Building and Maintaining Trust

If character is the foundation of leadership, trust is the cornerstone of the foundation.

In an earlier post http://bit.ly/2N0pCwi I proposed that the foundation of leadership was character. I still believe that to be true. Character is the sum of your habits that tell others what you value. Leaders should adopt habits so others know they value their organization’s guiding principals. Organizations make a big deal out of their organizational values or guiding principals because those behavior are what they want the world to think the organization represents. Rarely do people talk about the corner stone of the foundation. However, if character is the foundation of leadership, trust is the cornerstone. If trust is so important, you have to wonder how do you develop and maintain trust. Like being a good leader, developing and maintaining trust takes effort.

Trust often exists in new organizations whether a company, team, or partnership. The same principal applies when new people join an organization; for the most part they are trusted. People generally trust each other. In spite of the warnings our parents gave us as children, and we as parents admonish our children, people trust strangers. That is one reason scammers are successful. Even scammers are trusting of others. Just watch any of James Veitch’s Scamalot videos on YouTube or Mashable to see him scam the scammers. The scammers trust him to do what he says he will do, well, until they realize he is jerking them around.

Humans learn to trust early. Trust is an important survival tool learned in families and with friends.

Trusting one another, family, friend, or co-worker is an important human quality. Early humans had to rely on each other to survive. As a result our brains developed to release certain hormones when we trust and cooperate with other people (Sinek, 2014, pp 33-38). Someone had to guard the existing provisions while another group went to hunt. The guards had to trust the hunters to hunt. Hunters had to trust the guards to protect what little they already gathered.

Today we have the same need to rely on others to survive and thrive. Military commanders rely on their higher headquarters to coordinate resources they require to accomplish missions. They also rely on subordinate commanders to execute tasks without direct supervision as well as their peers to their left, right, and above (l mean in the air over the battlefield) them. Each risks potentially life threatening tasks with little but a promise that those around him or her will complete their tasks and the others rely on that commander complete his or hers.

During World War I Major Charles Whittlesey found himself in command of his 1st Battalion of the 308th Infantry Regiment along with attachments from other 77th Division units in a pocket behind enemy lines. The plan was that the division would attack to a phase line with several units on line and in mass to overrun the German trenches. As the attack progressed the units on Whittlesey’s flanks began to break and retreat. Commanders on his flanks warned him they had lost contact with units to the regiment’s left and right. Division headquarters assured Whittlesey several times during the attack his flanks were covered. He reached his objective that day, but was the only American unit to do so. The Germans restored their lines by the end of the next day and surrounded the 1-308th(+). Whittlesey trusted Maj. Gen. Alexander when he continued to press the attack. In spite of that let down, he continued to trust that the General would find a way to relieve them. Alexander had sent for reinforcements, but only a small number reached Whittlesey’s position before they were cut off from the Allied lines.

LTC Whittlesey receives his Medal of Honor. He trusted his senior leaders would relieve him and his Soldiers. He encourages his Soldiers to also have faith in their comrades efforts to come to their aid bolstering their trust.

Whittlesey established a strong defensive position and encouraged his men to fight well and have faith they would be relieved. His phone lines had been cut off by the Germans requiring him to rely on carrier pigeons to communicate with his regiment and division. The Soldiers of the 308th fought through six days of repeated German attacks rather than surrendering. They trusted their fellow Soldiers would fight their way forward to relieve them. In the movie version of this story, Major Whittlesey tells his junior leaders that they will win the battle. He trusted MG Alexander would be determined to relieve them. Whittlesey was right. Alexander trusted that Whittlesey would hold out as long as he could. Alexander used the Lost Battalion to motivate other units to fight hard. He continued to pressure the German lines to reestablish contact with Whittlesey and his men. The Germans could not continue to stand against the pressure on the lines while also trying to dislodge the 308th. The 77th Division broke through and finally relieved Whittlesey and the men of the 308th Infantry (Durr, 2018 & Carabatsos, 2001).

In this example there was lot of reason not to trust, but leaders did trust each other. The leaders passed along their trust to the Soldiers. The result was an Allied victory in the Argonne Forrest that led to the cease fire several weeks later on November 11, 1918.

