The leadership trust crisis

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Jul 08 2022 by David Livermore Print This Article

Trust in leadership is at an all-time low. A majority of people surveyed by Edelman in 28 countries believe that government and business leaders are purposely misleading people. This isn't only the case in low power distance cultures like the US and Sweden. Leaders' credibility is also low in places like Japan and France.

I suspect the drop in trust stems from a variety of factors including the global pandemic, corporate scandals, and political unrest. Whatever the cause, global leaders ignore the trust crisis at their peril. A number of studies find that employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with diverse colleagues, and stay with their employers longer. And employees working for a high-trust leader experience less stress and are happier with their lives.

Creating a culture of trust is difficult for any leader, but it's particularly challenging when you're leading a diverse group who work from different locations, some remote, some hybrid, and some in-person. If we're in different locations and you take several hours to respond to a Slack message, I may suspect that you aren't good with your time. But if we sit next to each other at the office, I'm aware that you haven't responded because you got pulled into a crisis.

In addition, global leaders need to be mindful that many approaches to building trust are biased toward Western values. Coca-Cola expects employees to earn and maintain trust by being "honest and transparent in [their] dealings." However, Neeraj Garg, a Coke executive in South Asia, says that the foundation for building trust in his context is to develop a relationship. In his experience, trust takes a long time to build and it can be lost overnight.

In my research and work with leaders across the world, I've identified five factors that consistently emerge when calculating trustólikeability, competency, intentions, reliability, and reputationóeach of which vary according to one's personality, culture, and the task at hand.

Consider how your team would rate you on each of these trust factors.

1. Likeability

  • Do people enjoy being with you?
  • Are you someone people want to have a drink with after work?
  • Would your team describe you as warm and approachable?

Your likeability has varying levels of importance to the people you lead. Some care very little about whether you're friendly and approachable. For others, it's the first thing they observe.

Culture shapes our expectations about the importance of likeability. Just look how much US political opinions are guided by whether a candidate is a down-to-earth, relatable person as compared to places like Germany or Sweden where little is said about the candidate's warmth or likeability.

In addition, likeability is manifested differently. Individuals coming from cultures that prefer indirect communication, saving face behaviors, and a deferential posture may find leaders more likable when they're diplomatic and deferential. And individuals coming from cultures that prefer charisma, friendly banter, and sarcasm may perceive a leader who is reserved and poised as aloof and unrelatable.

2. Competency

  • Do you have the skills to lead us?
  • Can you communicate effectively?
  • Do you know what you're doing?

Leaders need to be competent technically and politically in order for us to trust them. Followers everywhere expect leaders to be skilled team builders, administrators, decision-makers, and communicators.

The other day I was waiting in a long queue for a rental car. The manager was chatting with each customer, asking what brought them to town and offering suggestions of places to visit. I was frustrated. I didn't need the manager to be likable. I wanted to get my car and be on my way. The manager's likeability was irrelevant to me.

Competency is less subjective than likeability but it's still shaped by cultural differences. If you have a low tolerance for ambiguity (high uncertainty avoidance), you might evaluate a team member's competency based upon how seriously they have weighed the pros and cons of a proposed idea. Do they demonstrate an understanding of the risks and have they suggested a structured plan for implementation? However, someone who prefers to be more spontaneous (low uncertainty avoidance) might view a leader who takes a great deal of time to work through all the details as lacking the insight, confidence, and intuition to quickly make a decision.

3. Intentions

  • Do I trust you to treat me right?
  • Do you care about our collective success?
  • Are you ethical?

Villains are consistently defined by their evil intentions. A leader may be highly competent but do we trust what they will do with their skill? Your followers calculate their trust in you based on their perception of your character. This might be as simple as observing whether you take credit for someone else's idea or watching how you handle terminations.

Followers everywhere want leaders who are ethical. But the definition of ethics varies culturally. Whether you have an extra-marital affair plays little role in whether some team members trust you while others immediately view that as a strike against your trustworthiness. Bribes are seen as an essential way to get work done in some contexts and are grounds for termination in others.

4. Reliability

  • Do you follow through on your commitments?
  • Are you punctual?
  • Does your vision become a reality?

When Westerners are asked about their experience with leaders, it usually comes down to deliverables. Do you deliver in a timely and consistent manner? Are you all talk or do you follow through?

Once again, reliability looks different depending upon the culture and organization involved. Facebook has long prided itself by saying, "Done is better than perfect" and "Move fast and break things." Many followers in Western contexts base their trust on whether you get things done without taking too long. Whereas reliability in many other cultures means completing a task with precision, even if it takes longer than originally expected. Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways, delayed putting Airbus' A380 into service because of some cosmetic shortcomings he perceived as unacceptable and therefore in his mind, it was an unreliable product.

5. Reputation

  • What do people say about you?
  • Where else have you lead?
  • What kind of reviews are posted about you online?

Finally, how do other people talk about you and what will they think when I tell them you're my leader? For some followers, your reputation might make little difference as long as you treat them right. But in face-conscious cultures like most of Asia and the Middle East, a leader's reputation is paramount when assessing trustworthiness.

For me, an individual's intentions, competence, and following through are the top factors that go into my calculation of trust. But for many of my colleagues from other cultural backgrounds, a leader's reputation is at least as equally important to their follow-through and certainly more significant than their intentions or likeability. Even if one's reputation has been smeared unfairly from disgruntled employees or a competitor, some of my colleagues are much more conscious of how the individual's reputation will influence the perception that they're trustworthy.

Trust is the foundation of effective global leadership. Your ability to manage change, support inclusion and equity, and motivate people comes down to whether people trust you. Trust begins with being true to yourself and appropriately adjusting how you manifest that for different followers.

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.