As the President of a $2.6 billion retail & wholesale grocery division in Canada, one of the hardest decisions I made was to close a distribution facility that had been in operation for 89 years. The business case was irrefutable; significantly reduced operating costs, faster delivery cycles and a high ROI, but the human impact was dramatic – 55 redundancies. Having committed to the decision, we had a lot of work to do to expedite the transition and I, in tandem with an HR team, arrived at the facility to announce the closure – 10 months BEFORE it would take effect. As I walked on to the warehouse floor to address the combined AM and PM shifts it seemed inconceivable we could actually build trust in such dire circumstances, but that’s exactly what transpired.
Trust is an abstract, often elusive concept, one of those critical business intangibles that you can “feel” when it’s there and viscerally when it’s absent, but how do you qualify trust? The Greek philosophers described trust as three-dimensional – ETHOS, LOGOS, PATHOS (Credibility, Competence and Caring for those of us who are a little rusty on our Greek). A definition that gives us more depth but no explicit directions on how to foster trust and what might we be doing to erode it? The following are six specific ways in which leaders can build trust (in acronym form).
Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Not always comfortable but never weakness. (Brene Brown)
Vulnerability is not a characteristic traditionally associated with leadership, but vulnerability is inextricably intertwined with courage and key to establishing empathy and emotional connection. It’s the willingness to put yourself in sometimes uncomfortable situations, to recognise and acknowledge your own opportunities or limitations and set the tone for open and candid conversations.
Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no-one is watching. (Roy Bennet)
Do your words and actions match up? Are you willing to call out unacceptable behavior or do you turn a blind eye? Do you hold yourself accountable and when appropriate ‘fess up to your mistakes? How do you talk about people when they are not present? Do you tangibly model the values you espouse? As Jim Collins pertinently asked, “Do you look in the mirror or out the window”?
No trust given, no trust received. (Lao Tzu)
Adam Grant of the Wharton Business School conducted a fascinating study of different interactional styles across three different industries, in his book “Give and Take”. Grant identified and studied “givers”, “matchers” and “takers” and through in-depth quantitative and qualitative assessments discovered that the least successful cohort were the unconditional “givers” who struggled to accomplish their own goals and got taken to the cleaners by the “takers”. Conversely the most successful group in each of the professions studied were “smart” givers, those who gave more than they received but were judicious in how they did it. Giving what Grant calls “5-minute favors”, matching when confronted by unapologetic takers and being ready to ask others for help which with the smart givers’ track record their requests were willingly reciprocated. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
We judge ourselves by our intentions and judge others by their actions. (Stephen Covey)
Transparency requires us to declare our position proactively, getting to the point and avoiding spin. The willingness to share your “agenda”, explain your rationale and why you believe what you believe. To acknowledge both the pros and cons of your position and have the robust conversation about the implications. Addressing THE issue whatever it is rather than avoiding it.
People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. (Teddy Roosevelt)
Taking the time to truly understand different perspectives. Listening to comprehend rather than to respond. Asking high-impact questions that encourage people to think at a deeper, more reflective level. Observing if the words and body language are consistent, paying attention to what’s not being said. Restating and seeking to confirm or disconfirm what you perceive is being communicated. It’s not about agreeing with their position, it’s about understanding and respecting it.
Do or do not. There is no “try”. (Yoda)
Execution is about making and keeping commitments. Are you consistently and sustainably delivering the agreed upon outcomes? And it’s not just WHAT you achieve, it’s also about HOW you achieve it. Are you balancing results and relationships, are you articulating clearly and demonstrating the requisite values, adhering to ethical and regulatory standards? Do you hold yourself and others accountable for superior performance?
Integrity and Execution are foundational to trust but they are also table stakes, the very least people expect of their leaders are to be credible and competent. Vulnerability, Reciprocity, Transparency and Understanding are the characteristics that generate a deeper connection and create and sustain a high-trust environment. Leaders whose thoughts, words and actions set the tone in a visible and tangible way for all to see.
When I think about the warehouse closure, it was a profoundly uncomfortable experience telling 55 people in-person that they were going to lose their jobs. We couldn’t be sure how people would react, and it would have been much easier to simply issue an organisation-wide notification. But those folks deserved to hear directly from the leader who made the call. We gave as much notice as we could, provided severance packages beyond the norm which we allowed the employees to take if they found another job during the 10-month transition, as well as offering a retention bonus if they elected to stay. We explained the rationale and moved quickly to inform other stakeholders. We gave the employees time to absorb the news and the choice to leave early. And the HR team sat down with every single employee the very day we announced the closure and individually shared with them exactly what their severance was and what other support we would be providing.
Over the course of the next 10 months, ONE person chose to exercise their severance and leave early. There was no drop-off in productivity, no uptick in absenteeism or product losses. As hard as it was to be on the receiving end of that decision, the employees understood it and felt they had been treated respectfully and responded in kind. 3 weeks before the closure I was invited to attend a “celebration” of the 90th anniversary of operation.
Those who focus on the “risks” of being vulnerable, who argue for the easier short-term path, and worry that they will be taken advantage of if they give too much, the people who advocate for guardedness rather than openness, are more comfortable telling than asking and ultimately believe the end justifies the means, seem to be oblivious to the downside of a low or no-trust environment. The suspicion, the rumors, disengagement and acrimony that unfolds. Adopting a passive or neutral approach to trust-building (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil) ignores our inherent negativity bias. When invited to speculate our brains are five times more likely to assume the worst.
Building trust is a business, moral and behavioral imperative. Trust is built one interaction at a time and eroded the same way, oftentimes by our own inaction. People expect their leaders to be credible, competent and caring and the greatest opportunity to build trust is during times of challenge and change. It’s the time when leaders most need to demonstrate their VIRTUE.