Trust: nothing happens within an organization without it

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Over the years, I have been involved with many organizations that worked hard to reach a position of great leadership in their industry, only to eventually begin spiraling downward.
Change, with its accompanying challenges, is something every organization faces, and the speed of change is only increasing. What is the difference between companies that can adapt to change and those that cannot? The difference is management’s ability to change directions.

Imagine an aircraft carrier that realizes it is on the wrong course. To be successful in its mission, it must change directions by changing the rudder. In organizations, people are the rudder that allow change to happen.

I was recently invited to attend a staff meeting for a business. Management was attempting to “sell” the idea of a major directional change within the organization.
As is typical in these types of events, management came prepared to share their charts, graphs and spreadsheets with a skeptical audience. Whenever there is a drastic change within the organization, employees want to know “Why didn’t the organization pay closer attention to the circumstances that precipitated this change?”

It is nearly impossible to move forward until there is a clear understanding of how the business ended up in this position. To quote George Santayana, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Understanding what is important to your employees is critical to your success as a leader. It is impossible to move an organization forward until your most important asset (people) are ready to join you in that move.

My experience is that no amount of colorful charts, graphs and spreadsheets are going to convince them of why the organization needs to correct its course until two things happen: employees are heard and their input is respected. This creates a foundation of trust between management and the rest of the employees. On the other hand, when employee’s opinions are stifled, the culture of respect and trust that took years to build can be quickly destroyed.

At this staff meeting, it was clear that management was there for one reason: to push their agenda, to convince people that they had the answers and knew the direction to take the organization. The problem was, they were not there to listen and did not show respect for their employees. Of course, they told employees how important they were to the organization, that employees were their most important asset … every single organization says those words, yet not as many actually demonstrate it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Your actions speak so loudly I can’t hear what you are saying.” The CEO was saying all the right platitudes such as “The buck stops here” and “I take full responsibility as the leader of this organization.” However, the actions were saying, “I’m not really taking responsibility; I’m just saying that because leaders say stuff like that.”
What the CEO should have done was start with a heartfelt apology and said, “I made a mistake. I believed this was the right decision at the time.” Trying to cover it up or telling people that no one is to blame, and then progressively stating it louder, doesn’t make it any more accurate or believable.

It is easy to say one thing, but our actions really do speak louder than words. To build trust, it is important that employees have an opportunity to share their concerns and for management to demonstrate active listening skills.

So, what happens to this organization moving forward? My experience in similar situations over the years, is that one of two things will happen. First, the CEO will truly listen, which will build trust. They will build a collaborative team that is getting input and buy-in from lower levels of the organization. This will lead to implementing plans that create change throughout the organization. Trust will lead to employees, truly your most important asset, rooting for the CEO’s success.

The more likely scenario, because leadership styles are hard to change, is that trust will continue to erode to a point where the CEO is ineffective and unable to get buy-in from the rest of the organization.

At some point the CEO will leave the organization and a new leader will emerge that either “gets it” and creates a major culture shift (by first creating trust) or doesn’t get it and continues the organization towards its ultimate demise. Therefore, choosing the organization’s leader is the most important role of the board.

The success of the organization hinges on this decision.

– Peter Johnson is the Director of both the Westgate Center for Leadership and Management Development and the Institute for Family Business in the Eberhardt School of Business at the University of the Pacific. He has been helping organizations for over 20 years achieve their goals through better leadership. He welcomes your feedback at [email protected].

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