Are you trustworthy?

What makes a leader trustworthy? How can we all boost our credibility? Dr John Blakey explains
Dr John Blakey

It is common sense to think that the behaviour of senior leaders sets the tone for the rest of the organization. As part of my doctoral research at Aston Business School, I wanted to put this notion to the test.

Would it stand true under the weight of academic scrutiny?

Having finished the research, I can now report it is a scientific truth that the trustworthy behaviour of CEOs and their teams is a significant predictor of the perceived trustworthiness of the organizations they lead. If you are a leader, your behaviour matters. It does start with you. At the Trusted Executive Foundation, our focus is on the behaviour of the CEO and the senior leadership team because we know if we can inspire those executives to role-model the Nine Habits of Trust then the rest of the organization will inevitably follow. It is the single biggest key to building a high-trust culture.

Unfortunately, I can also confirm from my research that the very same CEOs and leaders whose behaviour is so important have a much rosier perception of their trustworthiness than the people whom they lead. Typically, CEOs rate themselves 29 per cent more trustworthy than others do. Also, they assess their organizations as being 23 per cent more trust­worthy than others do.1 I call this difference the ‘authenticity gap’. In other words, the larger the gap in perceptions, the more the CEO and senior team risk fooling themselves that they are doing an excellent job with inspiring trust relative to the more negative views of employees, customers and other stakeholders. In a transparent world, this authenticity gap will be exposed and, once exposed, it will damage personal and brand reputation. Stakeholders are ruthlessly cynical and will quickly savage those leaders and organizations that they suspect of ‘trust-washing’ when the actions do not match the words.

Given their importance, I have been studying CEOs and their teams around the world very carefully since the first publication of this book. I have sought them out through coaching assignments, interviews, keynote speaker sessions and workshops. Through these engagements, I have been able to ask them many questions and listen to their opinions. I have heard their views on trust and invited them to grapple with the Nine Habits model in their leadership. In the next section, I will summarize the key themes and insights that have emerged from these various discussions in the hope they will give you a fast-track opportunity to absorb their learning and wisdom.

Broken systems, difficult job descriptions and Donald Trump

In 2016, when I first started delivering half-day workshops to CEOs on the topic of The Trusted Executive, I would allocate the first hour of the session to convince the attendees that there was a trust crisis in leadership, ie that there was a problem for which we needed a solution. At the end of that time, I would still have a few die-hard cynics who would shrug their shoulders and roll their eyes. ‘We’ll just carry on as we are, thanks very much’ seemed to be the message from their body language. Contrast this with a workshop I delivered to 15 CEOs in December 2019. I was 20 minutes into the session and carefully building the case for change when one of the attendees banged the table abruptly and exclaimed, ‘John, what you’re telling us is that the system is fundamentally broken. We all know that and we want to know what to do about it!’ I felt like asking if he could wait a further 40 minutes as we hadn’t got to that stage of the session yet, but the experience demonstrated to me that attitudes had shifted. The case for change is no longer tentative; it is compelling. CEOs may not have worked out how to deal with the trust problem, but they certainly know it exists.

A similar Eureka moment occurred in another workshop when the attendees were discussing the webcam video of Travis Kalanick, ex-CEO of Uber, arguing with one of his drivers late at night. Some were appalled at Travis’s arrogance and casual rudeness to the driver; others thought the driver had mistreated him. One of the CEOs present challenged me saying, ‘John, are you saying that we need to behave as if we are on video 24 hours a day?’ ‘Yes’, I replied. ‘Well, that’s a difficult job description, isn’t it?’ he railed. ‘Yes, it is’, I replied, ‘and if you don’t want the job then don’t apply for it.’ It was a blunt reply on my part but it made the point. In a world where nothing can be hidden, the CEO is subject to radical transparency. Some say it is not fair, but it is the reality and, as the old saying goes, ‘If you fight with reality, reality tends to win!’

