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Success in a recession: How trustworthy are you?

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Sucess in a recessionTrust in our leaders and institutions is at an all time low, so how do you engender trust within your business? Blaire Palmer explains how to coach and develop the people in your organisation to trust more readily and be more trustworthy themselves.


A survey of Americans in 2002 by Golin-Harris found that 69% of respondents agreed with the statement, ‘I just don’t know who to trust anymore’. Roughly half of all managers don’t trust their leaders; and four out of five members of the public have ‘only some’ or ‘hardly any’ confidence in people running major corporations.

“Roughly half of all managers don’t trust their leaders.”

And yet, without trust it is almost impossible to lead. At a time when organisations are asking for more than ever from their workforce (work longer hours, be more creative, achieve more with fewer resources) leaders must be able to convince employees that the strategy is right, that success is possible and that effort will be recognised.

According to David Maister, one of the FT’s top 40 business thinkers in the world, there are four elements to trust:

  1. You need to be credible: When you speak, others need to believe in what you say. We tend to have more trust in people with expertise than those who cannot back up their claims with evidence
  2. You need to be reliable: People who are dependable and behave consistently win our trust because their talk leads to action and results
  3. You need to develop intimacy with other people: Others need to feel they can talk to you openly
  4. You need to demonstrate that you are motivated by more than self-interest: People can sense when your intentions are generous and when they are selfish

You might think you score well in all four of these areas but the real test is how you are perceived by others. And that’s where it becomes complicated. What inspires trust in one person doesn’t necessarily work for someone else. People who are well-adjusted take less time to trust others. Meeting Maister’s four criteria will be easier with these people. However, if your team are poorly adjusted and see the world as a threatening place, you will need to build trust over a longer period.

I have worked with companies where trust has been seriously damaged by previous generations of managers. In one company, let’s call it ABC Manufacturing, a new leadership team was appointed, hoping their arrival would be enough to spark a new era. Instead they were met with resistance, cynicism and even obstinacy.

This was very confusing for the new senior team at ABC. After all, they were not responsible for what had gone before. Everyone had loved them in their previous jobs. And they thought they had communicated well to their new employees how committed they were to turning the company around. But their words landed on stony ground. In fact, the more they communicated the more negative the response from the shop floor became.

They had arrived in a poorly adjusted environment. They expected trust to be bestowed because they knew their own motivations were genuine. But as long as the only evidence of their commitment was words they were doing nothing to build trust.

Only when the staff began to see actions, and lots of them, did they begin to contemplate the possibility that these leaders really meant what they said. Even then it took many months, continually being challenged to prove their commitment, before the staff started to accept them at their word.

Approaching with caution

You can safely assume that most work environments are ‘poorly adjusted’ right now. Even people who are naturally more comfortable with risk will be displaying cautious traits at the moment. Instead of assuming people trust you just because they did in the past, assume that they need more evidence of your integrity and moral fibre at this time.

HR professionals play a vital role in gauging the trust temperature. What impact has the recession had on people’s confidence? Do people feel genuinely loyal or are they the ‘walking dead’ – they are physically present but emotionally they have checked out? If leaders are noticing changes in the demands team members are making on their time it could be evidence of poor adjustment to current conditions. Counter this by giving fewer pep talks and demonstrating your words lead to action.

“People are far more likely to trust when they are in a position of authority.”

When people fear for their jobs they also demonstrate another behaviour which can be damaging to trust – they over-promise. They want to show they are indispensable to the business but instead they continually disappoint. Ensure that development targets are stretching but realistic. Overly ambitious goals look great on paper but when someone fails to achieve what they promised they destroy trust fast.

Power is also a factor affecting trust. People are far more likely to trust when they are in a position of authority. In that case they can afford to trust others because they can always fire them, demote them or make their lives a misery if they are let down. Those without authority are always taking a much greater risk when they trust other people and are therefore more cautious. Only when they can see that decisions are made fairly are powerless individuals able to trust those with more power. If leaders are wondering why they trust their people but trust isn’t always returned, remind them of the power that comes with authority.

A good question for you or for the leaders in your business to ask themselves is: ‘If my mother knew what I was doing, what would she think?’ If you shudder at the thought of her disapproving looks you need to reconsider your actions. If the mother trick doesn’t work, an equally powerful self-test is to ask this question: ‘If my actions were exposed in a newspaper, how would I feel?’ It is a question some of our top politicians would do well to consider. And it is worth holding ourselves to high standards too, whether we risk being exposed in the media or not.


Blaire Palmer is an executive coach and author. Her new book, ‘The Recipe for Success – What Successful People Do and How You Can Do It Too’, is published in May 2009 by A&C Black and is available on Amazon. For more information, visit www.blairepalmer.com or read her blog at www.letsbesuccessfulagain.com

Previous articles in the series:

  • Success in a recession: Toughen up your mind

  • Success in a recession: Don’t forget your manners

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