We need to think differently about trust

Written by
Robert Phillips

12 Jul 2017

12 Jul 2017 • by Robert Phillips

Leaders have spent the best part of half a century trying to control risk and dictate everything from the top-down. This led us into these fragile times.

Professor Veronica Hope Hailey, dean and head of the School of Management at the University of Bath, points out that the era of the superhero leader is long gone. As one friend remarked to his FTSE 100 CEO boss, “you may be the global chief executive but no one reads your emails”.

No longer should any leader rely on the dull, controlling managerialism of the past 30 years, still less on “message management”, corporate social responsibility (CSR) or spin. This is what the voters for Donald Trump, in the US presidential election – and possibly the Brexit referendum – rallied against: a failed or broken social compact and a generation of leaders spewing platitudes and unable to say “sorry” because their lawyers or PR people told them not to.

Leaders need to accept they are no longer in control; embrace chaos and complexity; and make themselves as vulnerable to their employees, customers and stakeholders as those groups have traditionally been to them.

Dissent is welcome – because no one can learn if they do not listen, especially to those with whom they profoundly disagree. Leaders who relinquish control and walk towards risk may in fact end up being more trusted.

Reshape the workplace

Compliance culture is a huge part of the trust problem: doing what is lawful does not always mean doing what is right.

We need an honest conversation about ethics and morality in business today. We must stop imposing corporate bureaucracy and solutions and start coproducing frameworks of human principles which put the common good of the organisation, its people and society first.

We need to re-shape our workplaces to return to the shared purpose of common good. Right now, institutions obstruct us, which is another reason why we have ceased to trust them. They are putting themselves, not citizens and society, first.

An obsession with measurement also erodes trust. We need to stop measuring everything except, to quote Senator Robert Kennedy 50 years ago, “that which makes life worthwhile” and think in terms of accountability instead. Every leader should ask: “Am I delivering on my manifesto commitments?” Business leaders should think in terms of human value, not shareholder value.

A crisis of leadership

Ultimately, today’s crisis of trust is a crisis of leadership. I have long argued for transforming CEOs into chief social activists and their organisations into social movements.
The management guru Charles Handy points out that 80% of a workforce is disengaged and doesn’t care; 25% of that 80% would actively sabotage the organisation for which they work. Meanwhile, whistleblowers, emboldened by technology, are everywhere: “Do the right thing or they will get you”.

Activist workers, customers and stakeholders can only be matched with activist leadership, which can help organisations pivot from protecting their conventional ‘licence to operate’ to establishing a dynamic ‘licence to lead’. It is OK for leaders to stand for something and to challenge the status quo.

Leaders must deal with social inclusion; social justice; climate change; affordability and shelter, in a real way, not through nonsense CSR. It is no coincidence that the much-celebrated Paul Polman refers to Unilever as “the world’s largest NGO”.

We should think about building activist networks of co-workers and new eco-systems of organisations of like mind, again powered by digital; it is achievable.

Start thinking about trustworthiness

“Trust” is an exhausted word – used and abused as a message by politicians and business leaders, when, in fact, it is an outcome. We don’t want “more trust” from people we don’t trust anyway, such as politicians, lawyers, PR people or media.

The digital age has blown open the myth of institutional trust, where leaders hid behind their controlling hierarchies and told us what to believe. Radical honesty and radical transparency are called for. We need to trust humans, not corporations or machines.

Trustworthiness is based on honesty, competence and reliability; it is personal and reciprocal, not institutional. Embracing agitation, change and danger builds, not weakens, resilience. (Business) leaders need to make themselves as vulnerable to their employees, customers and stakeholders as those constituencies have traditionally been to them.

Co-produce strategies and solutions. Build a generative dialogue. Re-learn the ability to say sorry. Be open, adaptive and creative. Remember that people and planet are more important than profit. You will be more trusted if you enable human potential to flourish.