Leadership and Trust

Good leaders inspire trust.  That’s one of the conclusions in a presentation Which difference do you want to make through leadership? (based on the work of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner).  Slide 6 comments on how trust increases as leaders follow through on their commitments:

leaders inspire trust safety leadership culture

This is entirely consistent with our belief that leadership is not about hierarchy but is behavioural and is itself about influencing the behaviour of others.  In the article: Getting beyond the BS of leadership literature it is also emphasised that:

The focus on leadership should be about useful behavior rather than overly simplistic, and therefore fundamentally inaccurate, categorizations of people and personalities.

Leadership can be shared: Rethinking Leadership “Businesses need a new approach to the practice of leadership — and to leadership development”.  An example of both shared leadership and shared commitment can be seen in a discussion on safety leadership (and collaboration with a union leader to improve safety) the ‘Deepwater Horizon’ film reminds former Alabama Power CEO of lessons learned in tragedy. The utility CEO and a union leader had…

…made a commitment to one another: we might disagree about many other things in the future, but we would never again disagree about safety. This was the first step in a long process towards mutual trust and respect. It took several years, but step by step we built a process and changed our “us versus them” culture.

Tom Peters has said: “Leaders don’t create more followers, they create more leaders.”

In a presentation So You Want to Create a Culture? Prof Edgar Shein, author of the highly influential Organizational Culture and Leadership, emphasised understanding the change you want to achieve, which in turn means understanding the problem you wish to solve or opportunity you wish to seize.  Though Shein warns:

But remember, those new elements won’t take hold unless they fit into your existing culture.

Influencing others ultimately influences organisational culture which we discussed in our popular article  The Power of Safety Leadership: Paul O’Neill, Safety and Alcoa and is further explored here: Building organisational leadership and culture to create trust during change.  In Leadership for a just & interdependent culture John Nelson says:

Overall, leaders must be the creators of communities of practice. Leadership is the start, the finish and the continuum to evolve its culture into a just and interdependent culture, and maintain it.

In Talking leadership, Julia Fernando, Research Manager, Leadership Development at The King’s Fund, says of culture:

The difficulty is that once a culture is set and norms are established, it can be hard to change the status quo. Changing a culture of fear and blame can therefore be difficult. Leadership plays a vital role in driving forward such changes…

Though as we have showed previously, poor leadership can harm an organisation even quicker, and sometimes inadvertently reinforces that culture of fear and blame.  One way to do that is by suffering from the Rule Illusion, a ‘rules bias’ where chronic risk aversion means establishing ever more complex rules that can be used against employees.  A recent post on the Science For Work blog sets out how important a sense of justice at work really is. Poorly enforced rules can easily undo all the other efforts.  Yves Morieux of BCG commented in a TED Talk on business generally:

If you think about it, we pay more attention to knowing who to blame in case we fail, than to creating the conditions to succeed. We are creating organizations able to fail, but in a compliant way, with somebody clearly accountable when we fail. And we are quite effective at that: failing.

Brené Brown wittily explains “why we blame others [to give a semblance of control], how it sabotages our relationships [because it is simply a way to discharge anger], and why we desperately need to move beyond this toxic behaviour”:

There are Just Culture ‘decision aids’ available which help determine culpability (from the Latin concept of fault or guilt, culpa), i.e. the quantity of blame, normally on a sliding scale.  Sometimes this is semantically turned to ‘accountability’, but still focused exclusively judging on the front line individual(s) and their behaviour.  We have previously discussed the corrosive misapplication of these as bureaucratic tools by managers to routinely ‘judge’…

…individuals not the system, with the potential to inadvertently reduce trust rather than enhance it. The circumstances that influenced an individual’s performance are seen as factors that mitigate culpability rather than systemic opportunities to improve. Inappropriate use of these mechanisms help normalise failure at the expense of collective improvement.

These tools are ominously marketed as “bridging the gap between the investigation and an organisation’s disciplinary processes”.  Hardly a means to build trust and openness!  One industry association reports that only 1 in 500 reported incidents “involve acts of wilful negligence or misconduct” and James Reason, Professor Emeritus University of Manchester, said such circumstances were “rare” when introducing the concept of a Just Culture in his classic 1997 classic Managing the Risks of Organizational Accidents.  As we previously wrote:

The destructive misuse of such Just Culture tools, like a modern day ducking stool, has a negative cultural effect, completely the opposite of some misguided advocates, who without realising it are taking a ‘Just Culpability’ approach.

