By Abbey Lewis, senior product manager at Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning
If there’s ever been a question about the value of effective leadership, the past year put all doubt to rest. We’ve seen leaders across industries and sectors rise to the dual challenges of Covid-19 and the economic crisis in impressive fashion. In the corporate sphere, many CEOs led their organizations to quickly pivot in response to changing needs, for example, by retooling to produce suddenly in-demand items like hand sanitizer and Personal Protective Equipment. And we’ve witnessed leaders in organization after organization manage their teams’ shift from in-person to full-time remote work practically overnight.
Business researchers will long study what separated leaders who succeeded from those who were less effective during these unprecedented times. But even now, we have hints about the practices and approaches that shined most brightly—and that can take our organizations to new levels of achievement, crisis or not.
One of a leader’s most critical responsibilities is fostering an environment of trust. That’s because workplaces run on trust. Imagine a workplace where the team doesn’t trust its leader. Where the leader doesn’t trust their team. Where members of the team don’t trust each other. Things might still get accomplished, but with a great degree of difficulty, and outcomes would not be as successful as they would be in a workplace where trust is instilled.
The benefits of a high-trust organization
In “The Neuroscience of Trust”, which appeared in the January 2017 Harvard Business Review, Claremont Graduate University Professor Paul Zak wrote that:
Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout.
These results are based on Zak’s long years of research, but the findings are very intuitive.
Consider a scenario in which lack of trust prevails. If the team doesn’t trust the leader, they’ll be reluctant to follow, and aren’t likely to apply their best efforts. A leader who doesn’t trust their team is probably going to be micromanaging, looking over everyone’s shoulders, stalling progress and just plain irritating everyone. And if team members don’t trust each other, there’ll be more backbiting, credit-grabbing, and duplication of efforts than there is positive, productive collaboration.
Then consider the scenario where trust abounds. The leader lets their team know what their goals are, then invites the team to work together on next steps. Once the plan’s in place, team members work closely together, asking advice from each other, sharing helpful hints, and having their colleagues’ backs.
Fostering an environment of trust
The foundation for trust-building is making sure that the team trusts their leader. In Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You, authors Harvard Business School Professor Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, Executive Founder of The Leadership Consortium, write about the importance of authenticity.
Most people can spot an inauthentic person a mile away, and they’ll instinctively distrust that person. Authentic leaders must be willing and able to talk about their values, about what makes them tick. They then must demonstrate that their values are more than just words by putting those words into action and into the choices they make.
And not just any words.
We often tell our children to “use their words.” Leaders need to use their words, too. Their own words. They can’t just be parroting bullet points off the company’s PowerPoint deck. They need to be their authentic selves, bringing their own experiences, stories, and style to their interactions.
There are other attributes required for trust—logic (making sure the team understands their leader’s reasoning, so that they can trust that their judgment is sound) and empathy (making sure that people believe that you truly care about them and their success)—but authenticity is key.
Trust is a two-way street
Trust is a two-way street, and you can’t create a high-trust organization without mutual trust. How does a leader demonstrate trust in their team? It’s essential that they give team members autonomy and a reasonable degree of freedom over how they get their work done. Just because it isn’t quite the way that you would do something doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
Giving the team freedom doesn’t mean abandoning them. The leader’s job is to make sure that team members have context about what they’re being asked to do, including why and how their contributions matter, and the information they need to succeed at their tasks. Leaders must also give the team members credit for and ownership of their results. And don’t forget that it’s often up to the leader to step in where required to remove any roadblocks to success.
When the team is trusted, when they’re empowered, they’ll be able to get more done.
Trust within the team is also critical. What’s good for the leader is also good for individual team members. Authenticity, logic, and empathy at the personal level help make it possible for colleagues to trust each other.
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