There are two ways that leaders break trust with their people. The first is dramatic—a leader betrays a confidence, engages in self-serving behavior, or has a serious moral or ethical lapse. This type of breach usually ends up being very public—and once it occurs, the only remedy is damage control.
The second way that leaders break trust with people is more common, happens slowly, and usually is obvious to others but unknown to the leader. A pattern of behavior—often well-intentioned—will result in the leader undermining their credibility with their people. This type of trust-busting behavior is fixable, but only if a leader can identify the situation early and take steps to correct it.
In his new book, Trust Works!: Four Keys to Building Lasting Relationships, best-selling business author Ken Blanchard tackles this type of trust-busting behavior head on. Together with his coauthors Cynthia Olmstead and Martha Lawrence, Blanchard recommends that leaders evaluate their behavior in four key areas.
- Able—do you demonstrate competence and skills?
- Believable—do you act with integrity?
- Connected—do you care about others?
- Dependable—do you maintain reliability?
In Blanchard’s experience, leaders who are perceived as untrustworthy usually have an undermining behavior in one of these four areas. In Trust Works!, Blanchard guides readers through a self assessment designed to identify the subtle ways that leaders might be unintentionally self-sabotaging their relationships.
Self assessment is just the starting point
Once the self assessment is complete, Blanchard recommends that leaders ask the people they work with—both colleagues and direct reports—to assess their behavior in the same four areas. This is an important second step for two reasons, according to Blanchard.
One, it gives leaders an outside assessment of their behaviors from the people who are most impacted. This can be a real eye-opener for them, according to Blanchard.
“Many leaders inadvertently break trust by being unaware of how their behavior might be perceived by others. Even though you, as a leader, might consider your actions trustworthy, you may be surprised at how those same behaviors are being interpreted by others.”
Blanchard had exactly this type of experience when he asked his team to evaluate him in the four areas. While he was pleased to discover that his staff scored him well in the first three areas—Able, Believable, and Connected— they felt he could do better in the Dependable category.
This brings up an important second point that Blanchard likes to make. Trust is a sensitive issue for most work teams, especially when a leader is involved. On most teams, trust issues are rarely discussed, even when they are evident to everyone.
That’s what made the Blanchard team’s experience so unusual. Having data around the four areas of trust gave Ken and his team a place to start a conversation. It created a safe space to talk about the components of trust and made it less emotional. This allowed them to discuss the issue openly and pinpoint the behaviors that were causing the problem.
In Ken’s case, the problem stemmed from his reluctance to say “no” to people. He loved new ideas, was always willing to give things a try, and wanted to say “yes” to people whenever possible. His intentions were good.
Utilizing the four-component ABCD model allowed the team to look at some of the behaviors that flowed from that mindset. They discovered that by saying “yes” so often, Ken ended up over committing, which sometimes led to disappointment and hurt feelings when commitments couldn’t be honored.
Working together, the team was able to devise a new approach. In addition to helping Ken not to over commit, the team also devised a strategy where Ken now hands out his executive assistant’s business cards instead of his own. This allows his executive assistant to check his schedule and set expectations appropriately.
The discussion and subsequent workaround did the trick. In the course of a few months, Blanchard saw his scores on being Dependable soar!
Rebuilding broken trust
For leaders who have created a serious breach of trust with their people, Blanchard has additional advice. In his experience, too many leaders prefer to act as if it didn’t happen, try to justify the mistake, or use hierarchy and status to make the problem go away. This is exactly the wrong approach.
A healthier and more productive approach that Blanchard recommends involves five key actions.
- Acknowledge and Assure —begin the rebuilding process by addressing and acknowledging that a problem exists. As you acknowledge the problem, assure the other party that your intention is to restore trust between the two of you and that you’re willing to take the time and effort to get the relationship back on track.
- Admit — the next step is to admit your part in causing the breach of trust. Own up to your actions and take responsibility for whatever harm was caused, even if you don’t feel you’re entirely at fault. Admit to your part in a situation.
- Apologize — the third step in repairing damaged trust is to apologize for your role in the situation. This takes humility. Avoid making excuses, shifting blame, or using qualifying statements. These will only undermine your apology.
- Assess — invite feedback from the other party about how they see the situation. Use the ABCD Trust Model to identify the behaviors that have damaged the relationship. Next, discuss the issues and identify clearly what needs to change.
- Agree — the final step in rebuilding damaged trust is to work together to create an action plan. Now that you have identified each other’s perceptions and have identified the specific ways that trust has been broken, you can mutually identify the behaviors that will build trust going forward.
This approach worked well for Blanchard in his discussions with his team and it will work for your teams as well. For leaders, this means being open, candid, and vulnerable.
As Blanchard explains, “Building trust is important in all relationships, but it’s particularly important when you hold a position of authority. If you’re a leader, you can afford many kinds of mistakes, but the one thing you can’t afford to lose is trust. By practicing behaviors aligned with the four core elements of trust, you’ll not only set a healthy example, you’ll also inspire enthusiasm and success in those who follow you.”