Dr Margaret McCartney wrote in the BMJ after the 2017 Oscars ‘Envelopegate’ announcement fiasco: Punishing individuals won’t prevent errors

By simply punishing the individuals at the end of a trail of errors—as the NHS so often does—we pretend to have fixed the problem. I am no fan of PricewaterhouseCoopers, but the best people to prevent future errors may be the people who nearly—or did—make them. Pretending otherwise: that’s la la land.

Systems ergonomist and human factors specialist Steven Shorrock writes:

So to answer the question, “Just culture: Who do we fear?”: it is the judgement of those close to us – in or from the same world – that we fear the most. It is also those close to us who we can help the most.

An organisation’s management can’t expect to be trusted if they themselves automatically distrust their employees (a precursor to a command and control philosophy) or if they lack empathy:

Amy Edmonson discusses the wider concept of psychological safety and openness and how good leadership and the right environment helps build trust and overcomes fear and blame:

In a commentary on the NHS annual staff survey, trust is emphasised again:

Developing a culture where quality and improvement are central to an organisation’s strategy requires high levels of trust, and trust that issues can be raised and dealt with as an opportunity for improvement. There is no doubt that without this learning culture, with trust as a central behaviour, errors and incidents will only increase.

UPDATE 20 April 2017: Trust also means people will challenge senior managers: Why you need to question your hippo boss.  “Hippo” Is an acronym for “the highest paid person’s opinion”.

How often is the unchallenged boss’s decision correct? Far from all the time if a study by the Rotterdam School of Management is to be believed.

The report found that projects led by junior managers were more likely to be successful than those that had a senior boss in charge, because other employees felt far more able to voice their opinions and give critical feedback.

Sarah Biggerstaff, a lecturer in leadership at Yale School of Management in Connecticut, says that companies simply have to work hard to allow staff to question their senior bosses’ decisions without any fear of reprisal.

“It can be challenging to give feedback if there is a culture of fear around the office,” she says.

“In that kind of organisation, if you don’t go with the flow you won’t get promoted. Or what’s happened historically is that people pay lip service to executives instead of giving them constructive feedback in order to toe the line.”

UPDATE 21 April 2017:  Trust Your Employees, Not Your Rule Book.  Following a now infamous incident on a United Airways flight:

The Wall Street Journal published an in-depth analysis of the “recipe for the disastrous decision” that triggered a front-page crisis at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Its conclusion? The problem wasn’t with United’s employees, but with a “rules-based culture” in which 85,000 people are “reluctant to make choices” that are not in the “tomes of rule books” and “giant manuals” that govern life at the airline. In other words, employees at every level did what they were supposed to do — they followed the rules — yet the result was a total failure.

So as you reflect on leadership and culture after United 3411, don’t just look for opportunities to fine-tune your procedures and update your employee manuals. Give your people the chance to think for themselves, to do what makes sense, to break the rules when they confront situations where the existing rules make no sense.

There is concept called The Rule Illusion, discussed above, that directly relates to this problem.

UPDATE 21 April 2017: Further on United, customer trust is also important: United’s Rough Treatment Of A Passenger Highlights The Importance Of Trust

UPDATE 1 May 2017: What makes a great leader?:

  1. Authenticity
  2. Vulnerability
  3. Tight/loose control (which again relates to trust)
  4. Near/far thinking (Patience + Resilience)

UPDATE 19 May 2017:  Building trust through the front line says Lucy Adams of DisruptiveHR.  Smarter organisations:

…are seeing how their front line employees can become so much more than simply passive recipients. They’re waking up to the fact that if they treat the employees as adults, if they engage with them as human beings and pay as much attention to them as they do their consumers, they can be a powerful and positive force for change.

UPDATE 24 May 2017: The concepts of “sensemaking”, “relating”, “visioning” and “inventing” are discussed in Forget ‘strong and stable’ – leadership is about knowing your weaknesses

UPDATE 25 May 2017: Teams going virtual: why focusing on trust matters

Research has already demonstrated a positive relationship between trust and team performance in teams working face-to-face. The present meta-analysis shows a strong and positive relationship between trust and virtual team effectiveness, particularly on team attitudes and on the degree to which individuals are willing to share information and knowledge.

