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 by organisations that don’t care about their 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”:

Brown also has an excellent quote in her book, Braving the Wilderness:

If leaders really want people to show up, speak out, take chances and innovate, we have to create cultures where people feel safe—where their belonging is not threatened by speaking out and they are supported when they make decisions to brave the wilderness, stand-alone, and speak truth to bullshit.

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 on judging 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 show you care about your colleagues or build trust and openness!  They actually smack of destroying trust in order to preserve it.

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.

A more intelligent systems approach in healthcare: VIDEO

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: VIDEO

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: VIDEO

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has issued a report: Where has all the trust gone?: We re-examine the issue of trust, why it matters, and what can be done to repair it

There is an old Dutch saying: ‘Trust comes on foot, but leaves on horseback.’

In the workplace, one distinct advantage of trust is its link to innovation. Another distinct benefit is that ‘high trust’ workplaces find it much easier to embrace organisational change – they can adapt faster and will achieve better levels of employee engagement at all levels.

Furthermore, we know that trust encourages successful co-operation and teamwork, less labour turnover, promotes and facilitates partnerships and joint ventures and decreases operating and transaction costs (managers can spend less time monitoring staff). It also has important benefits for promoting employee well-being and motivation. A focus on valuing trust does require all of us, including senior managers, to have a genuine concern for a company’s moral and ethical principles.

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.

Johnny Mitchell argues that:

…the key to improving safety culture is to develop trust in management in order to build a strong positive perception of management’s values, attitudes and commitment to safety. Trust is the lubricant with which perceptions can be changed, communications can be heard and change embraced. In other words, trust is a necessary precursor to an effective safety culture. Trust can be developed through consistently demonstrating ability, benevolence and integrity.

These three factors were highlighted previously by Rhona Flin and Calvin Burns (citing work by Roger Mayer et al) :

  • Ability: that group of skills, competencies, and characteristics that enable a party to have influence within some specific domain.
  • Benevolence: the extent to which a trustee is believed to want to do good to the trustor, aside from an egocentric profit motive.
  • Integrity: the trustor’s perception that the trustee adheres to a set of principles that the trustor finds acceptable.
An Integrative Model of  Organizational Trust (Credit: Roger C. Mayer, James H. Davis and F. David Schoorman in The Academy of  Management Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, July 1995)

An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust (Credit: Roger C. Mayer, James H. Davis and F. David Schoorman in The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, July 1995)

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? TrustInfluencers 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)

trustworthiness 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 15 July 2017: Without Trust “Zero Harm” is just another platitude

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?

UPDATE 7 January 2018: Tatsuro Toyoda, trust and Toyota’s involvement in the NUMMI, Fremont plant (now the main Tesla production facility): Thank you, Tatsuro Toyoda

UPDATE 27 January 2018: More on the terrible misjustice of the Bawa-Garba case.

UPDATE 16 January 2018: A New Dependency: Our Addiction to Information and Approval are Killing Mission Command

The idea of building mutual trust is not new. In fact, “building cohesive teams through mutual trust” is the first guiding principle of Mission Command.

UPDATE 3 February 2018: Viewpoint: Dr Bawa-Garba case set back patient safety gains by 10 years

The message that the courts and the GMC have sent to doctors is that if a patient you are responsible for suffers harm, then you may be held criminally responsible and the context may not be considered. Multiple shortcomings were identified by the University Hospitals of Leicester internal report in to the events of that day, which made 23 recommendations and led to 79 actions by the trust. The situation in which Dr Bawa-Garba was put was hugely challenging; returning from maternity leave, without proper induction, while covering for several absent colleagues, without proper senior supervision. The care she provided that day was inadequate, but she was under severe pressure in a hospital with inadequate staffing and faulty equipment. Following the event, she took responsibility for her actions, reflected upon them and engaged with the subsequent investigation and supervision.

This context was not considered in court or the GMC disciplinary hearing (sadly common to a number of proprietary culpability decision aids too).  The GMC has announced “a programme of work to look at the wider issues around medical manslaughter”.

