Building Trust By Closing The “Say-Do” Gap

Your colleagues must be able to count on you before you can truly be able to count on them. But first, you have to understand the nature of trust.

The most common reason people leave jobs is their boss—often because of low trust. The good news is that leaders can be intentional about building high-trust organizations. Based on nearly a half-century devoted to leading teams, I’ve frequently written and spoken about this topic. The thesis of the second edition of The 10 Laws of Trust (HarperCollins, September 2019) is that by understanding the nature of trust, one can be intentional about building a high-trust brand, healing from a betrayal and building a culture that is more fun and delivers more predictable and durable results.

The first law of trust is integrity. The difference between what a leader says and what she does is a “say-do gap” that, if allowed to persist, will not only destroy the trust others have in her as a leader but will infect the organization and begin to damage its brand. Closing this gap is easier said than done. Building trust is hard work. It happens one decision, one conversation and one promise fulfilled at a time.

Improvement starts with a leader asking, “Am I delivering the results others expect of me?” “Do I need to promise less or deliver more, as a starting point?” “Or some of both?” No spin allowed. Honestly assessing the current gap between expectations and reality is the starting point for laying the foundation for building a high-trust organization.

This can be a challenge unless the ground is adequately prepared. First, set the standard for people that the best ideas win. Demonstrate that great ideas come from less senior team members by giving the spotlight to unexpected contributors. This kind of celebration encourages people to come forward even if the feedback is unpleasant or unwelcome. In trust-poor enterprises that frown on debate or unvarnished feedback, the tranquil veneer of equanimity may reign, but it’s the type of quiet that one might find at a hospital—just below the surface simmers a much worse kind of disease.

Early in my career, I developed a few mantras that I would repeat to remind myself of the changes I was trying to make in my “personal operating system”—the lens through which I saw people and problems. I may be the leader, but I won’t confuse my identity with the organization’s. I would repeat to myself the mantra, “It’s about the mission, not about me.” As I repeated these reminders, sometimes several times a day when faced with challenges, they became second nature to me. Eventually, I didn’t need them anymore to react more predictably and appropriately to events.

As my “say-do gap” began to close, others saw me aligning my behavior with principles I was articulating and delivering on promises. When I began to act more predictably, the team began not only to count on (trust) me but to make more—and better—decisions on their own. Their confidence levels rose as their trust in shared principles increased.

Joel Peterson
Joel Peterson is the chairman of JetBlue Airways, the founding partner of Peterson Partners, a Salt Lake City-based investment management firm, a faculty member at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University and author of "The 10 Laws of Trust" (HarperCollins Leadership).