It’s perhaps unsurprising that trust in leadership is on my mind on the day of the UK General Election. Trust (or lack of) in our political leaders has been a key theme of recent years, and has no doubt significantly contributed to the collective feeling of instability as we’ve all been buffeted by the headwinds of Brexit, the pandemic, war and economic turmoil. As Stephen Covey wrote in his best-selling book, The Speed of Trust, “the ability to establish, grow, extend and restore trust is not only vital to our personal and interpersonal wellbeing; it is the key leadership competency of the new global economy.”  Trust isn’t just a commercial imperative, it’s a basic human need.

Since 2009 The Institute of Leadership has carried out regular surveys to measure levels of trust among employees in their leaders and managers, and the resulting Index of Leadership Trust reports make interesting reading (you can find the 2023 findings here).

Perhaps most striking is the fact that, in the 14 years since the research began, there is little sign of improvement in feelings of trust in leadership, despite the increased focus on its importance. Even though we’re all talking much more about how important trust is, and legislation has even been brought in to promote greater trust, the dial isn’t moving.

Behaviour matters

As leaders, what we say matters but what we DO matters even more. The culture and values of our organisation stem directly from how we behave (more about this here), and there are many different aspects of leadership behaviour that have an impact on trust. Could one of the reasons for the lack of change in trust levels be a disconnect between what we say and what we actually do?

The Institute believes that there are seven key behaviours for leaders that foster trust:

  1. Capability in their role and their ability to lead
  2. Understanding the roles of those they lead and displaying knowledge of their responsibilities
  3. Openness to ideas and suggestions from those they lead
  4. Fairness in the way they treat, and showing concern for, those they lead
  5. Integrity, how well they live up to their espoused values, striving to be honest and fair
  6. Consistency in decision-making, behaving in a reliable and predictable manner
  7. Accessibility, being available to staff

Of these, we find that openness and accessibility have a particularly important role to play. As the report also shows, in larger organisations, where leaders are likely to be less accessible to their employees, trust in CEOs is markedly lower. In our experience, distance can breed distrust, so the more a leader can do to close the gap between them and their team members – by being more authentic, communicating better, increasing accessibility and being open to feedback – the greater the levels of trust.

The power of mutual trust

However, there is one factor that overcomes the obstacle of physical distance: the development of mutual trust. It is fascinating that the findings show a stark contrast in trust levels between those who work from home and those who don’t. The report tells us that 63% of employees who don’t work from home trust their manager, while 88% of those who WFH most of the time do so.

That’s a huge difference, which suggests that reciprocity plays a significant role in trust. When we feel trusted by our bosses (in this case, to work from home), we in turn have greater trust in them. When Warren Bettis said, “Leadership without mutual trust is a contradiction in terms,” he was absolutely right.

This throws up an interesting dimension to the discussions which we know are happening around increasing the number of days spent in the office, as organisations wish to benefit from the clear and obvious positives that happen when diverse teams collide with each other in person.  Maybe we leaders could have a meaningful conversation with our team members about how we might keep the trust at WFH levels, rather than simply sinking to the ‘in-office average’.

When we as leaders can create a virtuous circle of trust, we give our teams the space to thrive and will create valuable headroom for ourselves too. In a culture of trust and mutual respect, employees can get on with their work without being micromanaged, solving problems for themselves while feeling supported by their leaders. When there is mutual trust, failure is treated as an opportunity to learn, and a culture of continuous improvement ensues.

Understanding the level of trust in leadership in your organisation is key to your personal success as a leader, and the performance of your business. But, if the results of the Index of Leadership Trust are anything to go by, there may be a bigger gap to bridge than you realise. If you need our support, please get in touch.

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