My final nugget from the CEO workshops came from a session I delivered in Boston, USA in August, 2017. It was the first CEO workshop of a number I was delivering that week and I had been wrestling with whether to use Donald Trump as the case study exercise for the Nine Habits of Trust. In the end, I decided to go for it and once I’d carefully explored the model with an attentive, enthusiastic audience, I clicked for the next slide and a picture of Donald Trump appeared in the centre of the enormous screen at the front of the room. ‘How do you think this leader would fare against the Nine Habits that inspire trust?’ I asked. The words hung in the air like a stale odour, the silence was deafening. I stared at my shoes and quietly counted to 10. Then a courageous soul piped up, ‘I think Donald Trump is brave’. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘whatever you might think of his opinions I don’t think anyone can say that Donald Trump is not a master at Habit No.8; being brave.’ With the ice broken, I pressed on, ‘What other strengths does he have?’ ‘Trump’s open, what you see is what you get,’ offered a voice from my left. ‘Yes’, I replied, ‘you might not like what he tweets at 3am, but we could all agree that he is not hiding anything; he excels at Habit No.4; being open.’ ‘And Trump’s certainly delivered in the world of business’ suggested a lady at the back of the room. ‘Yes’, I agreed, ‘he got the deals done in his business career and people were so tired of mainstream politicians who hadn’t delivered on their promises that enough voters were willing to give him a chance of delivering in the world of politics.’ We were on a roll, so I upped the ante, ‘Now, how about his weaknesses? What are the habits that undermine trust in Donald Trump?’ Silence. More inner counting. ‘Well, can anyone say that he is humble?’ asked a guy pointing at Habit No.6 in the diagram of the model. ‘And how about Habit No.2; being consistent?’ offered his colleague, ‘The best he can do on that one is being consistently inconsistent.’ Laughter broke the tension. What a relief! I ventured to summarize:

"As a researcher on trust, what I find fascinating about Donald Trump is that he is much stronger on the Nine Habits than many would expect him to be. If you focus on how he behaves, rather than what he says, you can quickly identify the habits where, compared to traditional establishment politicians, he scores highly: being brave, evangelizing, being open, delivery, being honest. Like all of us, he has his blind spots – coaching, being consistent, being humble – but, overall, Donald Trump breaks the mould of the traditional, and mistrusted, establishment leaders."

By assessing Donald Trump, these CEOs realized that we all have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the Nine Habits. As one of our clients put it, ‘The fact is there are nine habits and you can’t hit them all, all of the time, because we’re all fallible human beings. You are going to get it wrong along the way.’ These insights free leaders to be honest about their own Nine Habits self-assessment, which is the exercise that concludes all our introductory workshops.

The Nine Habits self-assessment

The Nine Habits of Trust are essential to know. Collectively they create trust as we know it

During a workshop we allocate the final hour of a half-day for the participants to complete the questionnaire and then work together in pairs to debrief the outcomes and learnings. I challenge each participant to write down the one habit that has the potential to make the most positive impact on their performance. Finally, I ask them to write down one action that they will complete during the week after the workshop to demonstrate their commitment to building the muscle of their chosen habit from the Nine Habits of Trust. At that point, I remind them, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. It is the only way it can begin.’ Having completed this exercise, we hold a final plenary session in the workshop where the participants share their chosen habits and committed actions. That discussion is often illuminating and inspiring. Here are some snippets from these discussions we have captured over the years:

Habit No.8 – Choosing to be brave

‘I took away the habit to be Brave, which is what’s brought me here today. We work in the financial markets, so trust is huge and it’s also very difficult to understand. So, the whole being brave point was to get everyone together to talk about it’ – Managing Director, financial services sector.

Habit No.1 – Choosing to deliver

‘My habit was around Delivery. I found it really useful to use that awareness to share with your team what you’re trying to focus on. It makes a real difference. It allows a common conversation; it allows a common language’ – Strategy Director, public sector.

Habit No.7 – Choosing to evangelize

‘I took away the habit to Evangelize. My habit now is to talk more about the good things that we’re doing in the business. You’ve got no choice but to evangelize, or you’re not going to take anyone on that journey with you’ – Managing Director, professional services sector.

