The ability of leaders to generate and maintain trust among employees is vital during times of change.
Trust is an antidote to the potential paralysis caused by uncertainty.
Compare the experiences of two similar audiences addressed by leaders communicating change:
In the first instance, the leader swept into the facility in an almost presidential cavalcade. He spoke to the assembled masses for all of 10 minutes using four slides: market conditions, company performance, the change programme and, oh yes, this facility is closing with the loss of all jobs. He promptly left in his presidential limo.
In the second instance, the leader arrived and parked her family car in the main car park. When she addressed the workforce, she came immediately to the challenging messages of the day, balancing empathy with directness.
Afterwards, she conducted an open and honest Q&A and ate with staff in their canteen, met with staff reps later in the day, toured the building and stayed to talk to the night shift.
Employees judge whether they can trust the organisation and continue to engage with it by evaluating what their leaders say and do – and indeed what they don’t say and don’t do. This is a delicate task. Trust can take years to develop, but just seconds to destroy.
So if you’re a leader or manager, what can you do to generate and maintain trust?
Know your shadow
Because such a strong spotlight is on you as a representative of the organisation, you’ll be casting a shadow – an unconscious projection of your real feelings. Everything you do or say will be scrutinised for signs of whether you believe what you are saying.
Trust erodes when people get mixed messages – when you say one thing and yet their instinct or your actions are telling them something else. Sometimes you won’t even be aware these mixed messages are happening. People will often take a throwaway comment or hasty email and read their own meanings into it.
Behaviours often spotted in the field, inadvertently exhibited by leaders in organisations going through change, include:
- Shrugging of shoulders and heaving deep sighs when asked for information.
- Referring to other leaders as ‘they’ – as in “They haven’t told me that yet” or “I’ll tell you when they’ve told me”.
- Indicating – verbally or non-verbally – that they’ve heard a question a thousand times before
- Being dismissive of a question from an audience – before asking the audience for further questions.
- Succumbing to the temptation of siding with direct reports rather than the organisation: “I know what you mean – it’s dreadful, isn’t it?”
Be a beacon of light
Minimising your shadow, and becoming a clear, unambiguous beacon of light, begins with knowing yourself and surfacing any conscious or unconscious blockers you may be holding. Being clear about your thoughts and feelings enables you to deal with them and avoid them leaking out to others when you don’t want them to.
So work with someone you trust to evaluate what’s really going on for you. What issues am I avoiding because I’m uncomfortable about them – the elephants in the room? How can I confront those elephants? Is the change causing me to trade on my personal values?
Also, get regular honest feedback from a trusted colleague to help you see when you are being a beacon of light, or casting a negative shadow.
Then you can take some proactive steps to ensure you are a beacon of light:
- Strike the right tone. When speaking to colleagues, exhibit patience, honesty and empathy. Balance that with being confident in company strategy.
- Slow down to give colleagues a chance to absorb what you are saying – even when the temptation is to speed up to get past the awkwardness of telling people what they might not want to hear.
- Consider sharing your own feelings and concerns for your own future, but own the change: “I’m excited by this, but I am nervous too – like you it’s affecting me and my family…”
- Be contagiously excited about the possibilities while acknowledging the difficulties.
- Provide the rationale behind the decisions you’ve made.
- Pay attention to your body language. If you have a positive message, make sure you are sitting or standing tall and project energy.
- Watch for signs of anxious micromanaging – over-detailed emails, constant checking, etc.
Remember: trust is like a mirror; once it’s broken, you never look at it the same again. I guess our trust in Lance Armstrong is shattered forever.