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What makes a leader trustworthy?

18th Nov 2011
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Leaders and organisations can benefit by building trust, according to new research. Rena Rasch of the Kenexa High Performance Institute explains how to do it.
 
If you were compiling a list of the fundamental qualities you'd expect to see in any leader, surely it would include personal integrity. Who would want to work for a leader who is not honest, ethical or reliable? If you did work for such a person, imagine how this would affect your level of engagement - and the impact it would have on the performance of the organisation.
Amazingly, our latest research [1] shows that 28% of employees don't trust their senior leaders. That's more than one in four workers. The study also found that this lack of trust has a strikingly negative impact on employee well-being, staff retention and organisational performance.
The impact on individuals is significant. Employees who distrust their leaders are nine times more likely to seriously consider leaving their organisation. They're also 15 times more likely to report unreasonable work stress and seven times more likely to feel mentally and physically unwell. Not only that, a lack of trust has organisational implications as it can shatter the brand and corporate reputation.
 
"Trust is about relying on and having confidence in the actions of another person, with no guarantee that he or she will behave as desired in return."
On the other hand, improving the level of trust could save you money on hiring new staff because employees who trust their leaders are more likely to stay with the organisation. It may also reduce sickness and absence costs and bring about better employee relations and a more engaged workforce. There is a therefore a strong business case for building trust in any organisation.

How to build trust

Every leader needs to understand what trust is and what makes employees trust them. Trust is about relying on and having confidence in the actions of another person, with no guarantee that he or she will behave as desired in return. According to organisational scientists, we judge for ourselves whether or not we trust someone based on their integrity, benevolence and competence.
If you're a leader, this means that your employees will be asking themselves three fundamental questions about you: are you honest? (integrity); do you care about me? (benevolence) and can you do your job? (competence). The answers to these questions will determine, to a large extent, whether or not they trust you.
In order to improve the level of trust in an organisation, leaders need to demonstrate these three qualities. It is not enough, however, simply to be honest, benevolent and competent; you have to be seen to be so by those around you. Perception and communication are very important factors when it comes to trust. You may not be behaving dishonestly or unethically but, unless you proactively manage the way you are seen, you could still be branded as untrustworthy by some of your employees.
On an individual level, one of the easiest ways to cultivate employee trust is to start trusting the people around you. Listen to them; empathise with them; show your concern; be honest with them; be true to your word; treat them fairly. In other words, actively manage how you are perceived by others. Try to connect with people on a personal level. This could be as simple as shaking hands with them once in a while. To maximise trust, yes it is important that you can do your job well but it's even more important for you to be seen as a kind and honest person.
There are also steps that the organisation can take to engender trust. For example, our research shows that employees are twice as likely to trust their senior leaders if the organisation has published a mission statement, conducted an employee opinion survey, sponsored a quality improvement initiative, gathered customer satisfaction feedback, conducted yearly performance reviews or cross-trained employees. The more of these best practices that the organisation engages in, the greater the level of employee trust in the leadership.
 
"...employees are twice as likely to trust their senior leaders if the organisation has published a mission statement, conducted an employee opinion survey, sponsored a quality improvement initiative, gathered customer satisfaction feedback, conducted yearly performance reviews or cross-trained employees."
Finally, knowing which employees are generally less trusting can help you to concentrate your attention on these specific people. Our research found no significant difference between men and women, when analysing whether certain groups of employees tend to trust their leaders more or less than others. However, we found that the percentage of people who trust their leaders seems to decline with age. Employees in their twenties are twice as likely to trust their leaders as employees in their forties or fifties. Upper and mid-level managers trust their leaders by 15 percentage points more than rank-and-file employees.
 
Trust is an essential quality for any leader. By understanding trust, by acting as a trustworthy role model and by advocating a business case for trust, you could help to improve employee well-being, staff retention and the performance of your organisation.
Dr Rena Rasch is research manager at the Kenexa High Performance Institute. She can be contacted at [email protected]
[1] Download the research paper for free here

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