Over the years, I have picked up some patterns which may be of benefit to those of you striving to practise these habits in your leadership. Firstly, in our workshops, no one has ever volunteered to focus on Habit No.4 – choosing to be honest. No one has ever wanted to be the dishonest person in the room! Does this mean that all the participants attending our workshops have never lied, exaggerated the truth or tolerated dishonesty in others? No, it simply means that dishonesty is the behaviour which triggers the most shame in us. Morally, dishonesty is the habit we have the most difficulty accepting. We would rather admit to being unkind, or not delivering, or not being brave than being dishonest. And yet, 51 per cent of employees believe they have been lied to by their colleagues.3 We know dishonesty exists in business and each one of us. Our reluctance to talk about dishonesty risks driving this behaviour into the shadows where it festers unnoticed. It also risks letting dishonest leaders avoid accountability because we are frightened to tackle this issue in our teams or our organizations. I hope that over time we can become braver to face up to the honesty challenge and share our struggles with it more openly.

The second insight from these workshop discussions is on the topic of personality types. I have learnt that extroverts are more likely to want to focus on the habits of being humble, being consistent and being kind, whereas introverts wish to improve their openness, their bravery to speak up and their confidence to evangelize. In another aspect of diversity, it is men that are most likely to struggle with Habit No.9 – choosing to be kind. Often male leaders have been conditioned to be strong and ruthless. Even though they may be kind in their personal lives, many men have learnt to leave their kindness at home rather than bring it into the workplace. At the end of one workshop with 100 leaders from a hospital trust, everyone filed out of the room leaving one man sat at his table looking confused. I approached him and said, ‘Are you ok?’ He replied, ‘I’ve just realized kindness is part of leadership.’ I quizzed him further and asked, ‘What job do you do in the hospital?’ He said, ‘I’m a doctor.’ This confession worried me, but then he brilliantly clarified the situation by saying, ‘I’ve always known I needed to be kind to be a great doctor, but I never knew I needed to be kind to be a great leader.’ It’s a great day when you feel you are permitted to be kind.

Continuing the theme of diversity, I find that women often focus on Habit No.8 – choosing to be brave. Their conditioning has often involved being admonished for speaking up, or for leading from the front, in traditionally male-dominated environments. I find that the Nine Habits model enables leaders to discuss these gender-related topics with curiosity and understanding without the conversation descending into judgement, labels and personal offence. Models can provide a more empowering platform from which to explore difference. I hope the Nine Habits will continue to act as a catalyst for these critical conversations in the future.

A final aspect of diversity relates to country culture. Much is written about behavioural differences in international business settings. When it comes to the Nine Habits, having delivered workshops all around the globe, I can share my own experience. As a rule of thumb, as I go west from the UK, I find the habits of being open, evangelizing and being brave get stronger. On the other hand, as I go east, I find the habits of being humble, being consistent and being kind get stronger. This subjective view aligns well with some recent academic research on the topic by Jeanne Brett and Tyree Mitchell, summarized in the Harvard Business Review article, ‘How to Build Trust with Business Partners from Other Cultures’.4 These researchers found that western cultures were typically more open to taking the risk of trusting others and they also identified a second factor that they termed the relative ‘tightness’ or ‘looseness’ of the culture. In a tight culture, people monitor social behaviour carefully and violations of social norms are discouraged. Using this definition, western cultures are typically looser and eastern cultures usually tighter. Therefore, the socially attractive habits of being humble, consistent and kind become more relevant to the trust equation as you go east, whereas in the West we are more prone to want to ‘get down to business’, leaving social niceties for later.

One of the most valuable outcomes of discussing the self-assessment of the Nine Habits in our workshops is that it demonstrates no one personality type, no one gender and no one country culture has perfected trust. As such, it is a great leveller. It enables us to discuss this vague, abstract and emotive word ‘trust’ in a more specific, objective and practical fashion.

Often, the discussions help leaders grasp that, while no one leader can be perfect, a team can be perfect because a diverse team can have members who all excel at different habits.

The Trusted Executive by Dr John Blakey is published by Kogan Page and can be bought from all good bookshops

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December 16, 2021