It is unfortunate to say that recently trust in CEO’s and business leaders appears to be at an all-time low. Without doubt, there are those, the minority, who have given business and business leadership a bad name.
However, their actions and the subsequent, legitimate, kickback from broader society is not constrained to the wrong-doers. The impact is felt right across the business world. In fact, worryingly, the annual Edelman Trust Barometer found that nearly two-thirds of respondents doubted the credibility of CEOs in general. This really cuts straight to a key aspect of leadership for me, as someone who holds that privileged position. Trust, and how to build it.
We all know that, without exception, every single successful relationship relies on some element of trust – both inside and outside the world of work, in every part of our lives. Without trust, strong relationships cannot be built and good business can’t be done. I recently read a book from a Harvard Business School professor which notes that trust matters more than competence when people weigh you up for the first time. Trust plays into every interaction we have at work, no matter how senior you are. At the end of the day, people do business with people and we all feel a lot better if we trust the person we are dealing with.
But trust isn’t just important in our offline worlds. In today’s always-connected, always-on, social media age, never before have leaders been under so much intense scrutiny. On a daily basis, their actions, whether good or bad, can be picked apart on a world stage – the internet. On the web, you can build trust and destroy trust on an hourly basis, with millions of people you have never met and who know practically nothing about you. You only have to look at the recent United Airlines debacle for an example of this. A month ago, very few of us would have been able to name the CEO at United Airlines. Today, millions of people have formed a view of him and his company and felt compelled to share that globally.
The ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ mindset doesn’t work anymore
Leadership is all about trust. And trust, to be genuine, must be earned rather than expected or demanded. I’ve always believed that in order to be perceived as a leader that followers feel they can trust, they need to have an insight into the real you. People are perceptive and if they think they are dealing with a façade, they won’t really know what lies beneath and it’s difficult to trust someone or something you think may not be genuine.
Carl Jung talked about us having a persona, the concept of the social face the individual presented to the world “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual.” In my opinion and in this day and age, that approach is no longer appropriate. Leaders should never put on a façade or a mask before they leave for the office every day, however tempting that might be. The ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ mindset just doesn’t work when your job is to build trust in order to effectively lead and inspire.
The worst thing you can do as a leader is to try to imitate successful leaders in a bid to emulate their success. You’ve got to be you, it’s simply not possible to consistently maintain an act – the façade will slip eventually, guaranteed. Changes in behaviour – the apparently laid-back boss suddenly driving staff to achieve unrealistic targets once a situation becomes desperate – demonstrates that your persona isn’t fixed and real and therefore, perhaps, can’t be trusted. Morale and productivity suffers, as your employees won’t know which version of you they are going to experience day-to-day or hour-to-hour. This can be extremely unsettling for everyone concerned as they seek to work out quite who it is that they are dealing with.
Remember that people want to be led by humans, so show them you are one
As leaders, every day, we are pushed out of our comfort zones and in challenging situations it can be hard to resist the temptation to put the defences up and put the ‘mask’ on. In times of crisis, for example, the organisation needs to see a calm leader, someone in control and with a plan to deal with the situation. Underneath you may be struggling, but there’s little to be gained from spreading that unease across the entire organisation.
However, over the years, I’ve come to understand that you can build a much more resilient business when people see you as someone genuine, who operates in a consistent manner and with whom they feel they can trust because they feel as though they know you, at least in some way. It doesn’t necessarily mean they become your best friends, or even that they like you. But they do trust you, and that’s the important thing. That ultimately will help your bottom line.
So, I wanted to share some tips with you, which have helped me to be my authentic self at work, and as a result, has led to the development of more trusting relationships within my business:
1. Take a long hard look in the mirror, and accept and be comfortable with what you see
Achieving such maturity of thought starts with a bit of self-reflection and self-insight. I think a key part of being a real and authentic leader is knowing and understanding who you are (inside and outside of work), what you’re good at, and what you’re not so good at. What makes you, you? Only you can answer this properly. Whatever you do, do not confuse this question with ‘what or who do you wish you were’. Your purpose here to identify the real you, not your perfect persona. And whatever you conclude is you, is fine, and it’s unique. As part of this honest self-reflection, you also need to understand that you’ve got to develop your own unique leadership style. For most of us, this is a lifelong journey of constant evolution and improvement. In the words of Oscar Wilde, you’ve got to be you, as everyone else is taken.
2. Be selective in revealing what comes naturally to you
This leads me nicely on to my next point. It tends to be easier to show the positive aspects of our leadership style, our underlying personality and our values when all is going swimmingly well for us and our businesses. Pressure, however, can force us to a place we’d rather not go. Pressure often results in us revealing the parts of ourselves we’d really prefer to keep under wraps or even worse, deny exist.
