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Restoring Workplace Trust, Part II

Restoring broken trust is based on behavior, not words, slogans or talking points. Because trust is breached by actions, it takes other key actions to repair it.

May 23, 2013

In Part I of this article, I wrote that restoring broken trust is based on behavior, not words, slogans or talking points. Because trust is breached by actions, it takes other key actions to repair it. These involve ongoing daily leadership behaviors which become the customary routine way things are done.

In the past several weeks, two stories have tarnished parts of our military and the Internal Revenue Service. While the facts are still emerging, it's clear that certain steps will have to be taken to address the harm each has caused.

In early May, the U.S. Military charged two individuals responsible for preventing sexual assaults with outrageous acts of harassment and misconduct. We also learned that some in the IRS appear to have singled out certain political groups to examine their claimed tax-exempt status.

In both cases, the conduct is far afield from what we would expect from our government's representatives. Assuming there's validity to these allegations, it's clear that expressions of outrage, blue ribbon commissions, hot lines, new processes, slogans and training won't be enough to restore our confidence that such events won't recur. Ultimately, the key ingredient that will is daily conduct that builds trust in every level of both organizations.

Trust is based on telling the truth, following through on commitments, and explaining when there are changes in plans or, for that matter, errors. Encouraging individuals to raise concerns and listening and responding with appreciation rather than retaliation when they do is also vital. Behaviors which demonstrate and spread these standards are the keys to restoring trust.

The following are the specific leadership actions which we've found have to be taken for trust to take root. They apply to current governmental crises of trust as well as to those affecting other organizations. And they extend to every person in an organization who has an influence over others.

First, leaders have to model key trustworthy behavior in their daily conduct. The more visible a leader, the more devastating the impact when he/she violates basic standards. Everyone in an organization watches leaders. How they act is seen as a measure of how to perform and what's acceptable. Individuals learn to appreciate that behaviors like honesty, and other valued standards, are important when leaders practice them daily.

Second, leaders have to talk about the importance of trust and those actions which build it. If leaders only model key behaviors, some may see them as optional rather than necessary behavioral standards. Messages can be sincere but if they're delivered infrequently or annually they'll often be either forgotten or ignored. Here, constancy and sincerity trump canned eloquence.

Third, leaders have to act when they see others engaging in conduct that violates organizational standards which build trust. If they don't, the message they'll communicate is: "We'll talk about stuff, but all we're going to do is talk." Conversely, when individuals do an outstanding job, their actions need to be appreciated, complimented and rewarded.

Fourth, no matter how committed an organization is to building trustworthy operations and maintaining its values, problems will arise. Often the earliest and best way to find out about them is when individuals inside the organization report concerns. But absent extraordinary courage or frustration individuals won't come forward if they believe they will suffer harm if they do. To counter such fears, leaders have to continually encourage individuals to come forward with problems and listen carefully, non-judgmentally, and with appreciation when they do. How even small concerns and ideas are handled will determine how comfortable individuals feel about raising large, potentially serious matters.

Finally, none of these steps will endure unless individuals realize that preventing actions such as those discussed above are vital to the success of the mission of the military and the IRS. Trust is not only a guard against reputational damage, it is also a building block for operational efficiency and excellence. It's also a key leadership responsibility to constantly explain this link to others.