UPDATE 3 February 2018: As AI Makes More Decisions, the Nature of Leadership Will Change  Actually this article really suggests AI will take over many routine management data collection and analysis activities but leaving the true leadership activities. IT then discusses: humility, adaptability, vision and engagement.

UPDATE 7 February 2018: Accountability is a MYTH

It is everyone’s favorite tagline. More accountability is what we need. If we need better results we can get there by cracking the whip on accountability.

It should be clear that the assumption is not true. There are so many variables….that this assumption is not grounded in any reality. Thus cracking the whip of accountability is a fool’s errand.

Instead let us focus in on 2 areas. How is the work designed and completed? How are we solving the obstacles and issues within it?

First, to build a good work design everyone has to understand where and how they fit in the bigger picture. Second, they need to know how to create that value and how to improve the work they do. Who is accountable for these two things? Leadership! These are the areas where I see the most issues when results aren’t there.

UPDATE 8 February 2018: The UK Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) say: Future safety requires new approaches to people development  They say that in the future rail system “there will be more complexity with more interlinked systems working together”:

…the role of many of our staff will change dramatically. The railway system of the future will require different skills from our workforce. There are likely to be fewer roles that require repetitive procedure following and more that require dynamic decision making, collaborating, working with data or providing a personalised service to customers. A seminal white paper on safety in air traffic control acknowledges the increasing difficulty of managing safety with rule compliance as the system complexity grows: ‘The consequences are that predictability is limited during both design and operation, and that it is impossible precisely to prescribe or even describe how work should be done.’ Since human performance cannot be completely prescribed, some degree of variability, flexibility or adaptivity is required for these future systems to work.

They recommend:

  1. Invest in manager skills to build a trusting relationship at all levels.
  2. Explore ‘work as done’ with an open mind.
  3. Shift focus of development activities onto ‘how to make things go right’ not just ‘how to avoid things going wrong’.
  4. Harness the power of ‘experts’ to help develop newly competent people within the context of normal work.
  5. Recognise that workers may know more about what it takes for the system to work safety and efficiently than your trainers, and managers.

UPDATE 12 February 2018:  Safety blunders expose lab staff to potentially lethal diseases in UK.  Tim Trevan, a former UN weapons inspector who now runs Chrome Biosafety and Biosecurity Consulting in Maryland, said safety breaches are often wrongly explained away as human error.

Blaming it on human error doesn’t help you learn, it doesn’t help you improve. You have to look deeper and ask: ‘what are the environmental or cultural issues that are driving these things?’ There is nearly always something obvious that can be done to improve safety.   One way to address issues in the lab is you don’t wait for things to go wrong in a major way: you look at the near-misses. You actively scan your work on a daily or weekly basis for things that didn’t turn out as expected. If you do that, you get a better understanding of how things can go wrong. Another approach is to ask people who are doing the work what is the most dangerous or difficult thing they do. Or what keeps them up at night. These are always good pointers to where, on a proactive basis, you should be addressing things that could go wrong.

UPDATE 12 February 2018: Leadership is not just about senior management: Leading by Example – NCOs are the Vital Ground.  After an example to show why cultural values and standards must not be situational the author goes on:

We must be under no illusion that our Junior NCOs are the vital ground, the cohort critical to the future success of the British Army as it continues a period of painful re-adjustment, against the well-publicised fiscal constraints that will endure well into the next decade. The steps to ensure our Junior NCOs rise to the challenge are not, you will be relieved to read, anything unachievable or impractical. They simply acknowledge the requirement to go back to ‘first principles’, starting with the inculcation of a values based approach to leadership amongst our young leaders.

See also: Why do we fall? What the British Army can Learn From Failure and Defeat During Training

UPDATE 13 February 2018Considering human factors and developing systems-thinking behaviours to ensure patient safety

Medication errors are too frequently assigned as blame towards a single person. By considering these errors as a system-level failure, healthcare providers can take significant steps towards improving patient safety. ‘Systems thinking’ is a way of better understanding complex workplace issues; exploring relationships between system elements to inform efforts to improve; and realising that ‘cause and effect’ are not necessarily closely related in space or time. This approach does not come naturally and is neither well-defined nor routinely practised…. When under stress, the human psyche often reduces complex reality to linear cause-and-effect chains. Harm and safety are the results of complex systems, not single acts.

