The trust habits that can transform leaders and their companies

By McKeel Hagerty | October 24, 2017

One survey after another suggests America has entered an era of deep distrust. And these feelings are spreading around the globe.
This year, the Edelman “Trust Barometer” survey of people worldwide showed broad declines in trust for government, business, media and nonprofits, with a majority saying that, taken together, these institutions now offer “little hope for the future.” Business, in particular, was stoking fears and distrust in people, with 60 percent worrying about losing their jobs due to the impacts of globalization.

For someone like me who believes well-run businesses can be the most effective force of good in the world, 60 percent is a concerning number. While globalization issues are most prevalent in large public corporations and less so in smaller, nimbler, more attuned companies, we can all learn from this. The task ahead is abundantly clear: We need to begin the process of rebuilding humanity’s trust, one employee, one customer, one citizen at a time.
But how? Well, maybe a return to basics is in order. The way I see it, change begins at home, with each of us. If you yourself are not actively practicing the habits of trust-building or this is not actively happening in your companies then today, right now is the time to start.

I didn’t grasp the power of trust-building early on in my career. In fact, as a young CEO, I don’t recall giving trust much thought at all until I took part in a series of structured meetings on trust-building through an outstanding group I belong to called YPO – a global network of CEOs focused on inspiring business, personal, family and community impact.

These meetings ended up forever changing who I am as a business leader and person.

Here’s how they work: groups of 6-10 people get together in a “forum” environment and agree that whatever is shared will be kept confidential for life. “No one, nothing, never.” is our mantra. Breaching this confidentiality is a “fire-able” offense. With the cone of silence established, over time we use a host of exercises to elicit personal stories, challenges and dreams. Then we develop plans with concrete measures and assigned accountability partners to deal with our challenges and accomplish our dreams.

The bottom line is that we get stuff done that most people never thought achievable. But what really happens is that we develop huge amounts of trust and kinship with the people in the group. What we soon learn is that trust starts with vulnerability – the exact opposite of how people are accustomed to acting in business.

Some of you may be thinking, “That’s fine for a workshop, but show vulnerability at work? No way.”

But vulnerability doesn’t mean shouting from the rooftops, “I have weaknesses!” It simply means being aware of your strengths and weaknesses and developing concrete and measurable plans to improve. Far from weakness, that’s the very definition of strength. The most accomplished people I know, in fact, got that way because they had the courage to seek honest feedback, the discipline to look at themselves objectively and the process to effect real change. These are the building blocks of trust, and trust can be a valuable asset in your life and workplace.

I’ve experienced it firsthand. When I show people that I actually have a written plan for how I can improve myself a little bit every day – with trust-building at the top of the list – they are curious to blown away. When I show it to them, they start to share themselves and trust develops. It works in group settings as well. Imagine a leader who starts every meeting with a habit of sharing a personal and business challenge and what he or she is personally doing to overcome it. Inevitably, others want to do the same. The trust virus is passed along.

Why is this important for business? Well, in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change,” author Stephen Covey says, “When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.” I think most managers would agree that teams that communicate well are the most efficient and accomplish the most. Google’s famed Project Aristotle made the same observation. It spent two years studying 180 teams. The result: the single most important characteristic of high-functioning teams was “psychological safety.”

That may sound a bit touchy-feely to some, but not to me. Companies are not soul-less entities. Companies are collections of human beings, and the simple truth is human beings thrive in an atmosphere of trust. The future, I believe, will belong to leaders and companies that have trust-building as a foundational habit.

Trust me on that.

Note: Consider this piece Part 1 of many. I believe trust-building habits are so transformational– both personally and in business – that I plan to explore them in greater depth in the months ahead. I welcome your input and your experiences.

Are you living the life you thought you would?

Newsletter

Sign up for McKeel’s newsletter to receive expert advice on how to live a boundless life.