As Veitch’s Scamalot videos show, sometimes it is easier to trust strangers than people we already know. Strangers have yet to do anything to cause us not to trust them. We know the flaws of those around us which may cause us to not trust them as much a those strangers. This is where leadership happens. Establishing trust is easy. Maintaining trust within existing organizations takes the most work. It would have been easy for Major Whittlesey to surrender and stop trusting his commanders. They had let him down by not telling him the truth about the other units falling to the rear.

Trust, like solid stone, can erode over time. Leaders recognize factors that cause trust to erode. They make small corrections and repairs along to prevent the foundation from collapsing.

Trust erodes as people are unwilling or unable to live up to expectations. Jim is unable to complete a project on time because Pam did not budget enough money to complete her assigned task. Pam did not know the task would cost that much because she relied on a vendor’s quote. The vendor was out of stock so Pam had to order from another supplier and request additional funding. Both took more time than planned and jammed up Jim. Now the manager does not trust either of them, and neither Jim nor Pam trust each other. None of the people in this story intended to behave unethically. The vendor did not predict Pam’s order and ran out of stock. Pam trusted the vendor had a good supply of what she needed. Jim trusted Pam had checked out the vendor. Michael, the manager, trusted Jim could lead the project and complete it on time and within budget.

On the surface keeping trust is simple. As the above example shows it only takes a small mistake to loose trust. However if people live by the organizational principals, difficult situations can be navigated so lessons learned are applied in the future. People have to take responsibility for their mistakes. Leaders have to forgive those mistakes and reestablish trust.

It is easier to make small repairs when trust is breached than to try to rebuild trust after things fall in around you.

Leaders are responsible for building and maintaining trust. They do this in several ways. Leaders define their organization’s guiding principals through regular communication, education, and setting the example. Leaders allow others to make mistakes, analyze what went wrong, and learn how to avoid those mistakes in the future. The final step for leaders is to allow the employee to try again. Doing so shows he still has trust in the employee and has faith he will succeed. Leaders respectfully share employee mistakes so others learn what not to do. You do this by setting them up as the new subject matter expert. Employees rarely act to sabotage you and the organization. If they do, you need to take appropriate disciplinary steps which also establishes that you can be trusted to make hard choices.

There are times when bad things happen out of the leader’s control. When handled poorly, those events destroy trust between key players. Rebuilding trust is difficult. Leaders ensure trust is rebuilt after a crisis. There are several ways to reestablish trust such as using some sort of mediation process to settle disputes between aggrieved parties; reassigning people to new positions to reduce friction; terminating those who willfully violated the organization’s guiding principals; training about roles, responsibilities and shared values; or celebrating victories through teamwork over extreme challenges. Regardless of the reason trust has been lost, it is the leader’s responsibility to regain trust within the organization. The leader takes action allowing others to regain trust.

Trust is the cornerstone of character, the foundation of leadership. Leaders are responsible to establish and maintain trust in their teams and organizations. Often it is easier to trust a stranger than the person you worked with for years because of many large and small transgressions violating trust. Trust however is the force that inspires others to do more than they thought they could do. Leaders consistently communicate organizational guiding principals and live those principals as a model for others to follow. Leaders keep open lines of communication to detect the earliest signs of mistrust to do what is necessary to repair transgressions. Sometimes leaders have to face the fact that someone deliberately did something wrong for selfish reasons and needs to be separated from the organization. While rare, failing to take such action causes increased distrust. Leaders allow honest mistakes by reviewing causes and effects with employees and developing means to correct those mistakes. They treat the mistakes as a learning opportunity for everyone which shows respect and builds trust. Like Soldiers on a battlefield surrounded, without food, water or ammunition, organizations with strong ties developed by trusting relationships can accomplish deeds that seem impossible. Trust is the strong cornerstone of every leadership foundation.

References

Photo Credits

  • Cornerstone by the author CC attribution no commercial
  • Trusted adult by Liane Metzler from unsplash.com, used with an Unsplash license
  • Award ceremony LTC Whittlesey from the National Archieves
  • Eroded stone by the author CC attribution no commercial
  • Reconstruction by Milivoj Kuhar from unsplash.com used with Unsplash license

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