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.

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 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.  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.

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.

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.


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 founder 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.

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

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