Leaders need to practice their trust signature, says Anne-Valérie Corboz.

Fake news. Wall Street protests. #MeToo. The Millennial generation has next to no trust in existing structures, be they organizational, societal, or political: research suggests less than 20% of millennials are willing to place their trust in other people, organizations and peers. And that was before Covid-19 emerged: it has rapidly become the ultimate test of trust and underlined that the public does not know which sources to trust. Government? Healthcare centers? Global organizations? Each other? Employers? As infection rates have soared, employees have been left wondering whether they can trust their organizations to take adequate steps to protect their health and put the right measures in place.

Yet trust is the cement of social cohesion. As J M Barrie wrote in Peter Pan: “All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.” Paradoxically, there has never been more talk of the need for authenticity, truth, commitment, reliability and integrity. Trust is what allows us to live together in a community, feel safe and develop a common identity. When we trust, we feel energized and we go the extra mile. We may find it hard to describe and define what we mean by trust, but we know when it disappears. In its absence we disengage, withdraw and are wary.

Who do you trust? When? And why?

The building blocks of trust

Organizational trust is a complex and fragile construct that requires persistent attention, skilled leadership and supportive processes and routines. Over the course of our research at Duke Corporate Education into the key levers of competitive advantage, we found trust to be the underlying driver of all other dimensions of competition: namely speed, human centricity, imagination and flexibility (see Duke CE’s SHIFT white paper, 2019). Without trust, speed – which requires us to make decisions in ambiguous, complex contexts – is difficult to execute. Human centricity, which demands that we embrace diversity, is not operationalized. Imagination, which requires experimentation and failure, cannot exist. And flexibility, which requires delegation and an open organization, is replaced with bureaucracy, ‘not invented here’ syndrome, and micromanagement.

At the organizational level, employees need to trust that the strategic blueprint is aligned with the current context and ongoing success of the firm, and that leaders are making the right decisions for the business. They need to trust the organization itself as much as the individuals that make up the organization. Are processes and practices fair and consistent across the board? Is our mission fulfilled and are we all working towards the success of the organization? At the next level, trust is interrelational. Do I trust my leaders? Are employees treated fairly? Are promises kept? The willingness to engage, to be honest about what works and what doesn’t, is the hallmark of great organizations.

To better understand trust at a granular level, we spoke with leaders who were recognized as role models in terms of their trust quotient – both internally and externally – and asked them about their ‘trust signature’: what trust means to them and how they build trust with employees and broader stakeholders. How do great leaders develop their trust signature?

Developing your trust signature

It takes more than personal integrity for leaders to build and maintain trust at the organizational level. Multiple studies have shown that while employees regard themselves as being motivated by higher order principles, such as purpose or personal growth, they believe their leaders are driven by status and ego. Part of the reason is that we tend to confuse trust with similar constructs such as respect, fairness, integrity, or consistency of message.

Trust demands a certain level of transparency and accountability. It demands that organizations have strong values and a clear purpose: a ‘north star’ of guiding principles and shared values that both leaders and employees can embrace and uphold. It requires that employees have a sense of ownership, motivation and faith in the organization and its mission. After all, employees are a company’s best ambassadors; the positive stories they share about corporate culture is what generates positive goodwill.

A business without trust is not sustainable. How sustainable is your business? Where do you stand on the scale between trust and distrust? Are you building or destroying your, and your organization’s, trust quotient? What is your trust signature?

Anne-Valérie Corboz is associate dean of executive education at HEC Paris Business School. Previously she was a managing director for Duke Corporate Education in Singapore. Download Duke CE’s SHIFT white paper at SHIFT. You can also watch Anne-Valérie speak on building trust in uncertainty in this free on-demand webinar.