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A study of 'leadership' and 'trust'

In business as in politics, they're invaluable qualities
Jerald F. Robinson photo

Jerald F. Robinson

Two words are being linked in news reports in recent weeks: leadership and trust. Although the news media are focusing on government leaders, the same microscope can be used to look at business leadership and trust, and such an examination seems timely.

First, consider what a leader is and what is expected from a leader. This can be the president (of the United States or of your company) or the first line supervisor in a boat manufacturing plant. The role is generally the same. A leader is someone who can “influence” others and who has “authority.”

Leadership is what leaders do. So a natural question, posed in this column by more than one writer in the past, is “Are all managers leaders?”

Leading is one of the basic functions of management, and thus, ideally, all managers should be leaders. Leadership, like motivation, is a highly researched behavioral topic. The major question has usually been “What causes a leader to be effective?”

The main component of credibility is pure and simple honesty. In virtually every leadership study in the last 30 years honesty has been singled out as the No. I characteristic for effective (and admired) leadership.

The typical manager, asked what makes a leader effective, normally will spit out a list of attributes normally associated with differences in leadership success. Despite a multitude of formal academic studies of leadership traits, a universally applicable set of leadership traits in all employment situations has not been found. There have been seven traits that have been proposed in most studies: desire to lead; high effort level (drive); extraversion (energetic and sociable); honesty and integrity; intelligence; knowledge of job (technical); and self-confidence.

Do you see any of these traits shining forth in your boss or in your own performance? One or several perhaps can be seen, but likely not all seven traits in one person. Traits are usually not learned, but are likely innate. (Underline the ones you see in your boss; circle those that you can really see in yourself.) We will return to this list.

Other streams of research have considered the actual behaviors of the manager/leaders and not just their traits. Without trying to lay out all of the research findings in this limited space, it may be better to concentrate on one area.

Trust (or the lack of it) is an increasingly significant issue in today’s world. I have always started off a lecture on leadership proposing that, especially in today’s uncertain environment, manager-leaders must build (perhaps rebuild) trust and credibility. But what is trust? What is credibility? Why are they important?

The main component of credibility is pure and simple honesty. In virtually every leadership study in the last 30 years honesty has been singled out as the No. 1 characteristic for effective (and admired) leadership.

If you are following someone into war, into a business venture, into an investment opportunity, into any risky situation, even into marriage, you will want to be assured that the person you follow is worthy of your trust. Although not a current book, Kouzes and Posner’s Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose it, and Why People Demand It (Josey- Bass, 1993) carries a powerful message for all managers today, especially given the nature of the national news reports we have been inundated with.

(A more recent book by the same authors is The Leadership Challenge; you will not be able to put this book down, so give yourself a weekend at a quiet beach or lakefront retreat.)

In addition to being honest, credible leaders are competent and inspiring. This requires the leader personally to be able to effectively communicate self-confidence and enthusiasm; it is not a job for “Caspar Milquetoast.” Followers (employees) normally will judge a leader’s credibility in terms of honesty, perceived competence and ability to inspire followers.

Trust and credibility are often interchanged in research. Although the leader may have shortcomings in other areas, followers with trust are willing to be vulnerable to the leader’s actions because they feel confident that the leader will not abuse their interests. Does this fact cause you to think of any leader today?

Trust has been found to consist of five dimensions, with one being dominant:

 Leader’s integrity (honesty and truthfulness)

Competence (technical and interpersonal skills)

Consistency (reliability, predictability and good judgment over time)

Loyalty (protects her/his people )

Openness (shares ideas and information freely with staff).

Continual changes in the American workplace require emphasis on integrity and trust. Some traditional control mechanisms used in the past are not relevant when you use self-managed work teams or offer greater empowerment.

Consider the work team that is free to schedule its own work, to make its own hiring decisions and to evaluate its own performance; trust has to be a major factor. Managers must trust employees on the team to fulfill their responsibilities in the performance of the team; employees have to trust managers to treat them fairly. In another situation, leaders find themselves in charge of people who may not be in their immediate work group — perhaps in a virtual team or a cross- functional team.

And what about the non-employee who represents another organization in a strategic alliance? Some of these settings are fluid and fleeting; trust must be developed quickly and be sustained by the leader by day-to-day actions.

Why all this emphasis on trust? Not only is it a recurring theme in the daily news, but trust in leadership also impacts job performance, organizational citizenship behavior, job satisfaction and plain old commitment to the work organization.

So what is the situation in your work setting? You are likely a mid-level or senior manager. Look up the company ladder: Do you see those at your level “trusting” those above to perform as a person to be trusted? What examples can you offer to support your perception? Or an even better question: Do those people who report to you (and others you must interact with) trust you? Are you sure? What examples can you offer in support of your trust reputation? After all, this is a major driver in determining the success of your work group, and possibly the entire organization.

Now that you are possibly agitated by the previous questions, let me offer some redeeming grace. Here are some actions you might consider to build greater trust (or even rebuild trust in you.) Highlight the ones that might cause you to start a positive effort to improve trust in yourself. You can always copy this list and share it with others as discussion points. You could even ask your associates to mark those that you are quite good at. So consider:

Tell the truth: Since honesty is perceived as a critical variable in trust, you must be viewed as a manager who can be trusted to tell the truth. Employees do not like to hear their leader lie to them.

Be consistent: We all want predictability. Trust is damaged when followers do not know what to expect from you. This can also mean not to play favorites.

Maintain confidences: Can you be relied on to be discreet? You are being trusted when someone shares information (especially personal) with you. Zip up your lips and lock that information in your memory bank.

Keep your promises: Promises made must be promises kept. If you cannot organizationally keep your promises, explain the circumstances to the other person.

Be fair: How will others perceive your poorly thought out decisions? Give credit to folks who offered ideas or assistance.

Be open: Share information that may be appropriate to future actions in the workplace. Let each person know how they stand and why, well before any formal performance appraisal.

OK, now go back to the third paragraph above and see what descriptors you underlined or circled. Did you circle “honesty and integrity?” Now take the list of six suggestions just above and ask someone you trust to evaluate you on each one. Do this only if you have a thick skin.

Then, if you really seek to know the truth, ask your spouse to evaluate you on each of the six. No, I am not a divorce lawyer. Check for any overlapping of areas where you may need to spend some time. Good luck.

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue.


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