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Leadership Trust Isn't Basic - It's Foundational

I spend a lot of time with individuals and teams working on two big concepts: trust and communication. I always tell them: if trust is the foundation of leadership then communication is the medium.

And yet, I have had several occasions recently where more senior leaders have heard about these topics and figure the discussions and trainings must be for junior leaders. They are so basic!


I would caution here not to confuse basic with foundational. As every architect knows, you can’t build anything without investing in, improving, and innovating at the foundation. Every foundation must be designed based on the needs of the structure, the current standards, the environment, and the materials. No single foundation suits all buildings – or all relationships.


PWC recently published their Trust Survey results for 2023 and they suggest that leaders across industries are underinvesting in the trust foundation – and their people feel it.


Here are a few highlights from their research:


· INVESTMENT DISCONNECT: 45% of business executives strongly agree that firm leadership gives appropriate attention to earning trust. Now, at first glance, that seems honest if disappointing. The challenge, however, is that the number drops to 34% when you ask employees.


· PERCEPTION DISCONNECT: Business executives overestimate how much they are trusted. There is a 14-point gap between their perception of themselves and employees’ perception, and a shocking 57-point gap between them and their consumers.


· IMPACT DISCONNECT: Trust is breaking down more than executives think. 54% of employees say they have experienced a trust breaking event at work. Only 20% of executives say that their company has had such an event.


It’s also worth noting that 91% of business executives say that their ability to build and maintain trust improves the bottom line.


Every human being who has ever had a relationship with another human being knows that trust is far easier to break than to build, much less rebuild. And, it’s hard to build a relationship much less a scalable company without due attention to its foundation.


Here are a few tips for checking your foundation:


1. Emphasize the Why: Make sure everyone understands why the company exists and help them find meaning in working there. Help them find their personal “why” in the work regardless of their age, role, or level in the company. Meaning helps us keep a bigger perspective on our work and our relationships and keeps the little things from being trust breakers.


2. Share Values Stories: Trust is built over time and the more you build the more grace you get when a trust-breaking event happens. Your company stories are your “grace bank” that help you build a track record of living your values so that when it appears you had a miss, people see and understand that as the outlier not the norm.


3. Communicate Constantly: Another one of my refrains is that “silence is never silence” in a company. In the absence of your voice, the voice of the company, your people will make up their own stories about you and it – and they are likely to be worse than reality.


4. Own Your Mistakes: Making mistakes does far less damage to trust than not owning those mistakes. You make mistakes. Companies make mistakes. The trust impact comes down to how you handle that reality rather than deny it.


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