Seeing with fresh eyes: how leaders can use trust to maximise strategic advantage

Trust starts with individual leadership habits and builds itself, one conversation at a time, as a strategic asset on the balance sheet of the modern organisation, says John Blakey

Have you ever thought about trust as a strategic asset? As an asset in your personal balance sheet? An intangible asset like goodwill. Trust in your brand. Trust in your culture. Trust in you. Maybe it is time to look at trust with new eyes? Not as a nice-to-have soft skill, but as an essential strategic advantage in a transparent world where trust is hard won and quickly lost. If we look at trust with these new eyes then we will transform it from an abstract ideal to a tangible, practical KPI. 

In a recent article on managing trust in the pandemic, Stephen MR Covey said: ‘The currency of trust is the single most important asset leaders have. That’s truer now than ever as companies navigate a drastically changed economic outlook and a highly uncertain future’.

Covey’s comment highlights that, in a world of pandemics, social justice imperatives and climate change, the old leadership currency of power cannot provide the psychological safety that the modern stakeholder demands. Only the currency of trust can drive the necessary motivation, engagement and productivity of anxious, socially-distanced staff in the new world of work.

How do leaders build this trust asset? My own DBA research at Aston Business School revealed that the single biggest predictor of a high trust culture is the behaviour of the CEO and the senior leadership team. Leading by example is a powerful lever of cultural change. Alarmingly, the same research revealed that CEOs typically rate their trustworthiness 29% higher than do those who they lead. I refer to this as the authenticity gap – the difference in how we see ourselves compared to how others see us.

Leaders that close the authenticity gap will build the trust asset with all their stakeholders. This is a difficult challenge because it involves unlearning the habits of power and learning new habits of trust. Thankfully, the research at Aston also generated the Nine Habits of Trust model – an academically verified, practical checklist to support leaders who are committed to mastering this challenge.

This simple yet holistic model comprises of three pillars and nine habits. The three pillars of trustworthiness can be expressed as follows:-

Trustworthiness = ability x integrity x benevolence

Ability and integrity speak for themselves yet benevolence is a less familiar word in the leadership lexicon. Benevolence means ‘wishing well’ for others. It is the opposite of malevolence. If you are not benevolent, as well as having ability and integrity, you will not be trusted. Each pillar of trust is associated with three behavioural habits. First, we make our habits then our habits make us. If leaders work the muscle of all nine habits they will develop a trustworthy character that will inspire a high trust culture and a high trust brand. Let us look at each habit in more detail.

Three habits focused on building your ability

Habit 1 – choosing to deliver

This habit involves getting the job done on time, on budget and to the right level of satisfaction for the customer. If you can’t deliver then it will be hard to trust you. Habit 1 is the passport into the rest of the trust game.

Habit 2 – choosing to coach

Coaching is being able to teach others to deliver through sharing your knowledge and developing their skills. This habit involves the skills of listening, asking powerful questions and empowering others.

Habit 3 – choosing to be consistent

Inconsistency is a trust-killer. If you deliver 99 days out of 100 and then it all falls apart on the 100th day, it will be the 100th day that people remember. Consistency isn’t sexy or glamorous, but it’s core to trustworthiness.

Three habits focused on building your integrity

Habit 4 – choosing to be honest

The bar on honesty is rising all the time. Any transgression can severely damage your reputation. People are watching 24×7, looking for cracks in the honesty habit, whether it’s in your business life or your personal life.

Habit 5 – choosing to be open

Being open is about having transparent communication, being clear about why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s also about showing vulnerability and being able to own up to your shortcomings and mistakes.

Habit 6 – choosing to be humble

Humble leaders admit their part in failures, not seeking to claim all of the glory and putting the company and team ahead of themselves. This habit will help others feel like they work with you, not for you.

Three habits focused on building your benevolence

Habit 7 – choosing to evangelise

Leaders who exercise this habit set a positive tone and inspire confidence in others. They have the unwavering belief that the mission will be successful and they share this message with the team and with the wider stakeholders.

Habit 8 – choosing to be brave

Do you have the moral courage to stick your neck out and to stand up for what you believe in? This is the type of bravery that builds trust when people know that you will do the right thing, even if it could have negative personal consequences.

Habit 9 – choosing to be kind

An act of kindness takes an instant of time but requires great thought. Saying ‘well done’ and ‘thank you’ can have a dramatic effect on the morale and well-being of staff. Random acts of kindness, especially when they are unexpected, can instantly change people’s attitudes in a positive way.

So there you have it. Nine Habits that inspire trust. The theory is simple, but the practice is challenging. Changing habits is difficult. I write with my left hand. I can’t write with my right hand. But if I woke up tomorrow and, God forbid, my left arm was paralysed, would I learn to write with my right hand? Yes, I would because suddenly I am motivated to learn a new habit.

Similarly, leaders who are motivated to see with new eyes, and recognise the strategic advantage of a high trust culture, will find the motivation to do the hard yards required to master all nine habits. Then, what they do for themselves, they can extend to their team, their organisation and their brand. In this way, trust starts with individual leadership habits and builds itself, one conversation at a time, as a strategic asset on the balance sheet of the modern organisation. As one of the new generation of leaders are you ready to see trust with new eyes?

Dr John Blakey is Founder of The Trusted Executive Foundation and Author of  The Trusted Executive.

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