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Truth or Consequence: The New Rules for Leadership (and why to let 'em see you sweat)

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

With all the talk about culture, we love when a trusted authority takes on human issues at work, in this case a deeper look at actual behaviors that lead to TRUST within cultures. This year, Edelman pivoted the focus of their longstanding Trust Barometer to look specifically at how much trust we feel towards our employers. From that data they gleaned what employees expect from their organization and from CEOs specifically.

So what did they find?

In their own words, “The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that trust has changed profoundly in the past year — people have shifted their trust to the relationships within their control, most notably their employers. Globally, 75 percent of people trust “my employer” to do what is right, significantly more than NGOs (57 percent), business (56 percent) and media (47 percent).”

In our words, as the world grapples with declines in perceived reliability across every traditional axis of authority, we look more and more to the organizations we have a relationship with to get our back, to give it to us straight and to do the right thing for the planet in general.

This data matters for all of us.

If you are one of the billions of people who work as an employee, it provides comfort that you are not alone in correlating how your leaders behave as justification for your trust or mistrust.

For those of us who work in organizational strategy, it is a lens into vital truths about human interaction that organizations must acknowledge in order to foster the internal climates that lead to engagement.

For organizations and the keepers of responsibility for improving culture therein, it corroborates the reality that we cannot improve employee engagement through policies and programs. It means having heads around the C-Suite table nod in agreement that culture matters is not enough to make it so. It means normalizing self-examination, confronting hard truths, allocating precious time towards identifying behaviors that sabotage culture, learning how to shift those behaviors and the underlying beliefs that promote them.

For us at Balance Integration, it gives irrefutable data to add to the infinite testimonial evidence of the truth we’ve long been observing and help clients remedy: vibrant corporate culture emanates from the behavior at the top. You want to change your culture? Change your conversation.

Corporate culture has evolved from being poo-poo'd as woo-woo, to being understood as the special sauce of collective productivity and contribution, reflecting both leadership skills and the organization’s ability to curate and enforce generative rules of engagement for the whole. It’s no vanity hobby.

While Gallup took it upon themselves to measure and report upon employee engagement, generating the go-to statistics on global engagement we all love to hate to love, they introduced a fantastical rabbits warren for exploring how to get employees throughout the organization to care. But meanwhile insiders have long observed that the quality of the work experience isn’t a result of how Bob the Manager or Mary in Finance feels about their work. Sure, intrinsic predisposition is a powerful filter. But really, beyond everything that can be done to shift the filter, insiders also know that if leadership behavior does not foster trust, you’re sunk.

The folks ultimately calling the shots know it, too. As far back as 2016, Ernst & Young reported boards of directors actively examining cultural indicators such as diversity inclusion, parity in compensation, recruitment and retention, emotional wellbeing, engagement, and the multitude of ethical issues that can arise. With the advent of celebrity CEOs such as Jeff Bezos, Martha Stewart, Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Ariana Huffington, this trend has only gained momentum.

So what does this mean we should DO? What needs to change in an environment with higher scrutiny of and appreciation for how human interaction impacts our ability to co-create and co-produce?

Across these two data cuts of their 2019 Trust Barometer, Edelman provides a number of takeaways for leaders, i.e. things they need to do, including the following. Bold represents Edelman findings, italics represents our sense of what it means.

Corporate leaders must lead change across societal issues that impact us all. Get my back. I do not feel the “system” is working for me but I know you have money and influence. As much as I work for you, I want you to work for me.

Partner with employees for solutions. Let’s ALL be the change, dammit. If you let me help create the solutions, the vision and the strategy, I guarantee you I’ll fight for it more.

Strong desire for spontaneity. Give it to me straight. Don’t set yourself apart by standing behind a mask of rehearsed statements, educated polish, and attorney/public relations vetted risk-averting responses. Speak to me as one human to another.

Model work/life balance. Let me see you sweat. Just as you speak to me as a human, show me that you also ARE human, that work is not all there is to you, and that you also struggle to attend to the physical, social and emotional needs of our shared complex humanity.

Tell the truth. Spare me the BS. Because the truth is, I trust you only slightly more than I trust the government and the media, who I don’t trust at all. Because I can’t trust them at all, I really need to trust SOME authority in this world so because I have a relationship with you, I’m looking to you for that. But don’t take me for granted. With the slightest odiferous scent of a lie from you, I’m done.

And back to the heads nodding, maybe your head is nodding. Maybe you know all of this. Maybe you’ve been that person charged with creating programs and policies for employee engagement. No matter the budget or title they’ve given you, maybe you’re swimming upstream against a current of relationship- sabotaging behavior generated by your leadership. These very expressions of artifice, authoritarianism and avoiding the truth sabotages every carefully considered, olive branch effort you extend to your employees so that they might trust that they matter.

We get you.

There’s hope.

You’re not alone.

For some ways to rise to the challenge of building trust in your organization, check out our thoughts on Living Among Dinosaurs. Originally shared at both New York SHRM and Northeast Business Group on Health, if you’d like us to walk you through these ideas and what we did, give us a call. This is what we do at Balance. If you’re game to take on change from the top, we’d love to do it with you.

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