Remember that time you dived deep under a wave or into a pool and held your breath for as long as you could? Do you remember starting strong, confident and in control? What about towards the end of the experience? As you heart pounded more deeply in your chest. As your arms strained to make the goal you had set yourself (at home in my backyard pool it was always a minimum of three laps with a push off each lap.)
As you reached for the edge or pulled yourself towards the surface there was the pain of running not-so-slowly out of oxygen. Then you break the surface and pull yourself out of the water gasping for air, filling your lungs with sweet, life-giving oxygen. Driven along by the increasingly urgent communication that the one thing vital to the whole project succeeding was running out. Oxygen. When it ran out, the project ran aground, or at least got much harder to complete.
Some important things are obvious by their absence. Like oxygen.
To teams, trust is like oxygen. No trust = No progress.
Momentum too. No momentum and you look and feel worse than what you really are.
John Maxwell says that trust is the glue that holds teams together.
Patrick Lencioni says that trust is the belief that team members’ intentions are good.
Stephen Covey puts it like this, “Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”
Conversely, trust is most noticed when it’s absent.
You’re in a low trust environment if you are experiencing the following:
- A loss of confidence in the leader and/or leadership in general.
- A culture of blame and low levels of responsibility.
- Poor utilisation of resources.
- Low energy and urgency.
- Little or no excitement about the future.
Leaders possess an intuitive sense of the levels of trust in an organisation. Is the key team ready? Are they leaning in? Can they lend their full support to the next project? Is there enough relational capital to make the stretch? Teams, tribes and organisations can lose trust more quickly than you think. Sadly it’s often something that gets noticed AFTER it’s gone; when you’re gasping for that trust breath you so desperately need.
Leaders do the following five things when they walk into a low-trust or no-trust environment.
Tell the whole truth the whole time.
Max Depree said, “The first job of a leader is to define reality”. So true. What’s really going on in the team, the organisation and the people? What is the best picture of the truth you can figure out under the circumstances? When they know enough of the picture, leaders need to tell the right group of people at the right time.
In people-centred not–for-profits it might be a members meeting. In your organisation it might be the Board followed by the management team. It could be partners or shareholders. The point is this: Tell the right people the whole truth at the right time in the best way possible. Our family has a mantra around truth: “Truth is Celebrated”. Even when it’s hard to say, we celebrate your courage and honesty. In the same way leaders need to figure out what’s happening and tell the right people at the right time. No matter how hard it appears to tell the truth, it is always harder not to and to manage the consequences. Albert Einstein summarised it this way. “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.” Leaders tell the truth. No matter how hard it is to say, process and navigate.
Apologise for what went wrong (whether you are responsible or not).
When you have a good sense of what the truth is, you can then take the next step. This shows an overarching frame of personal and corporate responsibility. One of the most significant things a leader can do is take responsibility for the circumstances that are present. It demonstrates a humility and commitment that can create confidence in followers.
This is a fine line too. Be careful to avoid the two dangers. Danger one is to blame the previous regime (done that) and danger two is to take too much responsibility for a circumstance you didn’t create (done that too). It’s walking down the delicate pathway of truth, honesty, responsibility and optimism (see point four) whilst avoiding the ‘blame frame’ and the ‘martyr frame’. A leadership challenge for certain.
Present a transparent ‘go forward’ plan.
With both honesty and responsibility taken care of, it’s time to suggest what a plan to make progress might look like as an organisation. Many years ago I was sitting in yet another leadership weekend focusing on the next stage of the organisation. The room was crying out silently for a game plan from our leader. One person cautiously voiced, “Just tell us where you want to go and we will follow you.” Sadly, this leader was unable to make a clear call to us that said, “Come this way. This is the direction. This is the plan. Join me!” Being courageous enough to say “LET’S DO THIS” is one of the privileges and responsibilities of leadership.
When you know what’s going on and you’ve stepped up to be responsible for the past and present situations, the next stage in gaining trust is to be clear about the game plan. A good game plan needs to have the following elements:
- Clarity around the purpose of the organisation.
- Excitement about a preferred future.
- Immediate next steps to focus on.
- Potential pitfalls to the plan.
- What you require from your people.
- What the communication and review plan is.
The key here is to remember this is a plan about what to do next and must not be presented as the salvation plan for the organisation. It’s more a next steps plan while more of the details are worked out. As the leader your goal is to be clear about what is happening next, why and what is expected while it unfolds.
Communicate with humility & optimism.
Directly linked to having a go forward plan, is the kind of communication you need to adopt as a leader. When you are regaining and building the foundations for trust with teams and organisations, you need to be measured in the way you communicate.
Several years ago I took over an organisation that needed significant leadership attention. In retrospect, I was SO excited about the opportunity and the potential that I mismatched my energy with what was happening at the time. I didn’t over promise, but I did unleash too much energy on a people group who simply weren’t ready to shift with my style of leadership.
The greatest speeches of the world have this sense of past as well as optimism for the future. A sense of reality whilst maintaining hope. As you talk about the next steps of the organisation with your team, communicate with a sense of possibility, with a sense of optimism, AND with a sense of reality. Be willing to be truthful about each and every step along the pathway. Share this with the organisation; it’s critical. Tell people what’s happening. How the leadership is responding; what needs to be done; what it will take to do it and what to expect along the way. Then, tell them again.
Because, despite the challenges the future may bring, we have a solidarity around “fighting them on the beaches” together. Optimism in the midst of challenge, is not just good leadership, it’s great leadership.
Provide shorter gaps between progress reports (and feedback).
John Maxwell said, “People are down on what they’re not up on.” As THE leader you have a responsibility to make sure the communication and reporting mechanisms are in place to tell the staff, teams, volunteers, shareholders and interested parties what is happening along the way. People are smart. They can tell what is going on in your organisation. Bringing a voice to that and continuing to maintain open dialogue is essential.
Working out the formal and informal channels of communication is essential. Design to do things via various methods of communication, be it email, blog, video or in person. These all serve to increase the levels of trust because people KNOW what’s happening. When they know what’s happening, you have provided the raw material for trust to flourish.
Regaining trust is critical to any leadership turnaround. You can do much good with trust and little without it. Remember to breathe.
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