The Gallup organization has been studying what drives employee engagement for over 30 years. From this effort, they have determined that for an employee who does not trust the company’s management, the likelihood of them being engaged at work is only 1 in 12. That number rises to 1 in 2 for employees who do trust the management.

Most importantly, Gallup has found that organizations with a highly engaged workforce have 3.9 times the earnings per share growth rate of companies with disengaged employees. Leadership trust is therefore an incredibly important lever of workforce productivity, results and corporate health.

So, just what is leadership trust? It exists in three forms, as defined by Galford and Drapeau:

  1. strategic trust (business direction)
  2. organizational trust (fairness and equality)
  3. interpersonal trust (between individuals)

These forms of trust operate differently depending on your position or level in an organization

1. Strategic Trust

For executive leaders, especially those in larger organizations, strategic trust is what matters most because it affects everyone. This is especially true for IT leaders because the technology landscape is ever-changing, meaning that strategic errors are costly in terms of dollars, time, and lost competitive advantage.

CIOs and the rest of the senior executives literally have the future viability of the corporation, and therefore the staff’s future income, in their hands. We are talking survival.

So, employees need to be reassured of three things:

  1. You know where you are going and you have charted the course
  2. The destination you are leading them to is a good one
  3. You can get the organization there successfully

Establishing this form of trust takes time. Trust isn’t something you can dictate to people, like process. Rather, it is the direct result of management’s behaviors, decisions and results. It is not about what management says, but what they do.

In the case of senior executives, the employees actually do not have to trust you personally, but they have to know their future is safe in your hands. Steve Jobs provides a perfect example. Most people gave him very low scores on interpersonal trust, but they streamed to Apple to work for him. It was the strong strategic trust that mattered most (although having both strategic and interpersonal trust is even better).

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2. Organizational Trust

Even if the organization is comfortable the executive team is on track to create a corporate success, they also want to see that they themselves can be successful. This is where organizational trust enters the picture. Humans are constantly scanning their various situations to see that equality and fairness are demonstrated in not just word, but also in deed. The absence of either one can derail an individual’s chance to succeed, so people are rightfully hypersensitive to any hint of inequality or unfairness. This form of trust is expected from all leaders, regardless of their level.

Let’s start with fairness. When people work hard, deliver on their commitments, play well on the team, and step up when needed, then they expect to be fairly considered when the rewards are handed out. This includes equal consideration for raises, bonuses, increased responsibility, plum assignments and promotions. If they sense any favoritism, then they are going to distrust the way the organization operates, and disengage from their work. They will be present, but not productive. It is a productivity killer, even if you can’t directly see the effects.

Inequality is an enduring and powerful source of distrust. The concept of equality is deeply connected to our tribal roots, where every individual in the tribe was accepted by virtue of being a member. To be rejected by the tribe presented immense risks because members of the tribe had one another’s backs, literally. Safety itself emanated from the power of the group, and that meant acceptance.

In fact, humans are so deeply wired for equality that disenfranchised people fight for it all around the globe. Work is no different. When team members are passed over because of how they look, sound, or what they believe, they will experience an appalling sense of rejection. They may fight it, or they may completely disengage and seek equality and fairness elsewhere. As a leader, organizational trust is a foundational block upon which you build your work culture.

3. Interpersonal Trust

Employees interact directly with many leaders, and see everything they do. Trust is only earned when the leaders take sincere and consistent action that demonstrates they care about the workers; when they show they are willing to dispense tough love if needed to ensure the team is successful; and, when they behave in an authentic, competent, and predictable manner around the troops. At the end of the day, each leader is an open book, and the troops are constantly reading them. There is nowhere to hide.

Most importantly, trust is an outcome. It is earned slowly, yet can be lost in a nanosecond based on one untrustworthy act. Trust is therefore precious. Once earned it must be dearly held onto because it takes a very long time to win it back – if ever.

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