UPDATE 16 February 2018: How to Increase Your Influence at Work

UPDATE 19 February 2018: Building and maintaining trust in teams

“Trust. Takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair” – Anonymous Trust goes to the heart of why some organisations are brilliant and others are sub-par. Trust between a leader and their employees. Trust between peers. Trust between partner organisations. Trust within and between teams. New research published in the February 2018 edition of the Journal of Organizational Behavior does a deep dive into trust in teams, identifying the key factors which help build and maintain trust.

UPDATE 1 March 2018: How Leaders and Their Teams Can Stop Executive Hubris: Building a culture of critical thinking and humility can spare companies from the ravages of excessive CEO confidence.

UPDATE 2 March 2018: Damning EY report reveals widespread cultural problems at Carillion

UPDATE 9 April 2018: Professor Dennis Tourish (Professor of Leadership and Organisation Studies at the University of Sussex) discussed The Dangers of Hubristic Leadership: Lessons from the Finance Sector at a British Army  Centre for Army leadership annual conference in 2017.  This included many horrific examples of hubris. He joked:

The banking sector has had a very bad press in the last number of years….That well-known Marxist magazine The Economist had a cover a couple of years ago called ‘Banksters’, published immediately after the LIBOR scandal, drawing attention to the dysfunctional leadership behaviours and the greed and avarice that was common within that sector. When people in positions of authority acquire hubris it really does have a very serious, immediate organisational effect. In the banking and finance sector people described to me the enormous institutional pressure for success. Huge rewards if you achieve success but success defined pretty much by narrow financial terms. ‘If we carry out this merger, this acquisition, or do these acts we will all get terribly rich’. So you can see the incentive there to go in that particular direction: high levels of reward, which is always associated with the acquisition of power.

He concluded:

Ultimately leadership is 90 percent example and unless we, and people in authority, role model that acceptance of dissent other people will not take it seriously. We need to lead with questions and not answers. We don’t have to pretend to have all the answers when we are in positions of authority. We need to use that magic phrase ‘I do not know.’ There are many historical examples that show the value of that kind of approach. I think we have drifted away from it. We need to go back to it.

UPDATE 11 April 2018: The Two Traits of the Best Problem-Solving Teams (emphasis added):

groups that performed well treated mistakes with curiosity and shared responsibility for the outcomes. As a result people could express themselves, their thoughts and ideas without fear of social retribution. The environment they created through their interaction was one of psychological safety. Without behaviors that create and maintain a level of psychological safety in a group, people do not fully contribute — and when they don’t, the power of cognitive diversity is left unrealized. Furthermore, anxiety rises and defensive behavior prevails. We choose our behavior. We need to be more curious, inquiring, experimental and nurturing. We need to stop being hierarchical, directive, controlling, and conforming. 

We believe this applies to all teams not just those solving problems.  Retrospective management application of culpability decisions aids have no more a place when trying to solve problems than they do in other work activities.

UPDATE 29 April 2018: Counting the Costs of Winning: Doing the Right Thing, on a Difficult Day… When the Whole World is Watching

In today’s world of social media and smartphones the world is constantly watching. It is ready to make instant judgements, whether they be on military operations or a sports team’s judgement. Perhaps now we should tell the Officer Cadets something different. Today the challenge of leadership is ‘doing the right thing, on a difficult day, when you think no one will see… but the whole world is watching.’

“Leaders under pressure must keep themselves absolutely clean morally. The relativism of the social sciences will never do. They must lead by example, must be able to implant high-mindedness to their followers, and must have earned their followers’ respect by demonstrating integrity.” Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, 1987

UPDATE 30 April 2018: The Best Leaders Are Constant Learners: “…leaders must scan the world for signals of change, and be able to react instantaneously.  …leaders bear a responsibility to renew their perspective in order to secure the relevance of their organizations.”

UPDATE 13 May 2018:  Leadership and trust were topics discussed at the 2018 HeliOffshore conference.

