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How Do We Rebuild Trust in Leadership?

Trust in Leadership

Every year, I wait for it in anticipation. And no, we’re not only talking about my birthday! 

What I’m talking about are the results of the annual Edelman Trust Barometer. It’s a weathervane on what is arguably the most essential and foundational element of work and relationships — trust.   

In business, trust is foundational to leadership, relationships and communications. Without it, we simply can’t function, much less achieve results.  

As Stephen M. R. Covey said in his book The Speed of Trust, “Trust is the glue of life.  It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication.  It’s the foundational principle that holds ALL relationships together!” 

We also learned from Greg McKeown in his book Effortless that trust is key to functioning well. “When trust is high, everything is easy. When trust is low, everything is hard.”  

So, what did the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer report have to say? The global report delved into many areas in a year marred by a disruptive pandemic, social upheaval over systemic racism, economic uncertainty, and seemingly non-stop turbulence. But the headline that caught my attention when I looked at the Canada results was “Canada is Facing a Crisis in Leadership”. The findings reveal widespread misinformation and mistrust of societal leaders (which includes CEOs) in Canada.  


Given the leadership work Fluency does, I was particularly interested in how businesses and CEOs faired in this report.  Short answer…not great!  

While 76 percent of Canadians polled feel their own employers are a mainstay of trust, only 56 percent trust other businesses to do the right thing. The report also shows drops in credibility and trust for CEOs. Perhaps the most disheartening finding was 50 percent of Canadians believe business leaders are purposely trying to mislead people.   

Interestingly, the barometer shows that there is now an expanded mandate for businesses, which could be a huge opportunity or a big challenge, depending on your perspective. People believe CEOs should step in when the government does not fix societal problems and further believe CEOs should hold themselves accountable to the public and speak out on a range of societal issues.  

We only have to look to the past year to see how that expectation manifested. When it comes to addressing issues like the pandemic, anti-racism, equality, and climate change, companies who don’t embrace the imperative to lead and communicate will fall behind. Their employees and customers will notice.   

What do we do with this information and insight? What role can we as leaders play in rebuilding trust? How can we action this?  

To get ideas and insights, we reached out to our Leaders Collectives, our curated groups of senior leaders in the communication and marketing crafts, to ask what can we do as leaders to build trust. We had amazing conversations that enlightened us and gave us some good direction. 

Here’s five actions that can inform our collective path forward to rebuild trust. They sound deceptively easy, but as the Edelman results show, we have work to do.  


Lead by Example: As a leader, you are better off not to make a request or set an expectation if you can’t live it and follow through. A disconnect between words and actions is as obvious as a large flashing red warning light. We see it a mile off, and nothing destroys trust and credibility quicker.  We only have to look to the politicians and leaders this year who preached the “stay home and don’t travel message” while they vacationed in the sun with their families.  Leaders who consistently do what they say, role model the behaviours they want to see, and are prepared to do what they ask of others will build trust overtime. 


Be Honest and Transparent: Navigating uncertainty calls for honesty and transparency, and this can be a tricky tightrope for leaders to walk. There are boundaries and we need to recognize what is personal and confidential. Often though, we default to a “you can’t handle the truth” mentality, thinking we are protecting people by not sharing information. We must remind ourselves that people are capable and have a right to know about events that are likely to impact them. Sharing information provides context and clarity, helps decision making, builds alignment, unleashes creative ideas, and builds interpersonal and organizational trust. Transparency and honesty create a more inclusive environment of “we are all in this together”.     


Be Clear not Certain: In our blog Finding Clarity in the Fog of Uncertainty we talk about how in times of uncertainty, we crave the feeling of safety and comfort that certainty provides.  Yet we recognize, there is no certainty; there is only clarity. The distinction between the two is important. Certainty is declarative and articulates a future state we may want, but we have no way of predicting.  Leaders who provide certainty risk broken promises and a resulting loss of trust. Clarity, on the other hand, asks, “what am I clear about in this moment?” Clarity enables forward momentum. It allows leaders to be clear about what they know and make decisions against that, and be equally clear about what they don’t know. The power of being clear, not certain, gives us room to adapt, recalibrate and move forward together.     


Over-Communicate: In today’s context of uncertainty and unrest, leaders cannot overcommunicate. We know for a message to be heard, understood and acted upon it needs to be heard multiple times in different ways, so while you may feel you are communicating ad nauseum, trust us that you are not. As communicators we know nature abhors a vacuum and a lack of information is a vacuum that people will fill with rumours, speculation and stories which up the fear factor. No news is news and can be comforting news. Frequent communication builds predictability and predictability, you guessed it, earns trust.    


Be Vulnerable: When we are talking about trust we are talking about vulnerability-based trust.  Brene Brown defines vulnerability as having the courage to show up when you can control the outcome. It involves uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. In this context, vulnerability-based trust is when leaders can say, “We screwed up”, “I don’t know”, “This is hard”. It’s saying what needs to be said with a willingness to abandon pride, fear and personal ego for collective benefit of the team or organization. Leaders who are vulnerable set the tone and pave the way for others to be vulnerable and speak up.  Think of all the mistakes that are made because people don’t trust they can speak up.      


Building trust is a long-term proposition that requires us as leaders to be honest with ourselves and open to feedback that uncovers our blind spots and inconsistencies. And, like most things, it starts with and with self-reflection as a first step.  


Coaching questions  

Has your trust in your own organization this year increased, decreased, or stayed the same?   

What can you do more of as a leader to build trust within your team?   

How can you make things easier in your organization by rebuilding trust? 

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