UPDATE 26 May 2017: Nigel Paine comments:

Good leadership emerges from a culture of trust, trust is the fundamental building block of good leadership. And as we know, trust is hard to build, but very easy to destroy. Can you imagine being led well, by someone that you did not trust? It is inconceivable.

UPDATE 28 May 2017: The Role of Forgiveness in Rebuilding Trust – 8 Principles to Remember

Suffering a betrayal of trust can be one of the most difficult and challenging times in your life. Depending on the severity of the offense, some people choose not to pursue recovery of the relationship. For those that do, the process of restoration can take days, weeks, months, or even years. If you choose to invest the time and energy to rebuild a relationship with someone who has broken your trust, you have to begin with forgiveness.

UPDATE 30 May 2017: This slightly cynical piece discusses corporate values: How Corporate Values Get Hijacked and Misused.  The message is not that values are unimportant but that only defining values, or defining faux-values is worthless or worse as it undermines trust.

People want their company’s values to be sacrosanct. And when they aren’t, the logical conclusion they draw is that the organization doesn’t mean what it says, and that behaving in ways that contradict the values is perfectly acceptable. The painful result of widespread misuse of company values, according to one major study, is that only 23% of U.S. employees strongly agree that they can apply their organization’s values to their work every day, and only 27% “believe in” their organization’s values.

UPDATE 12 June 2017: Wendy Hirsh discusses: Are you trustworthy? Does it matter?


She discusses three characteristics that people often use to evaluate trustworthiness:

  1. Ability: Are you “good” at what you do? (Skills, competencies, technical knowledge)
  2. Benevolence: Are you looking out for my best interests? (Caring, openness, loyalty)
  3. Integrity: Do you uphold principles that are important to me? Do you do what you say? (Consistency, reliability, fairness)


She recommends you consider the following (written in the context of leading change):

  1. Do you have a high-degree of technical skill or ability related to the change you are making? If so, how can you communicate this to others to build their confidence in your leadership? If this a new area for you, how might you mitigate this potential shortcoming?
  2. How do you communicate – through words and actions – what’s important to you? Does your team or colleagues understand the principles and values that drive your actions? Do you know what your team or colleagues value and respect? Do your words and actions reflect both your principles and those that are important to your colleagues or staff?
  3. Do your actions align with your words? Making promises is relatively easy to do — following through can be another story. Take stock of how well your actions align to your words. Do your colleagues have confidence that they can rely on you to keep your word and act with fairness, most of the time? If not, what steps can you take to ensure better follow through?

UPDATE 23 June 2017: Further undermining some of the ‘Just Culture/’Just Culpability’ decision aid approach, Steven Shorrock discusses Just Culture: Who are we really afraid of?

The judgements of those closest to us are of most concern to us for two key reasons. Co-worker judgements therefore hit closer to home. Co-workers can point out our errors in the same way that we can point out theirs. They know the work and may do it themselves, so their judgements carry most weight.

Our everyday judgements…are formed and expressed in haste…

On an operational level, blame by colleagues can lead to non-cooperation, such as the withholding of operationally relevant information within or between teams. This, in turn, becomes a safety issue.

UPDATE 6 July 2017: Danielle Freude-Hellebrand explains that: Slowly we are waking up to realize that a lot we’ve been taught about management and leadership is wrong.

UPDATE 3 August 2017: Bob Keiller says: If you want your staff to follow you, they need to trust you.  If you want people to trust you, they need to know you.

UPDATE 4 August 2017: The US Air Force plans to “significantly reduce unnecessary Air Force instructions over the next 24 months“.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said that “the 1,300 official instructions are often outdated and inconsistent, breeding cynicism when Airmen feel they cannot possibly follow every written rule”.

The effort will start with the 40 percent of instructions that are out of date and those identified by Airmen as top priorities.

“The first step will target immediate rescission,” Wilson said. “We want to significantly reduce the number of publications, and make sure the remaining ones are current and relevant.”

The second phase will be a review of all other directive publications issued by Headquarters Air Force. These publications contain more than 130,000 compliance items at the wing level.  Publications should add value, set policy and describe best practices, she said.

Wilson emphasises trust, trust in the judgement, experience and training of airmen, rather than prescribing everything.