UPDATE 14 May 2018: Don’t Airbrush Leadership: don’t let success stop you being critical.  On 15-16 May 2017, 13 members of the Brigade of Gurkhas stood on the summit of Mount Everest, the first serving Gurkhas ever to do so. This article discusses leadership lessons from the Gurkha Everest Expedition 2017VIDEO

UPDATE 28 May 2018: Team performance: trust matters:

The phrase “actions speak louder than words” is what shapes culture – the actions of the people, but particularly the actions (or inaction) of its leaders.  When leaders consistently act with integrity and trust, they gain trust and respect. And the spinoffs of this trust are significant.

Impacts include:

  1. High-trust organisations outperform low-trust organisations by 286%
  2. High-trust and high-performance organisations 8 times more effective at implementing strategy, 6 times more willing and able to accept and act on change
  3. 20% improvement in performance from engaged and trusting teams, a 57% increase in individual effort and 87% reduction in the likelihood of staff departure
  4. Team connectedness improves accuracy of strategy development and ‘beneficial information sharing’
  5. Connectedness improves team creativity, performance, innovation and idea generation
  6. Psychological trust in a team and of the leader, significantly impacts performance
  7. Team relationships are directly connected to trust, psychological safety and overall performance
  8. High quality (strengths-based and trusting) performance conversations with team members increases overall enterprise contributions by 20%
  9. Mental-health and overall wellbeing are positively impacted by respectful interactions, clear direction, constructive feedback and working to individual strengths.

UPDATE 17 June 2018:  The Psychologist Guide to… Leadership  Ten tips including 10. Be aware of your own power

Our every word, action, even a stern glance – incidental or otherwise – has greater consequence. Giant’s whispers are shouts, their outbursts are explosions. Being a leader means never forgetting this.

UPDATE 17 July 2018: Make Your Company’s Culture Go Viral

When faced with a challenge like spreading their critical few behaviors, most organizations will default to familiar ways of trying to encourage change — using a top-down communication cascade to deliver information. They may hang HR-produced posters where employees congregate, or send company-wide emails to introduce an initiative. But these methods are rarely sufficient in driving real behavior change.

Instead, identify critical behaviours, and follow the principles of viral change:

  • Engage “Authentic informal leaders”
  • Ensure leaders signal the behaviours
  • Ensure formal systems are aligned


UPDATE 17 September 2018How Self-Reflection Can Help Leaders Stay Motivated.  This HBR article does fall into the trap of treating leadership as a noun, i.e. position related, rather than a verb, i.e a behaviour, but otherwise some good thoughts of reflection.

UPDATE 17 October 2018: Leadership learning and development for Doctors

Nearly all physicians take on significant leadership responsibilities over the course of their career, but unlike any other occupation where management skills are important, physicians are neither taught how to lead nor are they typically rewarded for good leadership.

Trainee performance evaluations should explicitly assess for adequate progression of leadership capabilities, with targeted remediation available for those not demonstrating competency.

UPDATE 14 November 2018:  How Fearless Organizations Succeed: Amy Edmondson describes three steps leaders can take to create psychological safety, the prerequisite for greater innovation and growth.

…as more and more consultants, managers, and commentators are talking about psychological safety, the risk of misunderstanding what the concept is all about has intensified. In a workplace, psychological safety is the belief that the environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking. People feel able to speak up when needed — with relevant ideas, questions, or concerns — without being shut down in a gratuitous way. Psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able, even obligated, to be candid.

Most workplaces don’t meet this bar — and their performance suffers accordingly.

Psychological safety is not an “anything goes” environment where people are not expected to adhere to high standards or meet deadlines. It is not about becoming “comfortable” at work. Psychological safety enables candor and openness and, therefore, thrives in an environment of mutual respect.

Also, I do not mean to imply that psychological safety is all you need for high performance.

Psychological safety takes off the brakes that keep people from achieving what’s possible. But it’s not the fuel that powers the car. In any challenging industry setting, leaders have two vital tasks. One, they must build psychological safety to spur learning and avoid preventable failures; two, they must set high standards and inspire and enable people to reach them. In other words, today’s leaders must motivate people to do their very best work by inspiring them, coaching them, providing feedback, and making excellence a rewarding experience.

