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What Actually Makes People Trust You

Trust erodes when what we say we value and what we actually reward are vastly different things.

What Actually Makes People Trust You
[Photo: Flickr user Thomas Rousing]

The phrase “talk is cheap” is old, and in leadership roles, talk is particularly cheap.

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It is easy to make pronouncements about directions and vision. For people to trust what you say, though, it is important to recognize that you communicate in three ways: through what you say, what you do, and what you reward. And each form of communication on this list is more important than the last.

You Get What You Reward

As an example, consider what happens in many companies around innovation. Innovation has become such a tired buzzword, that every organization feels like it has to innovate to succeed. So, leaders from the C-suite on down will often talk about the importance of creating a culture of innovation in the workplace.

However, the same leaders who preach the importance of innovation are often critical of new ideas. They react conservatively to new proposals. They rarely dole out resources for potential new projects. They stick to what has worked in the past.

It may seem strange for leaders to downplay innovations, but that behavior is often a result of the most important form of communication in an organization: reward. In many organizations, managers and executives are rewarded based on the performance of their business unit. Because many innovations fail or take a long time before they are profitable, it is almost always in the best interests of individual leaders to support incremental changes to existing products rather than to swing for the fences on a daring new initiative.

When leadership does not reward innovation, then everyone in the organization quickly realizes that spending time pursuing innovations is not worthwhile. More importantly, situations like this undermine people’s trust in every pronouncement by the company’s leadership. Eventually, people may stop listening to what company leaders say altogether.

Matching Your Actions With Your Words

That means that it is crucial to align the words you use with your actions and your rewards. This is easier said than done, because many of your actions are habits you have developed over years of work. If you change your vision for the organization, then you have to be vigilant to ensure that you act in accordance with your new beliefs.

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In addition, it is crucial to think about the kinds of rewards that you have available. Obviously, raises, bonuses, and promotions are the most common kinds of rewards organizations use. However, awards and other kinds of public commendations are great ways to make good behaviors visible to the entire community. For example, a number of organizations have created “best failure” awards to recognize individuals who tried something innovative, even if that innovation did not succeed.

Innovation is a handy example of failures of alignment, but this happens across many aspects of organizations. For example, retail organizations will talk about the importance of friendly and thorough customer service, but reward employees primarily for speed. Managers will ask employees to dig deeply into projects, and then complain when emails are not answered promptly. Organizations will talk about the importance of a diversity of viewpoints, but then promote people whose opinions are similar to those of the current upper-level management.

There are many sources of trust, of course, but authentic communication that is aligned with actions and rewards is one of crucial elements to ensuring that your talk is not cheap.