Revisionist history was not just for Soviet regimes. Romantics often mentally rewrite memories of history and of the times they lived in. An earlier era or decade becomes longed for, an emotionally photo-shopped reflection of a time that was so much better. Revisionism takes hold as soon as we start believing that we are now in decline.
How will tomorrow’s employees, citizens and business commentators remember today? While we live in lives filled with progress, renewal and expanded comfort for many, trust in leadership seems to be at a new deep low. In one survey or poll after another, the decline in the trust in just about every institution, either directly or indirectly, implies a parallel drop in the trust in responsible leadership. Self-interest, wrongdoing and even criminality continue to challenge us as “followers.” Each and every week, we continue to hear about leaders who have lied about their own credentials, spent company funds improperly, or engaged in inappropriate practices, behaviors, and relationships. The list includes, along with top business executives, the leaders of other key institutions: bankers, financiers, money traders, coaches of sports teams and journalists.
Whether you believe in the “golden rule”, the “American Dream” or other notions that have created a fabric of fairness and opportunity, here’s the context (except where noted from the Pew Research Center):
Only one third of Americans have a favorable opinion of their federal government, the lowest positive rating in fifteen years. However, opinions about state and local governments are positive overall: 52% favorable versus 42% unfavorable. As recently as ten years ago, almost two thirds of Americans offered favorable assessments of all three levels of government (local, state and federal).
Last year research findings showed that negative opinions about news organizations equal or surpass all-time highs on nine of the twelve core measures that have been tracked by the Pew since 1985. However, even with these negative findings, news organizations still remain more trusted sources of information compared to government and business sources. This August, believability ratings for major news organization suffered broad based declines (nine of the thirteen news organizations tested). This includes: national newspapers, all three cable news outlets and well as broadcast television and even NPR.
Public opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court has recently reached a quarter century low, receiving negative or low favorable ratings from Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike.
In May of this year, The Chicago Booth/Kellogg School Financial Trust Index showed that only 22% of Americans trust the nation’s financial system. In June of 2011, Gallup reported that only 23% of Americans have confidence in banks and just 19% have trust in big business. So what are the implications for leaders with this growing level of skepticism and cynicism? What are the presenting challenges and implications for those leading organizations? Should leaders rely on business schools to strengthen their emphasis on ethics, integrity and deepen the importance of character?
Recently at a prestigious business school, students in an ethics class were promised a better grade if they starting attending. A sign-up sheet went around when the promise was made. There were fifty signatures collected while the professor noticed that there were only over 30 attending that day. The offer was withdrawn.
Building trust within an organization is not an overnight affair. It’s hard work and it cannot be accomplished if leadership’s personal behavior is the exception to how all others should act and be treated.
At the same time, we all know exactly what it takes. Trust starts with the top team and the top leader. It starts by asking, “Are we acting closer to stewardship rather than to self-interest?” Building and maintaining trust should be just part of strategy, leadership and culture.
It’s not about avoiding or not communicating hard, tough decisions. It’s about understanding the impact, message and timing. It’s about increasing opportunities for employee involvement, engagement and discussion about strategy and leadership changes, business results and current and future challenges and threats. It’s about honesty, directness and thoroughness in communications and in day-to-day interactions. Shared sacrifice and shared rewards. Perhaps, not equal at all levels but fair and equitably distributed and experienced.
A former CHRO from a top company once told me that employees are willing to make sacrifices. When better economic times and business results return, if benefits and rewards are not restored, trust will be destroyed and dire consequences will follow for leadership. It’s not about asking employees to suspend their disbelief and be more trusting. Instead, leaders must be more trustworthy.
I could go on, but we all know what it takes to increase trust and how easy it is to destroy it. Another statistic from Pew comes to mind. Americans, compared to those from EU countries, Arab countries and emerging economies, have a stronger belief that most people can succeed if they work hard. Maybe this is the opening that leaders need to act upon, to take advantage of the belief that employees have in the "level playing field" if they can experience it with trust. The preponderance of research shows that in organizations where trust is high, there is an increased likelihood of facing change successfully. Trust equals business success!
Originally published on 19 Nov. 2012 on conferenceboard.org