Trust: Consistency of Leadership
While recently pondering how we go about earning trust, I was transported back to my days in the classroom. Middle schoolers have a great knack for teaching you significant life lessons. How did I earn their trust? Why did they stop by during recess or after school to chat? Why were they willing to crawl through a refrigerator box time machine when they couldn’t see the other side? Why did they choose to uphold the standards we established for how to treat each other? More importantly, why didn’t they violate our standards? I’m not saying I never dealt with a behavior issue or an underperformer, but those instances were few and far between. How did this happen? Only one word adequately describes this phenomenon: consistency.
A consistent approach to teaching and learning was established and reinforced with words and actions. My students knew what to expect and what was expected of them. They did not have to wonder if expectations would be different from one day to the next. Consistency fostered levels of trust that made learning possible.
A Sound Structure
As Colin Powell once said during a TED Talk, people admire and respect those who provide structure. In organizations, structure comes in the form of standards of practice and clear expectations. This type of structure is not about control. It provides direction for how we’ll achieve success. My colleague, Dr. JoAnn Sternke, often describes the most successful organizations as those that offer employees “freedom within fences.” The standards and expectations are collaboratively set, based on the organization’s goals. Then, leaders and employees creatively operate within the fence.
This approach to accomplishing organizational aims only works if the fence remains consistent. When standards and expectations are adjusted, at will, and without communicating a reason for the change, the structure is destroyed by confusion and chaos. Remaining true to the structure and expectations established involves consistent actions, words, and accountability.
3 Ways to Build Trust
Like teachers in a classroom, every move a leader makes is being watched. The quickest way to earn trust is for actions to consistently reflect standards and expectations. Our team wants clear indicators about what matters to us. They are also watching to see if our fence is stable. Modeling what we expect from others communicates that our structures and our leaders are reliable. This also builds trust by showing that we will only ask of others what we are willing to do ourselves. How well are you modeling the organization’s standards and expectations? Consider rating yourself on a scale of 1-5 for each standard of practice.
While many say actions speak louder than words, it is important to consider the power of our words in shaping trusting relationships. With every word we speak or write, we are either supporting our expectations or opposing them. Sending unclear or competing messages causes teams to view us as inconsistent and disloyal to the structure. Aligning our words to standards and expectations increases the team’s trust in us and the organization. Is there an area of communication you can improve? Try scripting some key words to use until you are consistent in the way you message the topic.
The fastest way to lose trust is to drop the ball on accountability. We want leaders to hold everyone accountable, including themselves. Have you ever witnessed a leader communicate an expectation and completely fail to back it up? In a middle school, this is the exact moment a teacher loses control of a classroom forever. We build trust through accountability when we consistently follow through on what we said we’d do, when we remember to recognize those living our standards, when we address those not living our standards, and when we treat everyone equitably. How can accountability become more consistent in your organization? Hold others accountable by holding yourself accountable. Follow through on that task, recognition, or professional conversation.