Edmondson goes on:

I frequently ask managers, scientists, salespeople, and technologists around the world the following question: What percentage of the failures in your organizations should be considered blameworthy? Their answers are usually in the single digits — perhaps 1% to 4%. I then ask what percentage are treated as blameworthy. Now, they say (after a pause or a laugh) 70% to 90%! The unfortunate consequence of this gap between simple logic and organizational response is that many failures go unreported and their lessons are lost.

UPDATE 11 December 2018: Just Culture or Just Culpability? 10 simple questions to detect if you have an unhealthy Just Culpability fetish!

UPDATE 14 December 2018: What Does The Trust Meter Say?

UPDATE 10 January 2019: Amy Edmondson makes the point:

Ferdinand PiëchVWs longtime boss, boasted of telling engineers they had six weeks to improve the bodywork fitting on pain of dismissal. In the circumstances, engineers were understandably unwilling to mention the bad news on emissions standards and instead worked around the problem.

The Economist goes on:

In a corporate culture based on fear and intimidation, it may appear that targets are being achieved in the short term. But in the long run the effect is likely to be counterproductive. Studies show that fear inhibits learning. And when confronted with a problem, scared workers find ways of covering it up or getting around it with inefficient practices.

The answer is to create an atmosphere of “psychological safety” whereby workers can speak their minds. In a sense, this is the equivalent of Toyota’s “lean manufacturing” process [or more specifically ‘The Toyota Way’], which allows any worker who spots a problem to stop the production line.

UPDATE 10 January 2019: The ‘Adding Value’ Dilemma: An Interview with Lt Gen Richard Nugee the UK MOD‘s  3* Chief of Defence People.

People are at the heart of a leader’s business. This is something every junior leader gets – you need to understand your people, put their needs before your own, motivate and develop them. It is at the centre of leading a team.

I’ve never really focused on long lists of leadership characteristics. I have found these quite dull and not much use.

At my level, leadership is about being open to listening to junior people. They may not be as experienced, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a view, or that the view is not valid – perhaps even more valid than your own!  I live by the rule that if someone has gathered up the courage to see a three star or the CO, if it is important enough for them to need to see the boss, what right have I got to turn around and say “you are not important enough to see me”.

…there are two things I have tried to live by as a senior leader:

The first is to ask questions. Not leading questions, but inquisitive questions. How do we deal with this? How could we make this work? This gives people the freedom, the permission, to talk to a senior leader and provide their wisdom.

The second is to say ‘I don’t know’. I always try ensure that every day I say ‘I don’t know’ in answer to a question. I picked up the idea from reading David Marquet. Saying ‘I don’t know’ allows other people to tell you that they know or to give you ideas. Out of that comes so much more imagination than one person alone could ever produce.


UPDATE 12 January 2019:  This article explores the value of vulnerability: CEOs, Are You Vulnerable To Weakness And Lack Of Authenticity?

A leader may determine that the risk is too great to share openly with one’s entire team at first, so you may start by sharing your thoughts with individuals you trust on the team as a sounding board. This can help to get feedback and input on how to approach the team in a way that can give one more confidence in taking the risk.

UPDATE 21 January 2019: The Best Leaders Aren’t Afraid to Ask for Help, which needs trust.

Leadership is about connection. People will only follow you, work hard for you, create and risk and sacrifice for you, if they feel connected to you.

UPDATE 26 January 2019:  Psychological safety, dialogue & teams

UPDATE 27 January 2019: Good Leaders Don’t Disappear

Simply said, you can’t follow someone you can’t see. That is why visibility and transparency mean so much in the realm of leadership. They are not just buzzwords; they produce the visceral experiences and tangible markers both potential and current followers evaluate as they mediate their level of trust and commitment to a leader.

This is one reason we don’t like terms like ‘Visible Leadership’.  If you are invisible you are not leading and if you think you are in a leadership position and not leading you are just deceiving yourself…

UPDATE 24 March 2019: Traeger’s CEO on Cleaning Up a Toxic Culture

UPDATE 26 March 2019: Closing the Culture Gap: Linking rhetoric and reality in business transformation.

