13 traits of a high-trust leader


Trust is vital to employee engagement but how do you really build it? A renowned consultant says he has the 13-part answer.

The ability to trust is hard-wired into us, it is hereditary, whereas distrust does not flow through our veins – it takes a lot to break someone’s trust. Once that has happened though, can you get it back? Stephen Covey says, yes, if you work hard.

Covey is the co-founder of consultancy firm, FranklinCovey and the son of Dr. Stephen R. Covey – the man who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Clearly the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Thirteen years ago Covey junior wrote The Speed of Trust – The One Thing That Changes Everything. Depending on your personality the timing of its release – two years before the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) – will seem either auspicious or inauspicious.

According to the study The Effects of the Financial Crisis on Systemic Trust the GFC hurt trust in business on a global scale. After the GFC the Edelman Trust Barometer (2009) revealed 65 per cent of respondents said governments should have stricter regulations and greater control over businesses.

Businesses are still coping with the consequences of the GFC. A PwC survey of 1,409 CEOs across 83 countries reveals that 55 per cent think a lack of trust in ‘big business’ is a threat to organisational growth.

An ongoing conversation

So you can forgive Covey for still talking about trust thirteen years after the release of his book. Trust is an ongoing issue for business. In Australia, the Royal Banking Commission is a great example of that.

Speaking at the World Business Forum this week, Covey pointed out how trust can drive bottom-line success for organisations as well as foster a culture with high employee retention.

As you would expect from someone with a lot of practice in talking about trust, he can be quite pithy and funny about it. “To err is human, to blame is management potential,” one of his presentation slides read.

Covey says the old management style – which remains the current style for many organisations – is to command and control employees. The new effective way is by trusting them. So how can you truly do the latter?

Covey is clearly a motivational speaker at heart, he is the kind of person who will take a quote that’s misattributed to Gandhi “Be the change you seek in the world” – and then change it for his own ends. “Let us inspire the trust we seek in the world.” (That it’s enough to inspire, rather than actually do, is another quality of the motivational speaker.)

But in amongst the cheesy metaphors and quotes Covey did have solid points backed up by research.

Covey says trust can make or break an organisation, and if leaders want it to do the former, they should think about developing these 13 traits:

  1. Talk straight: “Be honest. Don’t manipulate people or distort facts.”
  2. Demonstrate respect: Treat everyone with respect, especially those who can’t do anything for you.”
  3. Create transparency: “Operate on the premise of ‘what you see is what you get’.”
  4. Right wrongs: “Don’t let pride get in the way of doing the right thing” and he advises the best way to do this is to apologise, learn from the mistakes and commit to making it better.
  5. Show loyalty: He is wholly against gossiping and humorously offers a way to shut down attempts at being dragged into gossip by saying “Sound like you need to speak to them.”
  6. Deliver results: Covey says its best to outline results with your colleagues to ensure everyone is on the same page.
  7. Get better: This involves a lot of self-reflection but even more important is asking employees what they think is needed to continuously improve.
  8. Confront reality: While some issues are difficult, Covey says “We’re all adults, we can handle it.”
  9. Clarify expectations: If expectations aren’t clear then they aren’t reachable, so Covey says clear communication is key.
  10. Practice accountability: it’s all about owning responsibilities.
  11. Listen first: “Don’t presume you have all the answers.”
  12. Keep commitments: this one requires a lot of future thought as Covey says to ask yourself “Ten years from now, will I be glad that I kept this commitment?”
  13. Extend trust: this one seems simple enough but Covey recommends before giving out trust you need to think about the situation you’re in, the risk involved and the credibility of the people involved.

The science of trust

Covey referenced The Neuroscience of Trust, an HBR article by researcher Paul Zak as something that backed up his theory of trust.

