The Biggest Mistake Leaders Make
and How to Capitalize on it
We were working with a group of parents to help them build stronger relationships with their kids. The question was asked, who here has their kids’ best interests at heart? Not too surprisingly, all hands went up. When these parents were asked how many of their kids would say their parents have their best interests at heart, about 1/3 of the hands were hesitantly raised. If parents struggle to demonstrate benevolence to their kids, how much success can we reasonably expect from corporate leaders who have many relationships to juggle with people they might only occasionally make personal contact with? Part
of the problem stems from assumptions we make about what is best for others without actually including them in the conversation. The other gap we often find is a lack of transparency and communication leading to actions being seen as something other than benevolent despite our best intentions.
When it comes to benevolence, leaders must include others in the conversation about what matters most or is in their best interest. Leaders must then be transparent and communicate clearly when they are using that information to act in the best interests of others.
There are a number of pitfalls for leaders when it comes to integrity. The media continually provides us with examples of the most sensational, but from our own experience, the biggest potential integrity pitfall is that of “talking the talk” without actually “walking the walk.” Good corporate values, mission statements, or codes of ethics can totally destroy trust if leaders fail to actually base their decisions upon them. Another mistake we frequently see is a failure to ensure that both parties have the same understanding about what promises have been made. This often leads to the leader feeling she or he has followed through on a promise while the other party completely disagrees. Follow-through and clear communication (once again) are often the key.
Leaders must unfailingly follow through with the promises they make to their stakeholders, even if this means making fewer promises. Leaders must be able to link every decision they make back to the values they have professed to hold.
When working with a financial services firm, we had front line staff, middle managers and senior executives in the same room. Participants were asked if they thought all three groups would have the same definition for excellence (ability) for a middle manager. The response was that they likely wouldn’t get the same response within the three groups. This failure to agree on or understand the definition of excellence for various roles within an organization is extremely common. Yet, if we don’t know what excellence is, how are we supposed to recruit, train, and reward for it?
When we ask senior executives if they are excellent leaders, they tend to overwhelmingly indicate that they are. The follow up question, however? “what does that mean?” – typically provokes extended silence. We have experienced this same general outcome working in manufacturing, military, and other industries and while dealing with a variety of stakeholders. Believing that we possess ability does little to build trust with others; they are the ones that need to believe we possess ability! This means that leaders must include key stakeholders in the conversation about the definition of excellence; if both the leaders AND their various stakeholders do not agree on what excellence looks like, it will never be possible to establish high levels of trust.
Leaders who define excellence only from their own point of view will consistently miss the mark. Collaborative conversations resulting in clear and shared definitions of excellence are absolutely necessary if real progress is to be made.
Trust is increasingly becoming a key source of competitive advantage, and it is one of the primary factors that differentiate the merely competent from the truly exceptional leaders. Despite its importance, trust continues to decline at an alarming rate. While there are a number of possible reasons for leaders? failure to act, in this article we focused on the two most important:
- Leaders mistakenly believe they are already highly trusted by their stakeholders.
- Leaders believe trust is too complicated/time-consuming for them to deal with.
We all have a tendency to believe we are more trusted than we are, but for leaders this false belief can be utterly detrimental. Leaders who fail to seek honest feedback from subordinates or peers suffer the most. Trust-building is a skill that can be learned and honed. Leaders must accept the fact that maintaining and building the trust of their stakeholders should be their highest priority. Our research and experience has consistently shown that trust levels can rapidly and significantly
increase with focused effort by leaders:
- Systematic approaches to reducing stakeholder perceptions of uncertainty and vulnerability dependably promote higher levels of trust.
- Methodical effort to understand (through clear and constant communication) and then to reinforce stakeholder perceptions of leader ability, benevolence and integrity, reliably prevents a host of organizational problems and facilitates a variety of organizational successes.
When trust is thoroughly understood and effectively applied, it has the potential to become any
organization’smost important source of competitive advantage.
Darryl Stickel has a Ph.D. in Business from Duke University and serves on the faculties of the Luxembourg School of Business and the University of Southern California’sCenter for Effective Organizations. Dr. Stickel is a prior consultant for McKinsey & Company, and is the Founder of Trust Unlimited, Inc. Dr. Stickel has served clients ranging from senior military professionals to senior wealth advisors and CEO’s running multinational corporations.
Shaun Hansen currently serves as the Director of Weber State’s MBA program, and has served previously as the Chair of the Business Administration and Marketing Department and the Faculty Senate Environmental Issues Committee. In addition to B.A. and M.B.A. degrees, Hansen holds a Ph.D. in management from the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University. Hansen is an active researcher and currently serves as an editorial board member for the Journal of Business Ethics, the Journal of Trust Research, and the Business Education Innovation Journal.
Darryl is one of the world’s leading experts on Trust. He teaches leaders how to find and use their most powerful tool. A tool that is always in a leader’s control, how to effectively build Trust in their relationships.