First and foremost, you must identify your organization’s “critical few” traits: the core attributes that are unique and characteristic to it, that resonate with employees, and that can help spark their commitment. Next, you develop the critical few behaviors that, if executed repeatedly by more people more of the time, will move the habitual ways of working into better alignment with the organization’s strategic and operational objectives. These behaviors should be tangible, repeatable, observable, and measurable. They are critical because they will have a significant impact on business performance when exhibited by large numbers of people. They are few because people can remember and change only three to five key behaviors at one time.

The authors of this article recommend leaders:

  • ground goals in what’s possible
  • tune in to emotions
  • empower AILs (authentic informal leaders) and (obviously!)…
  • displaying behaviours consistently themselves

UPDATE 10 May 2019: Is Your Corporate Culture Cultish?

The acid test of good leadership is the ability to unlock the potential of followers to get the best out of them, not to create a corporate culture that enslaves them.

UPDATE 20 May 2019: Middle Managers Deserve More Respect Most employees follow their lead — maybe more CEOs should too.

While it’s popular to blame managers for blocking change..far more often they are the transmitters of the “critical few” behaviours that have the potential to generate a real business impact and the 3 or 4 cultural traits that define a company’s collective sense of identity.

UPDATE 28 May 2019:   The 3 Elements of Trust

By understanding the behaviors that underlie trust, leaders are better able to elevate the level of trust that others feel toward them.

UPDATE 10 June 2019: Want your people to achieve more than you thought was possible? Prioritise psychological safety and employee engagement

UPDATE 21 June 2019: Why living your values takes work

Most people assume that values are an either/or issue: Good people have them and bad people don’t. …recent brain research shows that all people probably have blind spots they aren’t aware of, which means there are many unexplored opportunities for constructive action — and unrealized ways for leaders to shape their company culture.

UPDATE 9 July 2019: Why Leaders Who Listen Achieve Breakthroughs and Psychological Safety – Buzz Word or Game Changer?

UPDATE 23 July 2019: The difficulties of speaking truth to power

Most leaders are blind to just how difficult it is for others to speak up to them. They fail to recognise that truth and power are inextricably linked and that no matter how approachable they try to be, employees will always be careful about what they say, and will only ever disclose what they think is safe or politically acceptable. As a result leaders are missing out on vital intelligence that could drive their company’s success – or even its survival.

Creating a Just Culture simply by instituting a just culpability mechanism to judge employees and doing training and briefings on how you judge them only makes this worse!

UPDATE 28 July 2019: Make Your Guiding Principles Useful

You Can Train Competence. You Can’t Train Clarity

…if you want empowered and trusted people operating through mission command, your command philosophy needs to give your subordinates your intent and the boundaries in which they can operate.

In particular

  1. Make them short. 
  2. Make them usable decision making criteria. 
  3. Make them freedoms, not constraints. 
  4. Make them lived.
  5. Make them matter. Make them enter the language of your organisation. 
  6. Make sure they are right. Most importantly, make sure you mean them.

UPDATE 1 August 2019: Helping silenced staff find their voice at work

If HR wants to encourage employees to speak up, we need to look at the real power differentials inside our organisations, say Professor Megan Reitz and John Higgins.  Speaking up doesn’t happen in a vacuum – it’s relational. We are more likely to speak up if we feel it’s safe and if the invitation comes from a place of positive intention. The question becomes less about how we give people the skills to speak up and more about how we can skilfully invite others to speak up. Here are three suggestions drawn from our five-year research project on the topic:

1 Really talk about power

2 Help those with power realise they’re scary

3 Encourage speaking up

UPDATE 5 August 2019: Psychological Safety is Not Nice (i.e. its not about being nice to people and avoiding challenge).

Psychological safety is about directly enhancing performance.  Psychological safety is not the easy option, if you choose to see it that way, it means a shift in mindset and team behaviour. That shift, for those willing to take the step, reaps rewards for everyone on the team and way beyond. Something to not just think about, but do, as soon as you can.

UPDATE 8 August 2019: Training Leaders for Success: The Mind of the Leader,  Three key mental qualities essential for great leadership: mindfulness, selflessness and compassion.