In the article, Zak breaks down his research. After ten years of neuroscientific studies – which involved measuring the levels of oxytocin (the trust hormone) through blood tests on people going through relevant exercises – he came up with a model of what trust looks like. Zak followed this up with a behavioural survey of almost 2,000 employees across many different companies to find which organisations displayed the relevant behaviours. They included:

  • The recognition of excellence: Zak advises to recognise someone immediately after they have reached a goal and to do so publicly to have the biggest impact on company trust.
  • Inducing “challenge stress”: As HRM has written about in the past, stressful situations at work can actually form more compassionate relationships at work, but Zak says it can also increase focus.
  • Offering staff autonomy over how they work: Nearly half of a survey’s respondents said they would rather have more control over their work instead of a 20 per cent pay raise.
  • Enabling job crafting:When companies trust employees to choose which projects they’ll work on, people focus their energies on what they care about most.
  • Sharing information organisation-wide: Zak was shocked that 40 per cent of employees report that they knew what their company’s goals, strategies, and tactics were. “This uncertainty about the company’s direction leads to chronic stress, which inhibits the release of oxytocin and undermines teamwork.”
  • Intentionally building relationships: Zak conducted experiments which revealed that when people formed relationships at work, their performance improved.  
  • Facilitating ‘whole-person’ growth:Numerous studies show that acquiring new work skills isn’t enough; if you’re not growing as a human being, your performance will suffer.”
  • Fostering an environment where vulnerability is valued: By seeking help at work, Zak found that people produced higher rates of oxytocin and their trust and cooperation with colleagues improved.

 

Organisations that scored highly on all these behaviours were said to have ‘high trust’, and they achieved pretty outstanding results.

  • Employees were 76 per cent more engaged at work
  • They reported being 50 per cent more productive
  • Eighty-eight per cent said they would recommend their company to friends and family as a place to work
  • Employees enjoyed their jobs 60 per cent more than those in low trust organisations

“They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance,” says Zak.

Even though trust is hard-wired into us, that doesn’t mean it’s hard wired into our organisations. Zak and Covey both offer ideas of how we can make that happen.


To be an effective leader often requires emotional intelligence. This Ignition Training course will give you the skills necessary to succeed.

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13 traits of a high-trust leader


Trust is vital to employee engagement but how do you really build it? A renowned consultant says he has the 13-part answer.

The ability to trust is hard-wired into us, it is hereditary, whereas distrust does not flow through our veins – it takes a lot to break someone’s trust. Once that has happened though, can you get it back? Stephen Covey says, yes, if you work hard.

Covey is the co-founder of consultancy firm, FranklinCovey and the son of Dr. Stephen R. Covey – the man who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Clearly the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Thirteen years ago Covey junior wrote The Speed of Trust – The One Thing That Changes Everything. Depending on your personality the timing of its release – two years before the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) – will seem either auspicious or inauspicious.

According to the study The Effects of the Financial Crisis on Systemic Trust the GFC hurt trust in business on a global scale. After the GFC the Edelman Trust Barometer (2009) revealed 65 per cent of respondents said governments should have stricter regulations and greater control over businesses.

Businesses are still coping with the consequences of the GFC. A PwC survey of 1,409 CEOs across 83 countries reveals that 55 per cent think a lack of trust in ‘big business’ is a threat to organisational growth.

An ongoing conversation

So you can forgive Covey for still talking about trust thirteen years after the release of his book. Trust is an ongoing issue for business. In Australia, the Royal Banking Commission is a great example of that.

Speaking at the World Business Forum this week, Covey pointed out how trust can drive bottom-line success for organisations as well as foster a culture with high employee retention.

As you would expect from someone with a lot of practice in talking about trust, he can be quite pithy and funny about it. “To err is human, to blame is management potential,” one of his presentation slides read.

Covey says the old management style – which remains the current style for many organisations – is to command and control employees. The new effective way is by trusting them. So how can you truly do the latter?

Covey is clearly a motivational speaker at heart, he is the kind of person who will take a quote that’s misattributed to Gandhi “Be the change you seek in the world” – and then change it for his own ends. “Let us inspire the trust we seek in the world.” (That it’s enough to inspire, rather than actually do, is another quality of the motivational speaker.)

