Use it or lose it

What’s immensely powerful but incredibly fragile? Hard to gain but so easy to lose? 

I’m talking, of course, about trust. A fundamental pillar of society, the core of successful relationships and a mainstay of our culture – from songs and movies to novels and art – tales of trust prevail. 

And yet, we find ourselves at a moment in time where, according to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer report, society’s trust in the four key institutions of business, government, NGOs and media has dropped 13 points to an all-time low of 26 (such a broad decline has not been reported since Edelman began tracking trust in 2012).

Trust is not a ‘soft’ skill or a nice to have.  It never was.

An increasingly dismal picture is painted in PWC’s recently released 20th CEO Survey, where almost two thirds of Australia’s CEOs (up from 57% last year) are concerned about the lack of public trust in business. The writing is very much on the wall: if we want our businesses to build trust and loyalty with customers, we need to understand where and how it is being broken and how to build or re-build it.

Brave, ‘human’ leadership is the key to building trust

The PWC CEO report found that ‘Trust is, at its core, a leadership issue’.

Australia’s CEOs rate leadership as the most important skill in their organisations (91%). The report notes: ‘It’s the human skills – like adaptability, emotional intelligence and creativity that generate value.’

In particular, PWC says that ‘brave, human leadership’ is key. We need to shift away from leaders who are interested in positional power towards flexible and adaptable leaders who can create a culture of trust and collaboration. We need leaders who can see past the command and control behaviours and structures embedded in many businesses, to be ‘courageously vulnerable’ and develop their teams to be the same. As the report states: ‘It’s this kind of brave, human leadership that’s essential to restoring trust in business.’

So why is trust so hard to maintain and how do you ‘get’ it?

Trust is an action – you have to ‘be’ it and you have to ‘do’ it

The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once wrote: "He who does not trust enough will not be trusted." This still holds true today.  

To receive trust, we have to demonstrate trust in others. And we must be trustworthy ourselves. We must do what we say we are going to do, ‘walk our talk’, and deliver on what we commit to.

Creating a culture of trust starts with us

There is a saying that goes: A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because their faith is not in the branch, but in their own wings.  We can all look elsewhere, and point fingers when it comes to not having trust in an organisation. Perhaps we inherited a legacy of broken trust, or perhaps we work in an industry where the trust between employees and customers has been fundamentally broken.  To be a ‘brave, human leader’, we need to focus on our own ‘wings’, and have the courage to ask ourselves, and our teams, the tough questions: Am I trustworthy? Do my words really match my actions? 

The Neuroscience of Trust

In their paper ‘The Neuroscience of Trust’, Paul Zak and Brad Winn detail research into the role of the brain chemical oxytocin, a hormone known to be important in social interactions, in building trust and facilitating collaboration and teamwork.

Zak and Winn measured people's oxytocin levels in response to various situations – first in the lab and later in the workplace – to determine exactly what sort of behaviors help to build trust. They concluded that leaders can cultivate trust by: ‘setting a clear direction, giving people what they need to see it through, and then getting out of their way. In short… treat people like responsible adults.’

It’s both about how we behave and treat people, and how the environment supports or detracts from that. How we manage and organise people can affect the functioning of their brain. Bearing in mind that employees in high trust organisations are 19% more productive, 22% more innovative and take 33% fewer sick days, the business case for building trust is real.

Zak and Winn developed eight key behaviours which leaders can focus on to build trust.

Brave, ‘human’ leadership is the key to building trust, and trust is the key to building a business with loyal customers. Trust is without doubt a bottom line issue but the first question we should be asking ourselves is: how can we expect our customers to trust us, if our employees don’t?  

I'd love to hear your perspective on building and maintaining trust in your team, your business and yourself – please comment below. 
Never miss a post by signing up to Not Just Another Newsletter

Jules SmithComment