Stressful situations are the best way of stripping away any veneer. We are at our most genuine, real and authentic when we are upset, or in a bad mood or under sustained pressure to deliver. It’s in these instances when people will see other bits of the real you. It is exactly for this reason that it is on these occasions when you need to operate with the most self-awareness. A great way to find out how others perceive you in these instances, and to identify what behaviour you need to change in these situations, is simply to ask them, as outlined in this Harvard Business Review article.
3. Show your passion
Think about how your style impacts on and is therefore perceived by others. Authentic leaders aren’t afraid to show their passion and this tends to shine through in their personality almost effortlessly. Somewhat extreme examples are the likes of Jack Welch and Steve Jobs, who were known for being particularly challenging personalities but widely regarded as getting the most out of their employees. Genuine passion is an integral part of who a person is, so it’s nearly unavoidable to demonstrate this passion without sharing some of who you are as a person.
4. Don’t pretend to be perfect at everything
Leaders who pretend to be perfect at everything simply aren’t credible. They signal that they don’t value others’ opinions and are unlikely to have many voluntary followers. However, admitting that you find it difficult to understand a particular issue, invites people to help you. This builds trust, makes you approachable and makes staff feel valuable and appreciated. Be careful though – as the leader you are expected to have a grip on most, if not all, things. You want your staff to trust you, but you don’t want them to think you are out of your depth constantly. If you are, that’s another issue.
5. Own up to your mistakes
I also believe authentic leaders should be honest about their own mistakes. If you’ve made a poor decision, put aside your pride and own up to your team, explain your reasons for making the choice, what you’ve learned and how you intend to rectify the situation. We all make mistakes. It’s what we learn from them that separates the good from the bad.
Again, I urge you to exercise self-awareness here. Leaders must ultimately engender confidence from their team and constantly revealing every mistake you make will erode this confidence and trust. But let’s be honest here, if one’s judgement is really so poor as to be constantly making such errors, then you probably don’t want to be is the role and it’s time to have an honest conversation with yourself. However, never forget that successful business depends on taking intelligent risks and accepting accountability–leaders who don’t, demonstrate that they will never drive forward innovation or improvement, which is, ultimately, what we’re all in our jobs to do.
6. Show a bit of emotion
If you’re having a bad day, say so and say why. It happens to us all at some stage. The key benefit will be that your team members won’t take it personally if they have taken the brunt of your bad mood. It may also make you feel a little bit better having explained what’s troubling you. After all, we are all human.
7. Tell it like it is
Those who work closely with me would probably tell you that I tend to tell it like it is. And that’s intentional. I’m straightforward in my communication style and always have been. I’m transparent, what you see is very much what you get. Good news or bad, it’s delivered ungarnished because everyone in my organisation is smart enough to see the reality anyway, so why embellish it? As a result, my team know what I expect from them, and everyone knows where they stand.
Promote authenticity across your workforce
Importantly, the buck doesn’t stop with you on this. Empowering and encouraging your employees to be authentic, and feel confident in doing so, can also be hugely beneficial for your business at many, many levels. In fact, one study found that the greater employees’ feelings of authenticity are, the greater their job satisfaction, engagement and performance.
I’ve often seen in organisations where I’ve worked how those employees who are ‘real’ at work are generally more comfortable and as a result, more successful. If you think about it, creating an authentic workforce means that employees will feel more able to express themselves, and thus empowered to share their unique talents and skills. Surely that can only be a good thing.
At the end of the day, we’d all rather deal with people who are real, rather than those who are faking it. And that couldn’t be more true or relevant than in today’s world of work. So, given today’s global climate of distrust, I urge business leaders to understand how valuable it can be for you to simply be yourself in building a trusting and fulfilled workplace.
Find out more about these findings from the Hays What Workers Want Report 2017, and by attending one of our webinars.
About this author
Alistair has been the CEO of Hays, plc since Sept. 2007. An aeronautical engineer by training (University of Salford, UK, 1982), Alistair commenced his career at British Aerospace in the military aircraft division. From 1983-1988, he worked Schlumberger filling a number of field and research roles in the Oil & Gas Industry in both Europe and North America.
In 2002, he returned to the UK as CEO of Xansa, a UK based IT services and back-office processing organisation. During his 5 year tenure at Xansa, he re-focused the organisation to create a UK leading provider of back-office services across both the Public and Private sector and built one of the strongest offshore operations in the sector ith over 6,000 people based in India.