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Trust me, I’m a leader

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Mark Loftus of The Thinking Partnership talks about why trusting your leaders is paramount to maintaining their -and their organisation's- integrity.
Fiona Gammond and Georgia Howard-Merrill did win gold in the junior women's pair at the Youth Olympics and are now rapidly re-acclimatising to the normality of schoolwork, evening homework and university applications. Their winning row was followed by a drugs test, which Fiona and Georgia clearly see as no more than a routine inconvenience. My reaction was of some incredulity that the sport feels it cannot trust two 17-year-olds and their coaches. Is there no-one we are prepared to trust?
It is about this time of year that Ipsos MORI release their 'who is trusted?' poll. This year's result is likely to see little change in a pattern now established for years, that politicians and journalists are the least trusted public figures, and doctors the most trusted (last year an average of 92% said that they would trust a doctor to tell the truth, 13% a politician). Perhaps this year we can add one-day cricketers to the rogues' gallery? Less frequently reported is the equally stark statistic that business leaders fare little better, with only a quarter of people feeling that they are to be trusted. Yet these are the same leaders for whom we work every day as employees and clients.

Why is trust so important?

Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst famous for coining the term 'identity crisis', concluded that the capacity to trust lies at the very core of a person's identity, shaping all aspects of character development. Without trust there can be no vitality; if we cannot trust, we cannot feel alive and engaged with our colleagues and our work. More than this, as Onora O’Neill argues in her book 'A Question of Trust', without trust the whole edifice of trade, of finance, of government, of media, of law, comes tumbling down, and with it our ability to create any kind of value.

Trust in the institution

We all want to be able to trust, but simply leaving things to trust is a risky and ineffective strategy - not least because we operate within the context of aspirations, goals and rewards. The leader's role is to ensure that people can place their trust in the organisation, and whilst this work often may not look like it is about creating engagement and vitality, it is key to it.
In this light the drugs test could also be seen as an act of leadership, a reflection of the governing body of rowing deciding that it is easier for people not to cheat if they know they are going to be tested. The consequence is that the results can be trusted and the thrill of winning is more elemental.
"The leader's role is to ensure that people can place their trust in the organisation, and whilst this work often may not look like it is about creating engagement and vitality, it is key to it."
There is a direct parallel in business. A senior finance executive in one of our clients is celebrated and somewhat feared by his peers for his determination to 'keep their numbers honest'. He is a tough-talking individual, widely seen to lack emotional intelligence ("What’s that got to do with anything?"), who would be the last person to be thought of as creating engagement through the charisma of his personality. Yet on this analysis he plays a key role in creating a foundation of trust within his business: if the numbers can be trusted then colleagues are freed-up to innovate and inspire.

Trust within relationships

John Bowlby, summarising more than 40 years of research into the qualities of parent-child relationships wrote: "Human beings of all ages are happiest and able to deploy their talents to best advantage when they are confident that, standing behind them, there are one or more trusted persons who will come to their aid should difficulties arise."
This quotation gets deep into the issue of trust within relationships. It matters to us that the other person is competent, that their judgement is sound, but at the core what we really need is to be able to trust their intentions. So, rather than asking for others to trust them, leaders could ask themselves two simple questions:
  • would I want the other person to behave towards me in the way I intend to behave towards them?
  • is my intention to further their fulfilment and avoid causing them harm?
In turn, this goes to the core of the leader's dilemma and highlights why they have, in many ways, a more difficult role than doctors when it comes to trust. Doctors’ professional duty is to their patients. Leaders have the greater complexity of needing to act as the bridge between the needs of the organisation and the needs of individuals, to want the best for the wider organisation and the individual. Squaring this circle is not easy, but that is part of the reason why we need leaders.
Mark Loftus is a director of The Thinking Partnership. He has 20 years' experience as an organisational consultant and is a recognised authority on emotional intelligence and the art of assessing senior leaders. He is a chartered clinical psychologist with an MPhil from London's Institute of Psychiatry, and has a degree in philosophy and psychology from Oxford University.

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