Be mindful: When you are mindful, you are aware of the landscape of your mind from moment to moment.

Be selfless: Leadership is not about you but the people and the organization you lead. With selflessness, you take yourself out of the equation and consider the long-term benefits of others.

Be compassionate: Compassion is the intention to bring happiness to others. If you have ever had a compassionate leader, you know what it feels like: The person has your back and has your interest in mind.

UPDATE 20 August 2019: Authority alone won’t get leaders very far

There’s a difference between having followers and having subordinates, and effective leaders need followers, whose cooperation is built on trust.

If you want to be a real leader…remember that you must earn and keep your people’s trust. They will carefully assess your attitude and actions, in particular whether you look out for others in addition to yourself. If their assessment is that you are trustworthy, they’ll stick with you.

UPDATE 10 November 2019: A Breath of Fresh Air: Project Oxygen and the British Army

This article is about just that – how one organisation asked “what if good leadership does not matter?”; “if it does matter, how do we measure it?”; and “if we can measure it, can we work out what it is?” The organisation in question is Google. The project that answered these questions was Project Oxygen.

Project Oxygen began in 2008 when Michelle Donovan, a member of Google’s People and Innovation Lab, known as the PiLab, asked: “What if everyone at Google had an amazing manager?” The project’s name was taken from her early observation that “having a good manager is essential, like breathing. And if we make leaders better, it would be like a breath of fresh air.” Project Oxygen was born. And like every project in Google, it needed to deliver evidence based on a pretty high burden of proof.

UPDATE 14 December 2019: A “culture of safety” is lacking at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) “according to a scathing report by three outside experts“.

UPDATE 19 January 2020: Draw yourself a leader: Visual thinking can give you fresh insight into your own beliefs about leadership.

UPDATE 18 February 2020: How Leaders Can Create Trust

UPDATE 27 April 2020: This Common Approach To Earning Trust Completely Backfires On Leaders

UPDATE 15 July 2020:  Loneliness and leadership: Why leaders should be creating an environment of safety, cohesion and trust within the workplace

We are now several months into the global pandemic and lockdown. We’ve never experienced anything like this, and life certainly feels very different. …while this has been undoubtedly a difficult time, many of us will emerge in a different guise taking with us this desire for true connection and relating as opposed to the mere interacting that has become the norm in the last two decades as technology has governed the way in which we live, work and relate to each other.   Herein, lies the challenge for today’s leaders who, more than ever, will need to ‘be the change’ in order to create environments in which employees feel able to meet this awakened need for true connection.

UPDATE 3 February 2021: Building a culture of learning at work: How leaders can create the psychological safety for people to constantly rethink what’s possible.

The foundation of a learning culture is psychological safety — being able to take risks without fear of reprisal. Evidence shows that when teams have psychological safety, they’re more willing to acknowledge their own mistakes and figure out how to prevent them moving forward. They’re also more comfortable raising problems and exploring innovative solutions.

The standard advice for managers on building psychological safety is to model openness and inclusiveness: Ask for feedback on how you can improve, and people will feel it’s safe to take risks.  In multiple companies, we randomly assigned some managers to ask their teams for constructive criticism.Over the following week, their teams reported higher psychological safety, but as we anticipated, it didn’t last. Some managers who asked for feedback didn’t like what they heard and got defensive. Others found the feedback useless or felt helpless to act on it, which discouraged them from continuing to seek feedback and their teams from continuing to offer it.

Another group of managers took a different approach, one that had a less immediate impact in the first week but led to sustainable gains in psychological safety a full year later. Instead of asking them to seek feedback…we advised them to tell their teams about a time when they benefited from constructive criticism and to identify the areas that they were working to improve now.

By admitting some of their imperfections out loud, managers demonstrated that they could take it — and made a public commitment to remain open to feedback. They normalized vulnerability, making their teams more comfortable opening up about their own struggles. Their employees gave more useful feedback, because they knew where their managers were working to grow.

Creating psychological safety can’t be an isolated episode or a task to check off on a to‑do list. 

UPDATE 22 February 2021: Why moral leadership matters now more than ever

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