The New Role Of Trust In Business In A Pandemic

Leaders who aren’t trusted—or who don’t trust others—can communicate all they want, but people will discount everything they say.

A powerful effect of the coronavirus pandemic has been to expose the gap between what company leaders say and what they mean.

When a company demands that its workers produce a sick note to qualify for paid leave, it’s really saying it doesn’t trust its employees. Likewise, when a CEO restricts remote work for employees who could reasonably work from home, it often means they can’t deal with the perceived lack of control they have over people working in remote settings.

This way of thinking leads down the wrong track. Leaders today should be embracing trust, and deliberately extending it to their teams, because the currency of trust is the single most important asset they have. That’s truer now than ever as companies navigate a drastically changed economic outlook and a highly uncertain future—and they need inspired and trusted employees to help them do it.

This is how one tech industry CEO put it to me in March, shortly after the stock market’s worst day in over three decades. “Trust is baseline humanity,” he said, “and we need it to solve our problems. If we get better at trust, that will help us navigate everything else.”

By saying this, he wasn’t downplaying all the other important things companies have to do to survive the crisis, such as being agile, collaborative, creative, and innovative. He was saying that having a high-trust culture is the key to being able to do those things more effectively.

Trust is a hard asset that accelerates speed and efficiency throughout organizations. Low levels of trust create a crippling tax, snarling companies in excessive controls, endless meetings and office politics. Leaders who aren’t trusted—or who don’t trust others—can communicate all they want, but people will discount everything they say and won’t act on it quickly or effectively.

By contrast, when credible and trusted leaders share information or create a plan, their teams get to work. Teams feel safe to innovate and take risks. High trust becomes a performance multiplier.

The tendency in crises like this is for trust to go down in the workplace because leaders often aren’t deliberate and intentional about developing trust while in the midst of disruptive change. They sometimes revert to low-trust behaviors or tactics that may appear to be high trust but are really counterfeits. How leaders do what they do makes all the difference.

The good news is that leaders can build up trust quickly, even and especially during a global pandemic, by adopting several key behaviors. The following four are a good start:

1. Confront reality. Bad news and tough decisions are pretty much inevitable at times like this. The best leaders confront these stressors head on and encourage open discussion around them, getting to the root of the problem even if it’s painful. This leads to higher confidence and trust. The counterfeit behavior is kicking the can down the road or paying lip-service to the problems while avoiding them, perhaps by focusing on busy-work or side issues.

2. Create transparency. High-trust leaders encourage transparency because they understand that hiding bad news or controlling the flow of information is counterproductive. People are inspired by and trust leaders who are open, authentic, and real—especially with difficult news. When information can’t be shared, it’s important to be transparent about the reasons why. The counterfeit version of transparency is limited openness, sharing some things while trying to hide or control others.

3. Talk straight. It’s instinctual to try and protect people from bad news out of concern they will panic or get fearful. But this approach betrays a lack of trust in people’s ability to deal with adversity, and only leads to more distrust as employees question the sincerity and honesty of leadership. Now more than ever it’s vital to tell it like it is. The counterfeit of talking straight is the soft-pedaling or spinning of information we see too often from organizational leaders.

4. Extend trust. Even high-trust leaders can revert to bad habits in a crisis, when uncertainty seems to justify more of a “command-and-control” style. But this approach creates the opposite effect by denying people the trust and opportunity to rise to the occasion. Employees who don’t feel trusted aren’t going to perform as well as those who know they have their leader’s confidence. In fact, I would say that being trusted is the most inspiring form of human motivation. The counterfeit of extending trust is giving a fake trust or a false trust. It’s where your words might say “I trust you” but then you hover over, micromanage, or “snoopervise” people’s every move and activity, and your behavior says, much louder, “I don’t trust you.”

In order to create a genuine high-trust culture, these four behaviors need to be rooted in the personal credibility of leaders. Without that credibility, a leader’s actions risk being seen as manipulative, lacking in integrity, or self-serving.

Credibility stems from both our character and competence. Character needs to be founded on integrity and intent, aligning our actions with our values and basing our agenda on genuine caring and mutual benefit. Competence derives from our capabilities and results that give people the confidence that we can and will deliver. It also means acknowledging gaps in our knowledge and seeking support when needed, which is especially important during times of uncertainty.

So before implementing any changes, the onus is on each of us as leaders to look in the mirror and assess our own credibility, crisis or not.  The reality is that with trust as our currency, we can be far more agile, collaborative and innovative.  We can not only conquer the challenges we’re facing but can come out even stronger in the end—but only if we trust each other first.