings and why
know there is trust because they observe and experi- you think or feel that way. When spoken authentically,
ence it. This trust fosters a sense of connection. Lead- communicating the “what” and the “why” illustrates
ers whom are not trusted don’t garner as much discre- a leader’s willingness to have tough conversations and
tionary effort. to demonstrate the human side of one’s own authentic
Warren Buffett said, “Trust is like the air we perspective. To further increase trust, leaders should ask
breathe. When it is present, nobody notices. When it for others’ perspectives and listen deeply to what is said
isn’t, everybody notices.” The most effective leaders and not said. This notion of transparency is particular-
realize that trust is the mortar that holds their organi- ly important during face-to-face conversations, where
zation together and serves as the foundation for mov- people observe the leader’s body language to help inter-
ing an organization forward. pret the message.
Second, leaders must realize that building trust re- Organizational, team, and individual performance
quires more than words. While leaders’ intentions serve should not be closeted. The more leaders openly and
as a foundation for trust, they must recognize their honestly talk about performance, including their own,
trustworthiness is judged by their actions. One partici- the less defensive employees become when discussing
pant in a recent leadership development program at our it. Leaders who discuss performance, balanced with the
organization shared this notion: “If my employees do care and thoughtfulness in helping others achieve suc-
not see me doing anything differently and experience cess, create environments that address both the task- and
my intentions through my actions, they aren’t going to person-needs of the workforce.
notice a difference. They need to see it in terms of ac- Some leaders believe they are the lone voice for
tions and consistently demonstrated behaviors.” setting direction. Although statements and affirmations
When leaders behave congruently with their es- are important in communication, leaders who want to
poused visions and model the types of performance build trust must allow for mutual influence. A question
they expect of others, employees see they are willing to at the right time can be more important than an answer.
lead by example.Through intentional action and an em- Leaders who inquire about others’ perspectives and ex-
pathetic approach considering how others’ view their tend trust to others’ expertise earn trust back. This is
trustworthiness, leaders can begin to act in ways that not to suggest that leaders disavow their responsibilities;
build trust rather than break it. Let’s explore the key ac- rather, it confirms their need to involve others in deci-
tions leaders can take to build trust and rekindle work- sion making.
force engagement. In terms of the frequency of communication, lead-
ers should consider sharing twice as much as they think
Practical Actions is necessary. An absence of information leads people
By exhibiting some key behaviors and actions, lead- to jump to conclusions. People are certainly capable
ers can build, or rebuild, trust with employees. For sim- of thinking for themselves, but leaders must recognize
plicity’s sake, let’s group these behaviors into three cat- how important information is to people. People who
egories, each of which is necessary for increasing trust believe they lack a very important piece of informa-
and fostering workforce engagement: tion are likely to feel tension and stress. Communicative
leaders build trust by communicating more frequently
THE PUBLIC MANAGER F SPRING 2009 51
to ensure that others are informed rather than being left ers must maintain technical knowledge and skills and,
to infer. in parallel, seek to enhance their leadership capabilities.
More effective communication fosters trust. Lead- This isn’t to say that leaders must be experts in every-
ing by example demonstrates a leader’s character. thing, but they must have enough technical credibility
to earn their employees’ respect.
Character Moreover, good leaders recognize technical and
One of the best character-driven ways to build leadership competence in others and acknowledge it by
trust is for leaders to keep promises and commitments. extending trust. Micromanaging decreases trust, while
Keeping promises demonstrates integrity, a key factor in extending trust to others fosters a sense of empower-
peoples’ willingness to follow. Naturally, people do not ment. This is important as employees perceive the trust
want to follow those who lack integrity. extended to them as a sign of care and interest in their
The most effective leaders show humility and are success.
not afraid to share their human side. For example, a Leaders who want to build trust, increase engage-
leader is willing to share feelings on a topic, inquires ment, foster change, and transform the bureaucracy re-
when someone is visibly upset, and openly admits mak- alize that every interaction with others is an important
ing a mistake. In a command-and-control environment, opportunity to build trust.
being people-oriented is perceived as weak; however,
in today’s organizations, people expect their leaders to Moving Forward
demonstrate both intellectual and emotional intelli- Change is the current mantra, and leaders who want
gence. Rather than being seen as a weakness, it is reas- to lead others through change and have it endure must
suring to see a leader who cares about people and, at understand the importance of trust. Banishing an inef-
the same time, is committed to helping the organization fective bureaucratic culture from the public sector and
achieve results. instilling in the public a sense of trust starts with leaders
One of the fastest ways to diminish success is to act at every level of the organization.
incongruently with what you expect of others. If lead- We need effective and engaging leaders who under-
ers expect others to perform forthrightly, leaders must stand the importance of trust and are willing to step into
do the same. This congruence between what one says roles where building trust is part of the job. The most
and what one does is a sign of trustworthiness. effective leaders understand the importance of trust and
recognize it as the foundation of interpersonal relation-
Balanced Competence ships, team and organizational leadership, workforce en-
To garner trust from others, leaders must demon- gagement, and sustainable workplace change.
strate both technical and leadership competence. Lead-
N ow, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions—who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too
many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free
men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.
What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them—that the stale political arguments that have
consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small,
but whether it works—whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is digni-
fied. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. Those of us who
manage the public’s dollars will be held to account—to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of
day—because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.