But in amongst the cheesy metaphors and quotes Covey did have solid points backed up by research.

Covey says trust can make or break an organisation, and if leaders want it to do the former, they should think about developing these 13 traits:

  1. Talk straight: “Be honest. Don’t manipulate people or distort facts.”
  2. Demonstrate respect: Treat everyone with respect, especially those who can’t do anything for you.”
  3. Create transparency: “Operate on the premise of ‘what you see is what you get’.”
  4. Right wrongs: “Don’t let pride get in the way of doing the right thing” and he advises the best way to do this is to apologise, learn from the mistakes and commit to making it better.
  5. Show loyalty: He is wholly against gossiping and humorously offers a way to shut down attempts at being dragged into gossip by saying “Sound like you need to speak to them.”
  6. Deliver results: Covey says its best to outline results with your colleagues to ensure everyone is on the same page.
  7. Get better: This involves a lot of self-reflection but even more important is asking employees what they think is needed to continuously improve.
  8. Confront reality: While some issues are difficult, Covey says “We’re all adults, we can handle it.”
  9. Clarify expectations: If expectations aren’t clear then they aren’t reachable, so Covey says clear communication is key.
  10. Practice accountability: it’s all about owning responsibilities.
  11. Listen first: “Don’t presume you have all the answers.”
  12. Keep commitments: this one requires a lot of future thought as Covey says to ask yourself “Ten years from now, will I be glad that I kept this commitment?”
  13. Extend trust: this one seems simple enough but Covey recommends before giving out trust you need to think about the situation you’re in, the risk involved and the credibility of the people involved.

The science of trust

Covey referenced The Neuroscience of Trust, an HBR article by researcher Paul Zak as something that backed up his theory of trust.

In the article, Zak breaks down his research. After ten years of neuroscientific studies – which involved measuring the levels of oxytocin (the trust hormone) through blood tests on people going through relevant exercises – he came up with a model of what trust looks like. Zak followed this up with a behavioural survey of almost 2,000 employees across many different companies to find which organisations displayed the relevant behaviours. They included:

  • The recognition of excellence: Zak advises to recognise someone immediately after they have reached a goal and to do so publicly to have the biggest impact on company trust.
  • Inducing “challenge stress”: As HRM has written about in the past, stressful situations at work can actually form more compassionate relationships at work, but Zak says it can also increase focus.
  • Offering staff autonomy over how they work: Nearly half of a survey’s respondents said they would rather have more control over their work instead of a 20 per cent pay raise.
  • Enabling job crafting:When companies trust employees to choose which projects they’ll work on, people focus their energies on what they care about most.
  • Sharing information organisation-wide: Zak was shocked that 40 per cent of employees report that they knew what their company’s goals, strategies, and tactics were. “This uncertainty about the company’s direction leads to chronic stress, which inhibits the release of oxytocin and undermines teamwork.”
  • Intentionally building relationships: Zak conducted experiments which revealed that when people formed relationships at work, their performance improved.  
  • Facilitating ‘whole-person’ growth:Numerous studies show that acquiring new work skills isn’t enough; if you’re not growing as a human being, your performance will suffer.”
  • Fostering an environment where vulnerability is valued: By seeking help at work, Zak found that people produced higher rates of oxytocin and their trust and cooperation with colleagues improved.

 

Organisations that scored highly on all these behaviours were said to have ‘high trust’, and they achieved pretty outstanding results.

  • Employees were 76 per cent more engaged at work
  • They reported being 50 per cent more productive
  • Eighty-eight per cent said they would recommend their company to friends and family as a place to work
  • Employees enjoyed their jobs 60 per cent more than those in low trust organisations

“They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance,” says Zak.

Even though trust is hard-wired into us, that doesn’t mean it’s hard wired into our organisations. Zak and Covey both offer ideas of how we can make that happen.


To be an effective leader often requires emotional intelligence. This Ignition Training course will give you the skills necessary to succeed.

Leave a reply

avatar
100000
  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of
More on HRM