One of our clients has been grappling with reputation issues lately – purely as a result of events beyond their control. This led our executive team to consider the issue of reputation and the role of trust across leading companies.
Trust involves doing things. It involves honesty and reliability. Trust is the willingness to rely on another person, the willingness of employees to believe and rely on what leaders say; the willingness of customers to believe our staff.
A straight talking manager who is trustworthy is honest and reliable. Honesty is mostly a matter of being truthful, with the caveat that in the social world, truth is a matter of shared perception. (A chair is only a chair because everyone agrees to call it a chair.) Being reliable means that others feel they can depend on us. It refers to the consistency of words and action over time. It also helps to be competent and confident. We’ve all seen the comedy of the honest fool.
Reputation involves being something. Occasionally reputations involves being trustworthy, but they are generally for a whole range of characteristics other than trust. One airline has a reputation for fun while another has a reputation for being classy and another has a reputation for being great to work for. Reputation is closely related to image – how customers see our business. The key thing about reputation is that it is a result of everything a company does in the marketplace and how it does it. When one’s reputation is good, marketing messages reinforce reputation. When reputation is poor, there will be a long haul involving much more than marketing to restore it.
We were working with a trusted and respected CEO of a company with a reputation for caring about the environment and deeply worried about angry customers going viral after a likely price increase. Our workplace pragmatist, Potter, was quick to point out that both trust and reputation are valuable intangible assets. Our resident optimist, Megan, schooled in the classics, did not take long to present us with some quotes that added a deeper dimension to our conversation.
‘Men of genius are admired, men of wealth are envied, men of power are feared; but only men of character are trusted.’ – Aristotle
‘Do not trust all men, but trust men of worth; the former course is silly, the latter a mark of prudence.’ – Democritus
‘As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.’ – Mephistopheles to Faust in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust.
Applying Goethe’s words of wisdom, confidently trusting yourself, is a key leadership quality. At the same time, entertaining doubts and differences remains important. As former entrepreneur and founder of VISA Dee Ward Hock said: “Never hire or promote in your own image. It is foolish to replicate your strength and idiotic to replicate your weakness. It is essential to employ, trust, and reward those whose perspective, ability, and judgment are radically different from yours. It is also rare, for it requires uncommon humility, tolerance, and wisdom.” (See here for the history of the credit card and a fascinating, if complicated, story of financial innovation, brand and reputation management.)
That led us to consider trust as a silent sentinel of social relations which touches every aspect of business performance. Trust is ever-present in sales and marketing. It helps to explain why word of mouth, whether it be about your quality, fantastic staff or great discounts, delivers more consumer interest and sales than almost any other type of marketing message.
I have raved to my friends about my recent experience with Apple. During the call the combination of expertise, friendliness and unfailing patience made my day, in stark contrast to the table-thumping effect of “support’ from many telcos.
Team members notice your behaviour and follow in your footsteps. It’s almost a no-brainer: trustworthy leaders develop high-trust cultures that not only enable staff to get on with working together more productively, but also enable businesses to be more agile and innovative. Potter, fresh from his first football match for the year, was quick to draw the parallel between the teamwork, trust, confidence and agility behind winning football teams and winning businesses.
How does a busy manager trust?
Use the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ rule. People make mistakes, forget things and take time to change habits. So we all need a bit of slack. The three strikes rule gives people a bit of slack, and also gives you a boundary. Needless to say, on critical matters, getting it right first time and every time matters, and the rule does not apply.
Apply the rule to yourself. Habits can be hard to modify and inner confidence needs to be balanced with an appreciation of how others see you. When self-management does not get you to where you want to be, call on a coach, mentor or close colleague and good friends.
Keep employees and customers well informed. Provide as much information as you can comfortably divulge as soon as possible in most situations. And be succinct. This is critically important in reputation and crisis management when problems arise. Former Queensland premier Anna Bligh gained popularity with her steady, visible and empathic communication during the storms and floods a year ago.
Confront hard issues in a timely fashion. If an employee is underperforming or causing problems, it’s important to confront them about these issues. When you do, others will trust you more.
Listen attentively. We all get distracted by self-talk, or a reminder of a current frustration, or another good idea that draws our attention inwards. Listening attentively and hearing and understanding is a high-order skill that wins trust and respect. When subjects and issues are complex and when they involve emotions, summarise every so often to make sure that everyone is on the same page.
As our conversation drew to a close, we decided that whatever the stage of our entrepreneurial journey, being liked is nice, being profitable is better and being admired, envied and trusted is best.
You can’t always control the level of trust in your business, but you can act in ways that promote trust within your immediate work environment. In this context things you can do to build and maintain trust are:
- Hiring and promoting people who know how to form positive, trusting interpersonal relationships with others
- Developing the communication and interpersonal skills of key managers and supervisors
- Acting with integrity, keeping commitments and expecting supervisors to do the same. If you can’t keep a commitment, explain what is happening in the situation without delay. Actions speak louder than words and your current behaviour and actions set employee expectations of your future behaviour. Supervisors who are worthy of trust will be obeyed and followed with fewer complaints.
- Protecting the interests of all employees in a work group. Don’t criticise or blame absent employees, nor allow others to place blame, call names, or point fingers
- Displaying competence. Know what you’re talking about, and if you don’t know, admit it.
Trust is tested during disputes, conflicts and tough trading times; requiring leaders to be assertive but not aggressive, judicious about what to say and how to say it, and fairly consistent across words and actions over time.
In B2B and B2C sale processes, particularly when larger sales are involved, there is little that can be done to speed the process. It’s better to simply be aware of the many trust-building opportunities and risks along the way.
Trust is built and maintained by many small actions over time. Trust isn’t a matter of technique, but of character; we’re trusted because of our way of being, not because of our polished exteriors or cleverly crafted communications.