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Why don’t we trust our leaders?


The ILM's Leadership Index recently revealed that UK employees have lost faith in their leaders. David Pardey looks at why this is and what can be done about it.

Nearly one third of UK employees have little or no trust in their senior managers. It should perhaps come as no surprise given that the past year has seen the integrity of many a business and political leader brought into question, breeding a general cynicism about the intentions and motivation of those at the top.
The findings are revealed in a research report jointly conducted by the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) and Management Today magazine. It also found that CEOs are trusted less than line managers and the least trusted leaders are those who head up large firms or public sector organisations. It's not all bad news though, since nearly 70 per cent of employees generally or completely trust their management team.

The ILM Leadership Index

Yet there is more to this body of research that mere findings, since it is based around the ILM Leadership Index which measures levels of trust. The index is based on a survey of more than 5,600 UK employees who were asked to rate the importance of six factors which have been defined in various bodies of research as being important in a trusting relationship: ability, understanding, fairness, openness, integrity and consistency. Employees were then asked to score their leaders and managers against each factor on a scale of one to ten. Leaders were then awarded a trust index score out of 100.

"Regardless of sector or size of organisation leaders and managers must recognise that trust is intrinsically linked to organisational performance."

CEOs, who scored 59 in the index, are judged largely on two factors by employees: ability and integrity. Managers appear to have more trust in their bosses, scoring them 64 but again most importance is placed on ability and integrity. This should send out a clear message to CEOs: they may respected for being good at their job but this counts for little in the trust stakes if they lack integrity. Unscrupulous behaviour may get results in the short term but employees will be reluctant to engage with a boss they don't trust and this will inevitably hamper organisational performance.

Boosting your score

Shortcomings in a leader's ability as a CEO can be addressed by development and training programmes which focus on improving interpersonal skills and communication. Integrity, much like trust itself, however, cannot be bought or easily taught and requires the leader to be more self-aware and reflective about how they are perceived by employees. They need to look outside their immediate circle, beyond the yes-men, and understand the true impact of their behaviour on the workforce and the organisation as a whole.

While line managers are more trusted than CEOs (they score 69 on the index), employees look for a wider range of qualities and characteristics when deciding how trustworthy they are. Ability is ranked most highly, followed by understanding, integrity, fairness, openness and consistency. All score within a point of each other on the scale. Again the importance of being able to do their job well is underlined but the emphasis on qualities such as understanding and openness suggest that employees also look for high emotional intelligence levels. This perhaps reflects the desire and need to have a closer and more nuanced relationship with their line manager.

The emphasis on ability highlights the importance of having properly trained managers in place with a well-rounded skill set. Employees' apparent readiness to build a relationship with their line managers also means that managers at all levels shouldn't underestimate their power and potential to build trust and therefore increase employee engagement across the organisation. They must listen to and understand their teams and this should also extend to subsidiary managers who gave their line manages a higher index score of 71.

"Unscrupulous behaviour may get results short term but employees will be reluctant to engage with a boss they don't trust which will inevitably hamper organisational performance."
Consistency was rated as the least important trust factor for both CEOs and line managers which suggests that employees are prepared to tolerate less predictable behaviour from their leaders as long as they come up to scratch in the other stated areas.

Bigger doesn't mean better

A breakdown of the findings shows levels of trust vary across different sectors, size and type of organisations. The most trusted CEOs and line managers are those at small organisations (up to 10 employees) and the retail sector boasts the highest levels of trust for leaders. CEOs in the utilities, post and telecoms sector are the least trusted, as are line managers working in the field of leisure. Age and sex also have a part to play, with employees having slightly more trust in those of similar age and the same sex as themselves.

Regardless of sector or size of organisation, however, leaders and managers must recognise that trust is intrinsically linked to organisational performance. Employees will work harder and be more motivated if they feel they are working in a trusting environment. It's no longer enough to post words like 'trust' and 'integrity' on the company noticeboard or intranet and merely espouse them as 'values'.

Many employees have been on the receiving end of poor leadership and management practices during the global downturn and the questionable behaviour of some of the country's high-profile leaders means that, as we emerge from the recession, UK bosses will find themselves under close scrutiny by their workforces. Employees will be expecting words to be matched by actions and it will be impossible to build trust and, in turn, employee engagement, unless this happens. Trust is incredibly hard to build but extremely easy to destroy and UK bosses ignore this fact at their peril.

Normal 0 false false false EN-GB X-NONE X-NONE MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 David Pardey is ILM’s senior manager, research and policy and has been involved in leadership and management development for over twenty years. He has written widely on leadership and management issues and regularly speaks at conferences and seminars across the UK, in the USA, Denmark, the Netherlands, Romania and Bulgaria.

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