Trust: The CEO’s Guide to The One Thing that Changes Everything

It is often said that ‘trust is the one thing that changes everything’, but is this true?

This is the question that I wanted to answer through my research on trust at Aston Business School, so I asked over 500 UK-​based business leaders how critical trust was to a range of organisational objectives. The results were unequivocal:

• 89% said trust was critical to attracting top talent
• 91% said trust was critical to customer loyalty
• 88% said trust was critical to sustainable bottom-​line performance
• Even 69% said trust was critical to short-​term profitability

It turns out that trust is the one thing that changes everything and this finding has been backed up by many other research studies from around the world. If trust is that important then, as CEOs and board-​level leaders, we need to understand better how we build it and how we maintain it in our leadership and organisational brands. To help in this challenge, I have captured below the CEO’s guide to the three ‘must-​have’ facts about trust

1 – Trust is a Magic Wand

If we are to invest scarce time and effort in building trust we need to be assured that the effort is worth it. The figures above from my own research give one insight into the role of trust as a ‘magic wand’ in organisational life. For those who need further evidence of the impact of high trust cultures on employees, the results of Dr Paul Zak’s research are startling. In his Harvard Business Review article ‘The Neuroscience of Trust’, Dr Zak reveals the impact of high trust cultures as follows:-

• 74% reduction in employee stress
• 13% reduction in staff sick days
• 59% increase in productivity
• 76% increase in employee engagement

This is the ‘magic wand’ of trust that is available to all leaders who choose to rely upon its power and invest in its development. No-​one has written the book titled ‘Trust is Dead’ or ‘Trust does not Work’ or ‘Trust is Yesterday’s News’ because there is no evidence anywhere, whether from a leadership guru or an academic researcher, to support that stance.

2 – Your trustworthiness matters more than their trust

If trust is that important then we better start with understanding what it is? According to the researcher, Professor Denise Rousseau, ‘Trust is a psychological state that comprises the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behaviour of another’. In other words, based on rational, emotional and moral computations, I conclude that, on balance, I have positive expectations of your future leadership behaviour and therefore I am going to take the risk of trusting you.

Important in this definition is that it is my psychological state and my decision. Whatever you, the leader, thinks, says or does, you cannot force me to trust you. However, as a leader, you can influence my decision and what influences my decision is your level of trustworthiness.

3 – Your trustworthiness = (your ability) x (your integrity) x (your benevolence)

If you want to build your trustworthiness then, according to the academic research, you need to work on three pillars of your leadership brand – ability, integrity and benevolence. The pillar of ability refers to your professional competence to fulfil the core tasks of leadership. The pillar of integrity refers to the extent to which we ‘walk the talk’ with clear ethical values. The third pillar of benevolence refers to our concern for the well-​being of others. As one of the CEOs I interviewed put it, ‘The most powerful destroyer of trust is when you feel the other person is acting in their own best interest and not in yours’.

The maths of the trustworthiness formula demands that we work on all three pillars in parallel because if we blot our copybook on any one pillar and score a ‘0’ with our followers then we will not inspire their trust. On the other hand, if we master all three pillars then the multiplier works in our favour and we can use the trustworthiness of our leadership and our brand as a competitive advantage, a magic wand and the one thing that changes everything in a low-​trust world.

Dr John Blakey is the author of award-​winning book, ‘The Trusted Executive’, and Founder of The Trusted Executive Foundation (trustedexectuive​.com). His passion is to help CEOs rely upon the power of trust rather than trusting in power.