Think about that.  There are 130,000 ways a ‘culpability decision aid’ could be used, counter-productively, against 320,000 service personnel and 140,000 civilians.

One wonders how many were created by a lack of trust or due to practical drift (a concept discussed in Friendly Fire: The Accidental Shootdown of U.S. Black Hawks over Northern Iraq).  Despite self-serving nonsense pushed by some consultants who haven’t studied Snook, this practical drift is not about drifting from procedures as designed, but the continual addition of bureaucracy until the point the system becomes unworkable and a failure occurs.

Practical Drift (Credit: Col Scott Snook US Army retired)

Practical Drift (Credit: Col Scott Snook US Army Retired)

UPDATE 10 August 2017: Good Leaders Are Good Learners

Although organizations spend more than $24 billion annually on leadership development, many leaders who have attended leadership programs struggle to implement what they’ve learned. It’s not because the programs are bad but because leadership is best learned from experience.

Still, simply being an experienced leader doesn’t elevate a person’s skills. Like most of us, leaders often go through their experiences somewhat mindlessly, accomplishing tasks but learning little about themselves and their impact.

Our research on leadership development shows that leaders who are in learning mode [defined as intentionally framing and pursuing each element of the experiential learning process with more of a growth than a fixed mindset] develop stronger leadership skills than their peers.

UPDATE 27 August 2017: Boost your efficiency with a daily huddleUnipart chief executive John Neill has improved productivity by listening to his staff.

The central premise of the Unipart Way is that the best ideas to boost efficiency come from the workers themselves.  “No problem is a problem.”

Neill gives a recent example from an NHS hospital where the company is working.

After being told by a senior consultant that a new £1m operating theatre was required, Neill went to see for himself. He gathered staff round and asked them what they thought.

“It was like a fire hose of ideas,” he says. A nurse told him that the operating theatre could carry out one more procedure a day, equivalent to an extra £750,000 of work annually, simply by employing a porter, so surgeons would not have to wait for their nursing teams to wheel patients back and forth before they could get started.

Rather than paying for another theatre, “they could save a million pounds on new kit. It’s so obvious, why wouldn’t they do it?” he says. “But when I took it to management they just said, ‘Oh, yeah, that lot are always complaining’.”

UPDATE 3 December 2017: How can the NHS ever learn lessons from medical errors if doctors’ personal reflections backfire in court, asks Deborah Cohen: Back to blame: the Bawa-Garba case and the patient safety agenda

UPDATE 24 December 2017: The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture

UPDATE 4 January 2018: Referees need empathy and help, not Arsène Wenger’s rants.  After a linesman made a mistake that cost Swansea a goal:

“I understand,” the new Swansea manager said, refreshingly. “All of us make mistakes.”

Do we really need to spend more time highlighting refereeing mistakes – and it is always the mistakes, never the decisions they get right – than we already do?

Further Reading on Safety Leadership

We highly recommend this case study: ‘Beyond SMS’ by Andy Evans (our founder) & John Parker, Flight Safety Foundation, AeroSafety World, May 2008

You may also be interested in these Aerossurance articles:

NTSB Board Member Robert L. Sumwalt presented Lessons from the Ashes: The Critical Role of Safety Leadership to an audience in Houston, TX.  Its worth noting the emphasis made of safety as a ‘value’ and of alignment across an organisation.

As Aerossurance’s Andy Evans notes in this co-written article: Safety Performance Listening and Learning – AEROSPACE March 2017:

Organisations need to be confident that they are hearing all the safety concerns and observations of their workforce. They also need the assurance that their safety decisions are being actioned. The RAeS Human Factors Group: Engineering (HFG:E) set out to find out a way to check if organisations are truly listening and learning.

The result was a self-reflective approach to find ways to stimulate improvement.  See also: Why Leaders Who Listen Achieve Breakthroughs

You may also enjoy our article Consultants & Culture: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Aerossurance is pleased to be supporting the annual Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors’ (CIEHFHuman Factors in Aviation Safety Conference for the third year running.  This year the conference takes place 13 to 14 November 2017 at the Hilton London Gatwick Airport, UK with the theme: How do we improve human performance in today’s aviation business?

ciehf 2017

For experienced, innovative support and practical advice you can trust on safety leadership and safety culture development, contact Aerossurance atenquiries@aerossurance.com