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Why Building a Culture of Trust Will Boost Employee Performance—and Maybe Even Save Your Company

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RISMEDIA, May 3, 2011—Do your employees trust you? The brutal truth is probably not. It may not be fair, and you may not want to hear it, but chances are that previous leaders have poisoned the ground on which you’re trying to grow a successful business. Make no mistake: Unless you and all the leaders in your organization can gain the trust of your employees, performance will suffer. And considering how tough it is to survive in today’s business environment, that’s very bad news for your company.

Why is trust so pivotal? According to John Hamm, author of Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership, it’s a matter of human nature: When employees don’t trust their leaders, they don’t feel safe. And when they don’t feel safe, they don’t take risks—and where there is no risk taken, there is less innovation, less “going the extra mile,” and therefore, very little unexpected upside.

“Feeling safe is a primal human need,” says Hamm. “When that need isn’t met, our natural response is to focus energy toward a showdown with the perceived threat.

“Our attention on whatever scares us increases until we either fight or run in the other direction, or until the threat diminishes on its own,” he adds. “Without trust, people respond with distraction, fear, and, at the extreme, paralysis. And that response is hidden inside ‘business’ behaviors—sandbagging quotas, hedging on stretch goals, and avoiding accountability or commitment.”

Hamm calls trustworthiness “the most noble and powerful of all the attributes of leadership.” He says leaders become trustworthy by building a track record of honesty, fairness, and integrity. For Hamm, cultivating this trust isn’t just a moral issue; it’s a practical one.

Hamm has spent his career studying the practitioners of great leadership via his work as a CEO, venture capitalist, board member, high-level consultant, and professor of leadership at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. In his new book, he shares what he has learned and brings those lessons to life with real-world stories.

Unusually Excellent is a powerful back-to-basics reference book that offers both seasoned and aspiring leaders a framework for understanding and a guide for applying the battle-tested fundamentals of leadership at every stage of their careers.

In his book Hamm explains that most employees have been hurt or disappointed, at some point in their careers, by the hand of power in an organization. That’s why nine times out of ten leaders are in “negative trust territory” before they make their first request of an employee to do something. Before a team can reach its full potential, leaders must act in ways that transcend employees’ fears of organizational power.

The first step starts with you, Hamm notes. As a leader, you must “go first”—and model trustworthiness for everyone else. Being trustworthy creates trust, yes. But beyond that, there are very specific things you can do to provide unusually excellent, trust-building leadership at your organization:

First, realize that being trustworthy doesn’t mean you have to be a Boy Scout. You don’t even have to be a warm or kind person, says Hamm. On the contrary, history teaches us that some of the most trustworthy people can be harsh, tough, or socially awkward—but their promises must be inviolate and their decisions fair.

“You can be tough. You can be demanding. You can be authentically whoever you really are,” says Hamm. “But as long as you are fair, as long as you do what you say consistently, you will still be trusted.”

Look for chances to reveal some vulnerability. We trust people we believe are real and also humanly imperfect and flawed—just like us. And that usually means allowing others to get a glimpse of our personal vulnerability—some authentic weakness or fear or raw emotion that allows others to see us as like them, and therefore relate to us at the human level.

No matter how tempted you are, don’t lie to your employees. Tell the truth, match your actions with your words, and match those words with the truth we all see in the world: no spin, no fancy justifications or revisionist history—just tell the truth.

“Telling the truth when it is not convenient or popular, or when it will make you look bad, can be tough,” admits Hamm. “Yet, it’s essential to your reputation.”

Never, ever make the “adulterer’s guarantee.” This happens when you say to an employee, in effect, “I just lied to (someone else), but you can trust me because I’d never lie to you.” When an employee sees you committing any act of dishonesty or two-facedness, they’ll assume that you’ll do the same to them.

Don’t punish “good failures.” This is one of the stupidest things an organization can do—yet it happens all the time. A “good failure” is a term used in Silicon Valley to describe a new business start-up or mature company initiative that, by most measures, is well planned, well run, and well organized—yet for reasons beyond its control (an unexpected competitive product, a change in the market or economy) it fails. In other words, “good failures” occur when you play well, but still lose. When they’re punished, you instill a fear of risk-taking in your employees, and with that you stifle creativity and innovation.

Don’t squelch the flow of “bad” news. Do you—or others under you—shoot the messenger when she brings you bad news? If so, you can be certain that the messenger’s priority is not bringing you the information you need: It’s protecting her own hide. That’s why in most organizations good news zooms to the top, while bad news—data that reveals goals missed, problems lurking, or feedback that challenges or defeats your strategy—flows uphill like molasses in January.

“Unusually excellent leaders build a primary and insatiable demand for the unvarnished facts, the raw data, the actual measurements, the honest feedback, the real information,” he adds. “Very few efforts will yield the payback associated with improving the speed and accuracy of the information you need most to make difficult or complex decisions.”

Constantly tap into your “fairness conscience.” Precise agreements about what is fair are hard to negotiate, because each of us has our own sense of fairness. But at the level of general principle, there is seldom any confusion about what fair looks like. Just ask yourself: Would most people see this as fair or unfair?

“If you treat your followers fairly, and do so consistently, you will set a pattern of behavior for the entire organization,” says Hamm.

For more information visit www.unusuallyexcellent.com.

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