Building trust through transparency
Working in the field of leadership development, time and time again trust is cited as one of the key, if not the key, attributes required to be a successful leader. A 2016 study by The Engagement Institute identified trust and integrity as the most valued qualities from engaging leaders. Leadership models and research consistently find trust to be crucial in building relationships, motivating others and working collaboratively. Research by Dirks and Ferrin, examining 106 studies involving over 27,000 people, found that employees who trusted their leader were less likely to quit. They believed the leader more and were more committed to company decisions. Crucially the research found that higher job satisfaction, and higher commitment to the organisation, were both linked to higher trust in leaders.
How do leaders build trust?
Given this wealth of evidence about the importance of trust in leadership, I am frequently asked by leaders, “Well how do I do that – how do I get others to trust me?”. Unfortunately, there is no easy, quick fix to this question. However, one characteristic that may help to focus on is transparency. In the words of Jack Welch, “Trust happens when leaders are transparent”. Increasing transparency is an accessible first step for leaders to take in order to build trust.
Transparency can be thought of as being open and honest, expressing your opinions and being direct. When done consistently, working in this way builds relationships. It allows the leader to be seen as approachable and builds respect. And the best thing is, it’s contagious! Transparency breeds transparency and, if allowed, it can spread to become part of the organisational culture. Leaders demonstrating that expressing honest opinions and being open is acceptable gives permission for others within their teams to do the same.
Case study: building trust and transparency in a leadership team
I have experienced first-hand what happens to a team where transparency is not present. In 2019, I worked with an executive team who were, whilst very capable individually, struggling to lead the business in the direction it needed to go. They embarked on a programme of individual and team development to build trust, improve relationships and create a sense of unity. What became quickly apparent was the lack of trust in the Chief Executive of the organisation. Although she was very honest – often to the point of being rude – she didn’t always explain decisions, deliver feedback or present her reasoning in an open, consistent or transparent way.
As a result, the team didn’t trust her. They were never sure quite what to expect and often didn’t understand why they were being asked to do things – other than because she said so! This impacted the team significantly. In the same way that transparency is contagious, so is mistrust. Their mistrust in their leader quickly spread to mistrust in colleagues, creating silos and cliques. Many believed the leader had “favourites” in the team who were therefore privileged to additional information. As a result, the team would back down from sharing their honest views and opinions for fear of putting their head above the parapet.
This team made huge leaps forward in recognising repeated patterns of behaviour and ways they could seek to change these. During the team development, everyone spent time meeting one-to-one with each of their colleagues (including the Chief Executive) to discuss how they currently worked together and what could be improved in their working relationship. Significant work was also done with the leader, encouraging her to recognise the impact her style was having on the team. In particular, the need to be more open and revealing about her reasons for decision-making and the pressures she was facing. It would allow her to delegate more and other team members to step up and take responsibility.
By being brave, taking risks and opening up to one another, the leader and her team were able to be more transparent. They began to build trust and improve working relationships.
This was no quick fix for the leader or the team, but the start of a process which will likely take several years to fully show benefits.
Steps to increase transparency and trust
As first steps on your journey to increase transparency and therefore build trust, consider the following:
- Consistency is key: responding in different ways to different people or responding inconsistently over time undermines your credibility
- Share reasoning: taking the time to outline the reasons behind decisions (not just the decision itself) allows people to understand your thought processes
- Be open and receptive to feedback: ask others for feedback, show you have heard it and act upon it in a tangible and obvious way
- Communicate openly: express your opinions openly and respond even when the message is tough for others to hear
- Spread the word: encouraging team members and colleagues to also express themselves openly and honestly and acknowledging when situations haven’t been handled as transparently as they could have been
- Recognise the limits of transparency: having said all this, it is also important to recognise when complete transparency is not appropriate. There will be times when leaders are handling confidentiality or sensitive information that should not be shared widely. Knowing what not to share is also important when building trust
If managed in an open, respectful and consistent way, these strategies should enable you to build trust both as a leader and within your teams.