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Commentary: A Culture of Trust Can Boost Employee Performance

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Do your employees trust you? The brutal truth is—probably not. It may not be fair, and you may not want to hear it, but chances are that previous leaders have poisoned the ground on which you’re trying to grow a successful business. Make no mistake: Unless you and all the leaders in your organization can gain the trust of your employees, performance will suffer. And considering how tough it is to survive in today’s business environment, that’s bad news for your company.

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Before a team can reach its full potential, leaders must act in ways that transcend employees’ fears of organizational power. Here are some specific things you can do to provide trust-building leadership at your organization.


1. Being trustworthy doesn’t mean you have to be a Boy Scout. You don’t even have to be a warm or kind person. On the contrary, history teaches us that some of the most trustworthy people can be harsh, tough or socially awkward—but their promises must be inviolate and their decisions fair.
Men and women whose word is their honor, and who can be absolutely trusted to be fair, honest and forthright, are more likely to command the respect of others than the nicest guy in the room.


2. Look for chances to reveal some vulnerability. We trust people we believe are real and also human (imperfect and flawed)—just like us. And that usually means allowing others to get a glimpse of our personal vulnerability—some authentic (not fabricated) weakness or fear or raw emotion that allows others to see us as like them, and therefore relate to us at the human level.


3. No matter how tempted you are, don’t bulls**t your employees. Tell the truth, match your actions with your words, and match those words with the truth we all see in the world: no spin, no BS, no fancy justifications or revisionist history—just tell the truth.
Your task as a leader is to be as forthright and transparent as is realistically possible. Strive to disclose the maximum amount of information appropriate to the situation.


4. Never make the “adulterer’s guarantee.” This happens when you say to an employee, in effect, “I just lied to (someone else), but you can trust me because I’d never lie to you.” When an employee sees you committing any act of dishonesty or two-facedness, they’ll assume you’ll do the same to them. They’ll start thinking back through all of their conversations with you, wondering what was real and what was disingenuous.


5. Don’t punish “good failures.” This is one of the stupidest things an organization can do—yet it happens all the time. A good failure is a term used in Silicon Valley to describe a new business start-up or mature company initiative that, by most measures, is well planned, well run, and well organized—yet for reasons beyond its control (an unexpected competitive product, a change in the market or economy) it fails. In other words, good failures occur when you play well but still lose. When they’re punished, you instill a fear of risk-taking in your employees, and with that you stifle creativity and innovation.


6. Don’t squelch the flow of “bad” news. Do you (or others under you) shoot the messenger when he/she brings you bad news? If so, you can be certain that the messenger’s priority is not bringing you the information you need: It’s protecting her own hide. That’s why in most organizations good news zooms to the top of the organization, while bad news—data that reveals goals missed, problems lurking or feedback that challenges or defeats your strategy—flows uphill like molasses in January.

Make it crystal clear to your employees that you expect the truth and nothing but the truth from them. And always, always hold up your end of that deal. Don’t ever shoot the messenger and don’t ever dole out some irrational consequence.


7. Constantly tap into your “fairness conscience.” Precise agreements about what is fair are hard to negotiate, because each of us has our own sense of fairness. But at the level of general principle, there is seldom any confusion about what fair looks like. Just ask yourself: Would most people see this as fair or unfair? You’ll know the answer, and as a leader, you’re paid to know it.

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