Trust is key to good leadership

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Declining levels of trust in society show that we are not relating to each other in the right way.

Humans are social creatures and both historic and current findings confirm that strong, supportive communities have higher survival rates, prosper better and enjoy more content and fulfilled lives. This is also true of business communities.

Leaders today are constantly in the spotlight and are often called upon to earn authority without control. Economic and social change demands leadership by consent rather than by control. What we perceive as good leadership tends to be created by leaders, followers, and the context and purpose of the organisation, thus it is a collective rather than an individual responsibility. 

Trust is a key ingredient of successful leadership. Trusted leaders are the guardians of the values of the organisation. Trust can release the energy of people and enlarge the human and intellectual capital of employees. In a trusting environment when we are committed to our shared purpose we play active roles both as leaders and as followers. We talk a lot about trust these days because it tends to be a precious and scarce resource. 

When we listen to the emerging needs of the workplace we step into the most relevant and useful roles and make relevant and valuable contributions both when leading and when following. Members of organisations who are sensitive to people’s reactions trust themselves and each other. They build and nurture trusting relationships and allow the future to emerge organically. 

No heroic leader can resolve the complex challenges we face today. To address the important issues of our time we need a fundamental change of perspective. We need to start questioning many of our taken for granted assumptions about our business and social environments.

The 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer for example found that people are suspicious of change and innovation when they do not see the long-term benefits for all stakeholders. Fifty-four per cent of respondents believe that business growth or greed/money are the real impetuses behind innovation, and only 27% say that business innovates because of a desire to make the world a better place or improve people’s lives. Leaders need to treat employees as adults, openly and honestly discuss the organisation’s challenges, and take responsibility for their decisions and actions. 

Leaders also need to listen more. The trouble is that most are unable to recognise, let alone change, the structural habits of attention in themselves and in their organisations to drive key factors such as trust. Learning to recognise our blind spots in any business culture requires a particular kind of deep personal and collective listening. 

The benefits of connecting mind, heart and our senses are well documented both in scientific and popular publications. Integrating such practices into the organisational culture increase not only the level of wellbeing, but also the levels of trust, honesty and openness of communication.

Katalin Illes is principal lecturer in leadership and development at Westminster Business School

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