By Tracy Tsai, PCC, CPC
Trust is vital to any relationship. It’s no surprise then that trust also is paramount to the relationship between employees and their organizations. Companies that focus on creating a culture of trust enjoy higher levels of employee engagement, productivity and commitment to the organization’s mission and goals. A high-trust culture also leads to greater employee satisfaction and better work-life balance.
Can trust be measured?
While the idea of “trust” may feel somewhat subjective and non-quantifiable, neuroscientist Paul Zak discovered that it can actually be measured. He found that oxytocin, or what he calls the brain’s “trust chemical,” is strongly correlated with our ability to trust and be trusted.
When applied to workplace performance, his research showed that higher levels of trust led to noticeable improvements in performance.
Why is trust so important?
In high-trust organizations, employees feel safe to express themselves freely, take risks and innovate. People tend to communicate and collaborate with each other in more productive ways. As a result, outcomes tend to be more successful.
In contrast, employees at low-trust organizations are often mired in office politics and don’t feel safe sharing information with others. They’re more likely to hoard resources and withhold information, resulting in slower and less effective decision making.
In essence, trust and transparency in leadership can generate better business outcomes.
How can women leaders create a high-trust environment?
1. Lead with Authenticity
Authentic leadership is the result of combining your personal and professional identities into an integrated whole, allowing you to adapt to new challenges while still being true to yourself. However, this is easier said than done.
Often, women leaders feel a tension between who they are in their personal lives and who they’re expected to be professionally in leadership roles.
This is when defining your values becomes crucial. Your core values are the foundation of your authenticity, as they serve as the compass that guides your actions, decisions and how you show up and lead others. When you lead with your values, you are being your most authentic self.
One way to do this is to be explicit with your team about what’s important to you, and what values and motivations guide your decisions. By sharing these intentions, you make clear to others what you stand for. You also reduce the amount of guesswork others have to do and increase their level of trust in you.
When you’re leading authentically, you can inspire confidence and passion in those around you, boost team morale, and increase collaboration.
In Her New Standard’s Accelerate program for women leaders, participants are encouraged to reflect on what’s most important to them, in addition to their strengths, as they shape their leadership identities. They end up owning their authentic value, and this sets them apart from others.
In addition, authentic leadership also requires a willingness to be vulnerable, which is admittedly rather difficult for many of us. However, the benefits are real.
For example, people who don’t hide their mistakes and are open about their failures and weaknesses are seen as more approachable and less arrogant.
By sharing those less-than-perfect parts of yourself, you not only build trust with your colleagues, but you give them permission to do the same. Employees will feel more comfortable openly discussing their challenges, which can encourage more proactive problem-solving and innovation across your team.
2. Be transparent in your communications
Knowledge sharing is essential to building trust. In today’s hybrid working environment, this is even more crucial, as working remotely makes it more difficult to build rapport and share information.
As a woman leader, you can extend trust to your employees by being as transparent as possible with information. When team members feel they know the “full story” and can understand why decisions are being made, they have a greater level of trust in you and in the organization.
Transparency about the Organization
One way to do this is to keep your team updated on what’s happening in your organization at the senior leadership levels. Sharing information about what’s going on beyond your team gives them greater perspective and allows them to make decisions that are more strategic and aligned with the organization’s goals.
It’s important to note that there can sometimes be a disconnect between the level of transparency that senior leadership thinks they are providing and employees’ perception of that transparency. For instance:
While you may feel a level of comfort with what’s going on at the senior levels of your organization, without access to that same information, your team members may feel adrift.
Remember, in the absence of information, people tend to make up negative stories, so it’s in your best interest to proactively shape the narrative.
So how can you ensure you’re being as transparent as possible?
- Whenever you have important or relevant information to share, do so immediately.
- Think about how the changes happening at the organizational level might have downstream impacts on your team.
- Share the reasons why a decision was made: What was the context? What alternatives were considered? What are the pros and cons of this decision?
TRANSPARENCY IN DECISION MAKING
In addition, be transparent about your own decision-making process. Explain “why” and “how” you make decisions so that others have an insight into your level of knowledge and understand the choices you make, regardless of the outcome.
It’s also critical to solicit team members’ input on as many decisions as possible, especially if the outcome impacts them in a substantial way. By actively listening to their ideas, you demonstrate that you care about their opinions. When someone feels heard, it’s easier to gain their trust.
An added benefit is that when you are transparent with your team, they will also be more willing to share information with you. This is particularly helpful if you are not involved in the day-to-day work of your team.
Open communication gives you a better “pulse” on the team’s morale and builds trust. The result is a more collaborative and productive team.
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
For many leaders, a potential challenge is knowing how much to share.
For example, you may be aware of pending organizational changes that could affect people on your team, but either you don’t have confirmation or you’re not authorized to share this information yet.
The best thing to do in this case is to be honest. Let your team know that as soon as you know something, or as soon as you get approval to share more, you’ll do so immediately.
3. Demonstrate Your Reliability and Competence.
Your ability to influence others is dependent on how much they trust you. They must have confidence that you’ll do the right thing every time. This is where reliability comes in. Do you follow through on your commitments? If your actions don’t align with your words, trust is quickly lost.
Another key element of trust is whether others have faith in your competence and judgment. You don’t need to have all the answers, but your team members should have a certain level of confidence in your abilities. Be willing to admit when you don’t know something, and ask questions that help you clarify the situation.
HBS author and professor Linda Hill noted in her book, Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, that:
In this case, your competence comes not from being the biggest “expert” in the room, but by knowing how to ask the right questions at the right time to get the information you need to help your team achieve its objectives.
At the same time, we recognize that women leaders are often held to a higher standard than their male counterparts when it comes to competency. To avoid giving anyone ammunition, it’s important to be honest with yourself about where you might need to boost your technical, operational or political knowledge, and try to bridge that gap as quickly as you can.
It’s clear that building trust within a team and across an organization pays impressive dividends in increased employee engagement, productivity, and performance. Women can lead the way with authenticity, reliability and transparent communications to create a culture that’s not only high-performing but also more enjoyable for all.