Restoring Trust and Trustworthiness: The Leadership Challenge

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Today’s post is from Roderick M. Kramer, William R. Kimball Professor of Organizational Behavior, Stanford Graduate School of Business and Visiting Professor, Center for Public Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School; and  Todd L. Pittinsky, Professor of Technology and Society at Stony Brook University and Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Their new book, Restoring Trust in Organizations and Leaders, has just been published by Oxford University Press.

Apparently, the United States enjoys a surplus of deficits. President Obama’s first State of the Union address warned that we are weakened and endangered not only by our financial deficit, but also by a deficit in trust. He wasn’t making that up. Polls by Edelman and Associates, the PEW Research Center, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, and many others find that Americans’ trust in business and political leaders is in the dumps—and not springing back to life anytime soon.  After all, the hit scandals just keep on coming, from banking and biking to Barclay’s and the BBC.  If we can’t trust our leaders not to manipulate interest rates, tap dead people’s phones, let top athletes cheat for years, or wreck the world economy—well, what can we trust them for?

We’ve heard it all before—the president, the polls, the pundits, the public—but can anyone do anything about it? As a matter of fact, yes. There are concrete steps leaders can take to begin restoring trust, which then-Secretary of State George Schulz once astutely referred to as “the coin of the realm.” (And this was during his testimony before the Congressional committee investigating the Iran-Contra scandal, so who are we to argue?)

Indeed, the current scientific understanding of the process of trust repair is summarized in our new book, Restoring Trust in Organizations and Leaders. This volume, based on a conference held at Harvard University, brought together many of the world’s leading scholars on how social trust is restored and the resulting benefits to society.

But in this image-obsessed age when politicians admit cheerfully that they want to create a “perception” of being honest or decisive, we need to remember that trust is the perception and trustworthiness is the reality.  So unless you are a leader who can actually fool all of the people all of the time, you need to earn people’s trust by being trustworthy. Trust should be thought of as a byproduct—and benefit—of having first provided trustworthy leadership and organizational performance.

But what can leaders do to create and sustain such trustworthiness? Research has identified several steps leaders can take:

Communicate.  A leader’s words and actions should show that he or she is working diligently to protect and advance the well-being and security of constituents or employees. Good intentions matter. People are more likely to trust leaders whom they see as altruistic and committed.

Demonstrate competence. When we place our trust in someone, we put ourselves at risk. We need to believe our leaders are competent. We need to be reassured that not only are their intentions in line with our interests, but also that they can deliver.

Practice transparency. We regard leaders as more trustworthy when we feel we know who they are and what values they hold dear. We’re more comfortable, moreover, when we feel we can understand and predict their actions. Thus, we expect leaders to be transparent about the procedures they use when reaching major decisions and about the consequences of those decisions.

Be vigilant. We expect our leaders to do the necessary due diligence on our behalf. Former Intel CEO Andrew Grove liked to remind his managers and employees, “Only the paranoid survive.” He wanted everyone in his organization to maintain a healthy sustained scrutiny of their fast-moving hyper-competitive environment.

Political and business leaders often bemoan the “fragility” of trust—so hard to earn and so easy to lose, they whine. But that’s exactly the way it should be. We should be stingy when it comes to trust.  We should dole it out sparingly and only to those who have passed the tests. If trust is the coin of the realm, it’s worth spending frugally and wisely.

Useful links

OECD work on restoring public trust

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  1. Paul Budde - 16/02/2013 Reply

    Let’s be honest none of these messages to leaders are unique in many different forms we hear them year after year. Sorry messages to leaders don’t help. I am disappointed that the authors did not provide message to the people on how they can bypass those leaders and start changing things from the bottom up

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