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February 6, 2014

Guest Blogger Julie Freeman: The Trustworthy Leader

Julie Freeman

We live in a skeptical world.  Just because someone sits in a position of power—in the government or in an organization—doesn’t necessarily mean that citizens or employees will have faith in the leader’s decisions and trust his or her actions.

I got a taste of that skepticism many years ago when I began my professional career as a high school English teacher.  I expected the students to respect me, listen to what I had to say and follow directions just because I was the teacher.  I learned quickly that if I was going to do my job effectively, I would have to earn their respect, not think it would be granted automatically because I was in the front of the classroom.

Any CEO or business leader faces that same situation.  If he or she wants to be perceived as dependable, reliable, deserving confidence, in a word, trustworthy, the leader will have to earn that trust.

How can a leader earn trust?  We decide if someone is trustworthy by seeing and hearing from him.  The first step in earning trust is to be visible.

Communication plays a key role in building trust.  Since most employees don’t automatically trust their boss or CEO, they need to hear what he has to say in order to make a decision about whether he is trustworthy.  It’s a common sense notion that is also supported by work of the International Association of Business Communicators Research Foundation in its 2000 research study on measuring organizational trust and confirmed in Building the High Trust Organization, published in 2010.

But not all communication effectively builds trust.  Trust-building communication is honest.  When the organization is experiencing problems, the leader needs to admit them.  And he needs to communicate quickly if even not all the answers are available. 

Today’s employees don’t like one-way, top-down communication for many reasons, and it certainly is not effective in creating trust.  Leaders need to engage in two-way dialogues with employees, giving them the chance to ask questions, get answers and voice concerns.  Two-way conversations give leaders the chance to demonstrate that they are concerned for employees and share their values.

Employees are also put off by corporate-speak, “spin,” and overuse of acronyms.  Speak in plain language; complicated language may give the impression that the leader is hiding something and undermine trust.

As important as communication is to creating the perception that a leader is trustworthy, what is most important is that he does what he says he would do.  His actions must be consistent with his words.  As my grandmother and Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What you do speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you say.”  We trust those who are reliable, whose actions are consistent and dependable.

A leader must follow through on his commitments and promises.  And if for some reason, he cannot follow through on his promises, he must come back to explain why.

And what is the pay-off for a business leader to be perceived as trustworthy?  Many businesses are undergoing enormous transformations, restructuring their business models and reorganizing their employees.  Leaders need their employees to stay on board during the changes and continue to contribute to its strategy.  Trust has an impact on an organization’s ability to cope with change and to continue to engage its employees.

Businesses with high levels of employee satisfaction, productivity and working teams pay attention to building trust.  And that means their leaders are communicating effectively and often.


About Julie Freeman

Julie Freeman, APR, ABC, served as the President of the International Association of Business Communicators from 2001-2011.  She currently serves on The Grossman Group team as a Senior Thoughtpartner.


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